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Ice cream socials melt into memory Festive tradition sees popularity dip at rural strongholds


Almeta Rosier -- better known as "Miss Mike" -- has been crowning bowls of creamy homemade ice cream with sweet, sliced peaches and succulent strawberries for better than four decades.

And for years, each ladle of fruit topping from the 90-year-old Parkton woman was part of the ritual of the ice cream social -- a central thread in the social fabric of rural life. "It was good, wholesome old-fashioned fun," said Miss Mike, a short, spry woman with white hair and an owlish face.

But these days, the traditional events, featuring hand-cranked ice cream, have all but vanished from the countryside surrounding Baltimore.

Some churches that sponsored ice cream socials have switched to more ambitious fund-raisers. Rural residents, meanwhile, have many more choices for weekend entertainment. And with suburbanites invading the countryside in search of a laid-back lifestyle, the social has gone the way of chrome tail fins and "Father Knows Best."

Newcomers to rural living "aren't used to socializing with their neighbors," said Dr. Richard W. McQuaid, a resident of northern Baltimore County for more than 30 years.

Usually held outdoors, where the cold treat brought some relief from sultry summer evenings, the ice cream social was the rural equivalent of an urban block party. The socials rose in popularity during the 1940s and 1950s.

Some remain. Youths at Loch Raven United Methodist Church in Baltimore County held an ice cream social in August, and youth director Sharon Brown hopes to make it a yearly event. "We even plan next year to make our own ice cream," she said.

But at other churches, ice cream has been relegated to the final course in more elaborate fund-raising suppers.

Of the few institutions -- mostly rural churches -- that still have ice cream festivals, most get their "homemade" ice cream directly from the factory.

Deserted dessert

"I think churches found, over the course of time, that ice cream socials weren't a big enough fund-raiser," said the Rev. Linda Lewis, pastor of West Liberty United Methodist Church in White Hall.

"Now it's ham and oyster suppers."

Added the Rev. Edwin Schell, historian for the Baltimore-Washington Conference of United Methodist Churches, "Even in rural society, people are much more mobile than they used to be and that has extended their entertain

ment options far beyond ice cream socials."

Among the most identifiable of the remaining ice cream socials are the peach and strawberry festivals held annually by Parke Memorial United Methodist Church in Parkton -- where Miss Mike wields her silver ladle.

But here again, where fresh fruit and homemade ice cream once held prominence over hot dogs and hamburgers, a full-scale supper now takes center stage.

Social graces

At the peach festival held last month in the church basement dining hall, most of the patrons were elderly, a sign that the ice cream social still lives in memories.

Doris Stahler remembers when ice cream socials meant fine summer dresses, games played in the meadow across from the church and, of course, homemade ice cream.

"The ice cream social was the social event of the summer," said Mrs. Stahler, 68, of Parkton. "It was something to look forward to. Young people these days would find that rather boring, I'm sure."

Although ice cream socials mainly attracted local folk, church suppers draw people from all over the Baltimore area, she said.

Tickets to the peach festival cost $7, and more than 500 people were served. Including sales from the bake table, the church cleared more than $3,000, Mrs. Stahler said.

Over by the dining hall's rear door, Miss Mike kept dipping a ladle into a 5-gallon bucket of sliced peaches. Next to her, Ed Almoney was swinging his scooper into the 3-gallon can of ice cream, putting servings into plastic bowls.

"By the time this day is over, I'll have a handful of blisters," he said, holding up his hands to show skin already rubbed red.

Top job

Mr. Almoney noted that Miss Mike allows just the right amount of thick, sweet peach syrup to flow down the sides of the ice cream to make it taste "extra special."

The ice cream, all 27 gallons of it, came not from the toil of church parishioners, but from Carmen's Ice Cream in Loganville, Pa.

"I'd say that about 75 percent of our business comes from Baltimore County," said Carmen's owner Ron Dowell.

Mr. Dowell said it's much less expensive to buy his company's ice cream than to buy ingredients and make it by hand.

These days, there are still those who show up at the Parke Memorial peach festival just for carryout orders of ice cream.

But Miss Mike sighed, and said, "It's not the same as eating ice cream under the shade of an oak tree in the meadow."

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