Just off busy Butler Road, in Glyndon, a road narrows and passes through two stone gates into a quieter time — a time when neighbors knew each other and enjoyed each other's company on their front porches.
It was a time when friends routinely shared picnics and hymn sings on weekday evenings, and worship services and fried chicken dinners on Sundays.
That's still the gentle way life flows during the warmer months at Emory Grove — a place that, as one visitor observed, "forces you to slow down and enjoy nature, and become part of a community."
This 62-acre, interdenominational religious retreat is composed of 47 small, privately owned cottages, a large open-air pavilion called the Tabernacle and a stately, three-story, 1887 hotel that is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was founded in 1868 as an Methodist camp meeting site during the post-Civil War religious reawakening.
It was during the lean years of the Great Depression and World War II that Emory Grove fell on hard times, and its officers made the switch from Methodist to inter-denominational to better fill the cottages.
Today, nearly a century and a half and four or five generations later, descendants of some of the same families that founded Emory Grove own cottages here. They come from as far away as Florida and South Carolina or as nearby as Reisterstown and York, Pa. While a caretaker lives on the grounds all year, residents come to spend weekends, two-week vacations, from spring through fall, or even the entire summer beneath the shade and shelter of Emory Grove's old growth trees.
The Tabernacle, built in the 20th century, is where worship services, led by clergy of different denominations, are held.
What brings people back year after year is a sense of family, tradition, fellowship and faith. Quite a few of the "Grovers," as they call themselves, who are now middle-aged or elderly, met and became friends at the Grove when they were children.
"A lot of us, in the outside world, have stressors beyond compare," said Lowell Briggs, 56, current president of the Emory Grove Association, which owns the land and maintains the nonprofit retreat. "But we come here and we find peace and keep the connection with our faith.
"This is a place we cherish because of what it once was and what it truly continues to be," said Briggs, a professor of communications at York College, in York, Pa., where he lives.
Briggs' grandfather, J. Elmer Benson, was a Methodist minister in Baltimore County who met his wife-to-be at Emory Grove in 1921. His family ties to this quiet refuge have not only persisted but strengthened over the past 90 years.
"This place really is a living treasure," Briggs added. "It's a home-grown, handmade piece of America."
'I like the camaraderie'
Bob Graziosi, 68, is another cottage owner with multi-generational ties to the Grove.
On July 4, he and Bonnie, his wife of 44 years, were among the hundreds of residents and guests who gathered on their porches for the Grove's annual parade.
Afterward they shared in a program that was partly spiritual, partly patriotic and included some brief prayers, patriotic sing-alongs and a tap-dancing exhibition.
Graziosi, a retired commercial insurance broker and former Emory Grove association president, traces his connection to the retreat back to his great-great-grandfather, William Yingling.
Yingling lived nearby and in the 1880s often came to Emory Grove to attend the Methodist camp revivals once held here. He often stayed in the Grove's three-story Victorian hotel. The building underwent a renovation several years ago.
"Later, my great-grandfather came here and brought my grandmother. Then later my mother brought me," said Graziosi, who bought his cottage in 1968, just after he and Bonnie were married. Just across the grassy common area his 29-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, has her own cabin, which she inherited from her grandparents.
In summer, the Graziosis divide their time between Emory Grove and their full-time residence just up the road near Reisterstown.
"We're in and out of here all summer; we seldom miss a church service or a hymn sing," said Graziosi, whose cabin is decorated with antique posters and prints, miniature wooden ships and even a vintage jukebox. "There's never been a time in my life when I didn't come here in the summer."
There's certainly no sense of exclusivity among the Grove's longtime summer residents. All the worship services, evening hymn sings, choir concerts and other activities on the Grove's busy events schedule are open to the public.
"We don't have a log you have to sign to keep track of who comes to the worship services or anything like that," Graziosi said. "This isn't the kind of place where 20 people are going to jump on you and say you've got to believe what they believe."
The Grove's annual Independence Day parade perfectly captures the spirit of the place. It's a promenade down the lane that fronts the cottages. All are welcome to join. Kids ride their bikes and moms push strollers. Some beat drums, strum guitars or carry flags.
Those who didn't march sat on their cottage porches.
One of those porch-sitters was Kathy Mellot, an audiologist who lives in Beltsville and serves as a vice president in the association. Sitting with her husband, Pat, and her daughter, Erin, she seems to not only know nearly everyone in the Grove, but can also trace their multi-generational ties to the place.
Mellot's own history here runs deep.
Her husband Pat proposed to her at the Tabernacle; they were married there in 1986, and recently renewed their vows at the pavilion. Afterward, their children held an anniversary party for them at the Grove's hotel.
Kathy vividly remembers coming to Emory Grove with her grandparents back in the 1960s. She now owns the cottage her parents once owned. Her daughter Erin, 23, has been at the Grove every summer since she was a toddler.
Between Kathy's private audiology practice in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Pat's job with UPS, the Mellots can only squeeze in just a couple week-long summer stays. But Nearly every Friday night they travel from Beltsville and stay till as late as they can on Sunday afternoon.
Kathy says the Grove is a welcome contrast to their fulltime residence.
"We live on a street with nine homes and I don't know a one of them," she said.
But at the Grove, the front porches are where the action is.
"I just like the camaraderie here," said John Tillman, 76, who, along with his wife, Gerry, have been driving up from Florida every year to spend the summer at their cottage. "If you want somebody to talk to you, just go outside and sit on your porch and pretty soon, somebody will come along and talk with you."
Yet, even here, a few things have changed over the past 143 years.Tents were gradually replaced by cottages after the turn of the 20th century. Prohibitions on pets and alcohol have also fallen by the wayside. Even though the Independence Day celebration was alcohol-free, there was nothing keeping residences from sipping a few beers.
But residents like Lowell Briggs and Bob Graziosi say it's been a challenge to keep Emory Grove in tune with its traditional spirit.
"There is a tremendous responsibility to keep Emory Grove as it is and to help our children and new cottagers understand the true heritage of these 62 acres," Briggs said.
"This is a place that we cherish because of what it once was and what it truly continues to be," he added softly. "It really is a living treasure. When we come through those stone gates we step back in time."
Upcoming at the Grove
Worship services, choir fest concerts, afternoon teas at the historic hotel and most other summer events at Emory Grove are open to the public.
Upcoming events include a Choir Fest Concert, on Saturdat, July 30. Rehearsal is open to anyone who wants to come and sing and will begin at 1 p.m. The free concert starts at 7:30 p.m. Dinner will be served at 5:30 p.m. (A $10-per-person donation is requested for dinner).
On Aug. 20 there will be a homemade chicken dinner at 6 p.m., at the hotel (the price will soon be posted on the website).
A complete schedule of events and a detailed history of Emory Grove can be found on the Emory Grove Association's website: http://www.emorygrove.homestead.com.