To a hilly clearing in the woods near Monkton they came yesterday, bringing their contributions to a genealogical work in progress, an African-American family's search for itself amid the old homesteads and modest churches of rural Baltimore County.
The Walton family reunion -- billed in a flier as "the real Waltons," to distinguish them from a figment of television's imagination -- drew more than 100 second-cousins-once-removed, great-great aunts and long-lost nephews from as far as Texas and Florida and Ohio. They came bearing beans baked according to secret recipes and yellowed photos dug from dresser drawers.
Appropriately, they drew their water for a hot day of reminiscence from the ancient spring on Johnson's Delight, the 10-acre farm where one branch of the family held the gathering.
"This spring's never run dry, though it did get slow once in the '30s, just after the Depression," said Woodrow Wilson Johnson, 77, a retired groom for thoroughbred racehorses and current proprietor of Johnson's Delight. He was born on the property in 1918 and watched the original family home burn in 1957, the glass of the porch "melting just like taffy."
The Johnsons, with the Corderys, have been inextricably tangled with the Waltons for some generations. Woodrow Johnson's mother was a Walton, giving him the only necessary qualification for full membership in yesterday's event.
Woodrow Johnson had mowed every couple of weeks since April to create a smooth spread for the re- union. His son, Courtney Johnson, 41, a civilian manager for the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground, queried relatives for months and used genealogical computer software to lay out their answers in family trees covering two 4-by-8 feet plywood sheets.
And Courtney's son, Chris, who turned 9 yesterday amid a sea of relatives, organized a volleyball game for the kids, only to see his careful planning rebuffed. "The girls said they didn't want to break their fingernails, and the boys said they're too sweaty," he huffed.
After watching his father pore over old family photos, Chris Johnson said he had dreamt a few nights ago of Johnson's Delight "in the old, old days," with "horses, and people in old-fashioned clothes."
Which was part of the point of yesterday's gathering, to give kids like Chris a sense of roots, while honoring older members of the clan.
At 97 years, the senior relative in attendance was the Rev. Creola Walton Rice, who held court in a webbed lawn chair in the shade of a maple and pronounced her blessing on the extended clan.
A United Methodist minister who lives near Rocks State Park in nearby Harford County, Ms. Rice served as circuit-riding pastor for four small churches until her retirement in 1979. "Growing up, I didn't know much about my family history," she said. "I think this is wonderful."
Hazel E. Walton, 45, said she got involved in the reunion partly as a tribute to older generations who survived harsher times that left little energy for such luxuries as family research.
"Both my mother and my father and my grandfather did manual labor for so little money," said Ms. Walton, director of residential services for the Children's Home of York, Pa. "Thanks to them, we have the leisure to sit and think about this."
The thinking about the history of the Waltons has really just begun, said Courtney Johnson, whose computerized family tree begins with "Firstname Unknown Walton" and was subject to numerous inked-in corrections by sharp-eyed cousins at yesterday's fete.
"When I started doing genealogical research, I'd ask my aunts, and they'd tell me a little and say, 'That's all I know.' Then later I'd go back to them and mention something I'd heard, and they'd say, 'Oh, yeah, he was my great-uncle. I thought you knew that,' " Mr. Johnson recalled, as he adjusted the sound system propped up in the barn with music mellow enough to span the tastes of five generations.
"And then there's the 'classified information,' " he said. "They'd tell me, 'You don't need to know about her,' or 'Nobody wants to talk about that.' But every family has dirt. That's part of the story."
As for many African-American families, the Walton ancestors' undocumented passage through slavery has made tracking down the early genealogy difficult.
Hazel Walton said family lore repeated to her by her grandfather traced the Waltons to two fishermen seized by slave traders while fishing off Madagascar, an island in the Indian Ocean off southeast Africa.
Her grandfather said the name Walton supposedly came from a wealthy English horse fancier who forced himself sexually on a young slave woman owned by a Jarrettsville family he was visiting. The woman bore the man's baby and then fled in despair, intending to drown the boy in a stream.
"But she couldn't bring herself to drown her baby, and she went back, and the child grew up with the name Walton," Ms. Walton said. She said there is no way of knowing whether the tale is mere legend, invented generations ago to fill in blanks in the family's past, or is true.
By the late 19th century, when the family tree becomes clearer, the Waltons were among scores of black families scattered amid the farm country of Baltimore County, mostly tenant farmers or hired hands working the land.
"Around White Hall, where I was born, all the black families owned their own houses," said Hilda H. Walton, 78, Hazel's mother and the source for much of the information on the family tree. "You wonder, for the small wages they made, how they built or bought their homes. But they did."
Mrs. Walton recalls helping her parents with the pigs and cows, washing clothes in a big pot of water heated over a fireplace in the cellar and walking five miles each way to a one-room schoolhouse. "To us it was nothing," she said. "It was a way of life. . . . Back then the family was the backbone of your life. Everybody took care of everybody else."
Then, as she watched children play tag around the sprawling chart of her ancestors and descendants, she added: "When you intertwine the Waltons, the Johnsons and the Corderys, you've got quite a family."