Hickory Grove Founder’s Day
I’m usually a pretty patient person. Unless it’s the third Saturday in October and it’s 7:30 in the morning and you’re not in the car yet. That’s the only day I will drive off and leave you. I will not miss standing in line for a ham and biscuit with mayhaw jelly just because you can’t get to my house on time.
Eleven years ago I heard about a little church near Pinetta, Florida that hosts an annual festival to raise money for their church. I woke up that morning to a cold, drizzling rain and wrestled with the idea of pulling the covers back over my head and forgetting the whole thing.
Couldn’t do it. Got up, put on my red cowboy boots and a rain slicker, and took off. On the drive there, I kept telling myself, “What a waste of time, there won’t be a soul at this place.” Wrong.
I drove down a dead end road to Hickory Grove United Methodist Church, out from Pinetta, Florida, and couldn’t find a place to park. Cars, trucks, motorcycles and golf carts lined the road for a half-mile before I got to the small country church founded in 1828. People were parking in a farmer’s field, loading up on a trolley, and riding to the church grounds. What I found there was truly amazing and my quest to become a regular visitor each year started that very day.
Wanting to get the full experience, I had parked in the field and hopped on the trolley for a ride. Each year Hickory Grove Methodist Church has one event, Founder’s Day, which raises enough money to pay for most of their financial obligations for the entire year. People from the surrounding community show up to support this little church in astounding numbers.
The first thing I spotted was a line. I mean a line like you’d see at the t-shirt stand of a Willie Nelson concert! I popped my umbrella up to keep my hair from flopping and then realized I was the only soul there with an umbrella so I pulled it back down. I looked down and my red boots were up to my ankles in mud and rain dripped off my hair into my eyes. Suddenly, it didn’t matter. I looked ahead and, in the line, saw rain-drenched people from all walks of life. Farmers, hunters dressed in camouflage, women in lace tops and gold bangle bracelets hanging from their wrists, a group of motorcycle riders in black leather, mothers with their babies in strollers. All waiting for a homemade biscuit filled with smoked ham and soaking in homemade jelly. Moving slowly through the line, I passed a tent set up with a beautiful, handmade quilt on display. Church ladies were selling tickets for the quilt as well as slices of homemade cakes and pies.
The rain started to let up as I sat under a tent with my biscuit. There, to my right, I spied a man sitting in front of a single black, cast-iron, skillet. Another line formed in front of his simple one-pan, one-man operation. Pear tarts! He was frying pear tarts! Two at the time. Wrapping them in a single paper towel and handing them out as fast as he could for $1 each. I jumped up, biscuit in hand, and got in his line. People were everywhere as the grounds of the church began to fill up. With my two warm tarts safely in my clutches, I started to walk around. Men were stirring huge pots of chicken pilau, women were pulling Boston butt apart for pulled-pork sandwiches. Others were boiling ears of corn, making homemade butter and frying fresh pork rinds. Sunset Farms had a place set up to sell their sausages. All were donating 100% of their sales to the church.
Inside the church social hall I found row after row of homemade cakes and pies. A fresh apple cake, wrapped in a hot pink ribbon, caught my eye and I handed the church lady my money and put it on hold to pick up on my way home. Back down the steps and onto the muddy church grounds, I found myself in a small store filled with crafts made by local artisans. Again, with all their sales going directly to the church fund. Square orange pumpkins and rough-hewn snowmen with black top hats winked at me and, once again, I pulled out my wallet.
Then, I heard him. “Then sings my soul! My savior, God to thee! How great Thou art! How Great Thou art!” It was ELVIS! I shoved my pear tarts in my purse, grabbed my pumpkins and snowman, and followed his voice. There, underneath the tall pine trees, were old church pews lined in front of a flatbed trailer. “Elvis” (well, a shorter version of Elvis) was on stage kneeled down in the grand finale of “How Great Thou Art.” I sat on one of the pews and didn’t move for an hour. “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog,” followed by hit after hit from Elvis’ collection filled the air. I looked up at the blue sky peeping through the trees and realized I was in heaven. On earth. Out in the woods. At a little church where people proved that our country could still band together and that there were still folks around with truly good and giving hearts. It was a good reminder for me.
When I got home and lifted the trunk of my car, I just had to smile. Three square wooden pumpkins, a rough-cut snowman with a black top hat, 4 jars of mayhaw jelly, five Hickory Grove Methodist Church cookbooks and an old tire swing painted like a red lady-bug peered out at me. Small church. Small community. Big crowd. Big hearts.
So, on Saturday, October 20, 2018, I hope to see you there. And if you show up at my house before 7:30 a.m., you can ride with me. If not, I’ll drive off and leave you. Look for me when you get there. I’ll be the one standing in line for the hot pear tarts with my red boots on. Rain or shine.
Directions: 1218 NE Hickory Grove Road, Pinetta, FL. Travel south on the Valdosta-Madison highway to Pinetta, Florida. Turn left at the caution light onto NE Bellville Road. Take the first paved right onto NE Dusty Miller Road. Finally, take the first paved left onto Hickory Grove Road and drive until the road dead ends at the church. You’ll see signs all along the way.
Follow Hickory Grove United Methodist Church on Facebook.