BRODBECKS, PA. — As darkness neared, it was damp, cold and soggy. But that didn't stop a line from forming outside an old stone mill in rural southern York County for what has become a regional Christmas event.
At 5 p.m., the doors opened and the rush was on for the four-day "Annual Christmas Show" of the Stone Mill Clay and Woodworks in a 1790 building that co-owners Jerry and Inez Fenster say was the first paper mill west of the Susquehanna River.
By 6:30 p.m., 12 rooms loaded with arts and crafts gift items had jammed up, and it was hard to move about. Cash register lines were long and anybody remotely claustrophobic probably was feeling trapped. Serious shopping was happening here.
Mr. Fenster, white-bearded, bald and Santa-like, moved happily through the throng. "In another hour, it's going to be really crowded," he said.
Although the mill is open 11 months a year, the multitudes come for the show. You can get there from here but it's hardly a 10-minute drive to the mall. From any direction, it requires travel on narrow, rural, hilly roads and several twists and turns.
The historic mill, with its classic German stone construction, chestnut beams and 2-foot thick walls, is some of the attraction. The free gourmet food and wine, served in the kitchen and sun room, probably don't hurt. But for throngs it has become important just to be there each year. And to buy.
Mr. Fenster, who yesterday termed the five-hour opening night the "best day we've ever had" in the show's 12 years, said he thought much of the show's appeal can be described in four words: "unique, unusual, attractive and affordable."
"You don't have to spend a lot of money if you don't want to," he said. "And we try to make it fun."
Army Maj. Ron Janowski and his wife, Karen Waid, drove 90 minutes from Fort Meade for the opening.
They discovered the mill about a month ago when they were detoured by road construction.
Ms. Waid echoed other shoppers and Mr. Fenster with a comment about the "one-of-a-kind items."
When last seen, Mr. Janowski and Ms. Waid had selected an $80 leather deer but were still looking.
"The cat will probably hate it," Mr. Janowski said. "But the dog will love it."
Cindy Hanson, who works for a bank branch in York, came with two friends who work for the parent bank in Baltimore but managed to arrange a work day in York so they could get to the show afterward.
Dr. Harold Burton, a retired Towson veterinarian who lives in Lutherville, said it has become a family tradition to come to the first night of the show, which runs through tomorrow. Dr. Burton said he and his wife have been to all the openings.
"Who knows what we'll take out of here?" he said.
Two rooms are mostly Victorian items, one all Santa Clauses, one jewelry, one "whimsical farm animals." There is the "white linen room," a room of cupboards, art, mirrors, Mr. Fenster's woodwork and tile tables, the "beam room" of dried items, wicker and wreathes. Ms. Fenster's pottery and the floral wreaths and holiday swags of Carol Novak, who works exclusively for Stone Mill, are in every room, both for decoration and for sale.
Stuffed toy and teddy bears of numerous shapes and sizes fill all steps of a stairway to an unused area.
The mill has a mailing list of 9,500 names, about half from Maryland, Mr. Fenster said; all got post-card invitations.
The Fensters, both Marylanders, met in the late 1970s when he was living in Catonsville, working as an engineer with Westinghouse and running an antiques store in Ellicott City. She was a potter and a widow living with her four children in Columbia.
Both wanted a change. He wanted to devote himself to woodwork andshe wanted to do more pottery.
So they sold their homes, bought the four-story mill together and restored it, adding to the building with the children working alongside. The Fensters got married in 1980, the year of the first Christmas show, then a two-day event.
"One advantage to this building was that somebody always has lived here," Mr. Fenster said. "It was never an abandoned property so there was no vandalism."
The Fensters live there, too. The building and a two-story addition that features more than 70 solar collectors, is 22 or 25 rooms, depending on how you calculate, he said. That includes his wood workshop and her pottery kiln.
If you go to the show, you can get off lightly, buying from the ample supply of small $5 to $10 items, partaking of the free food (Mr. Fenster's frontier Dakota Territory pioneer soup is being featured today), soaking in the atmosphere.
Of course, there are also big-ticket items -- maybe a $1,350 all-black wood and tile table or the $295 all-white Santa Claus with quilted robe or the $1,200 carved-bear. But if you had your heart set on the $350 hand-carved rocking horse, the reproduction of the one in the Hague museum, you're out of luck. Mrs. Jeremy Cassels-Smith of Upperco said her friend hauled it home Thursday night.
L "We've got stuff from all over the world," Mr. Fenster said.
Where: Stone Mill Clay and Woodworks.
L When: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. today; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. tomorrow.
Directions from Baltimore: Interstate 83 to Exit 31; turn left, follow Middletown Road into Pennsylvania where it becomes Route 851; at four-way stop, turn left onto Route 216; go about three miles to the Stone Mill on the right.