Come out to the Woods For the Utica Picnic
Lucille Putman has a saying that’s been around for so long it should be on a bumper sticker or T-shirt: “You do not go away, you do not get married, you do not die on the third Saturday in August.” Instead, you make sure you’re seated inside the pavilion at Miller’s Woods near Lewistown for the Utica Picnic, a summer tradition that’s closing in on more than 170 years and boasts a menu of fried chicken, country ham and enough side dishes to make Thanksgiving jealous.
“I love to see people eat,” says Putman, a member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Utica that sponsors the gathering. For the past 40-some years, she has coordinated the event that sometimes draws as many as 900 diners and enlists dozens of volunteers not only from the church, but also their friends and neighbors. “Even the children help,” Putman says, recalling her own early involvement as a teenager running dishes of food to the tables.
The Rev. Burt Lane, pastor of St. Paul’s, will be taking part in his sixth Utica Picnic this year, an event he calls “a community effort,” not only in the work of volunteers, but also those who come to support the fundraiser. Proceeds go to the Utica Sunday School, he says, as well as providing funds to community groups including the Thurmont and Walkersville food banks and the fire and rescue services in Lewistown and Woodsboro.
“We’re not exactly sure when the first Utica Picnic was held,” Lane says, adding that Utica had a church as far back as 1769. The picnic started at a time when “everyone was a farmer,” he says, and August was the slow time between planting and harvesting, allowing people to devote the better part of a day socializing with neighbors and filling up on good, home-cooked food.
“The core of the picnic is still the same,” says Putman, even if times have changed. One thing that has remained consistent is the menu, albeit with a few adjustments. Lorna Hubbard, who has consistently volunteered since the 1980s, recalls a time when members of the church would fry chicken at home and bring it to the woods. Putman talks about the big kettles that followed, with the chicken fried on site. Today, adhering to health department regulations, the chicken is prepared in the approved kitchen of the Lewistown Fire Company.
“You do not go away, you do not get married, you do not die on the third Saturday in August.”
The menu, which Putman likens to food you’d get if you visited your grandmother in the country, also features thin, deliciously smoked slices of country ham, along with macaroni and potato salads, homemade pickles and pickled beets, green beans simmered in ham broth, applesauce, and sliced peaches, plus fresh-from-the-garden sliced tomatoes on platters that constantly need to be refilled. Putman says the pepper slaw is also a crowd-pleaser. “The recipe for the dressing comes from (the late) Ethel Ramsburg and we’ve been using it for umpteen years. One gentleman told me he’s eaten pepper slaw all over, but this is the best. Then he got a gallon to take home.” The meal is topped off with the yards and yards of homemade cakes lined up and waiting to be cut, from red velvet to angel food to banana cake with chocolate frosting. One year a man reportedly ate five pieces.
The meal, which costs $15 with takeout available for $1 more, is served family-style, all you care to eat, with volunteers stepping lively to bring filled dishes to the tables and assure that water and iced-tea glasses are never empty. Serving starts at approximately 12:30 p.m. on Aug. 15 this year, Putman says, and goes “until there’s nobody left in the woods.”
For those not wanting such an elaborate feast, the picnic also has stands throughout the grounds serving up sandwiches, ice cream and beverages.
Delectable as it is, the Utica Picnic is not just about the food.
“I love seeing the same people year after year and catching up with former coworkers and people you went to school with,” says Hubbard. It’s also a family affair. While she’s involved with the food, husband Chuck is parking cars and their son and his two boys are working in the ice cream stand.
Then there’s the Yellow Springs Band, a fixture for as long as anyone can remember, playing from a bandstand, the notes drifting throughout the grounds where strands of lights shine from the shady trees. More raucous entertainment can be found at the game booths and a dunk tank, plus there’s a hay wagon for a spin through the woods. Several decades ago humorous skits were staged, something Putman says many would like to see revived.
The Utica Picnic has been held in all kinds of weather, from oppressive heat waves—“The only thing you can do when it’s hot and muggy is to drink plenty of ice water and volunteer at the dunk tank,” says Hubbarb—to occasional downpours. Putman recalls one such storm that sent people to their cars to wait for it to pass so they could go back to having fun. “I know some people who would come if they had to walk in water up to their knees,” she was quoted as saying several years ago.
Unfortunately a number of traditions run their course when the next generation loses interest, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with the Utica Picnic. “The past few years I’ve seen more young people” step in to help out, Hubbarb says. Lane, the pastor, says, “We still have a very, very deep connection to our history and tradition, but we also need new ways to connect it to the community” whether it’s getting the word out through social media or adding modern conveniences like last year’s acceptance of credit cards.
One thing that will never change for Putman and all the other veterans is the satisfaction of knowing the Utica Picnic is creating some precious memories and, she says, “At the end of the day when you’re tired and dirty and your feet hurt” it’s all worthwhile. “Looking out over the scene, it’s like seeing something out of an old movie. Your heart just feels so full.”