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In Western York Co., 3rd Wednesday in August means one thing: Hopewell Hash

The oak trees in a grove surrounding the old schoolhouse will soar above it all Wednesday, and the carpet of green grass will roll below hundreds of feet.

A sweet breeze will blow, as it always does on Big Wednesday in western York County, where the heritage is mules and plows and red clay soil so hard it has broken uncounted plowshares - but could never break the backs of the proud and strong who pulled a livelihood from that earth.

On that morning breeze will be carried music of a past generation - hymns and Gospel tunes that praise in a melody from throats covered with bowties and string ties and plaid shirts.

Or throats covered with chiffon dresses, groups and congregations singing about one thing only: the greatness of a Lord who sure has helped nine-plus decades of crops come through that hard ground into fruition.

Toes will tap and fiddles and even a guitar and - if luck runs true - a banjo will play.

Also on that wonderful breeze from the west will come a scent, not an odor, but a smell as unique as a fingerprint.

An aroma, an atmospheric phenomenon, something that can be found nowhere else but outside the old Hopewell Schoolhouse on the third Wednesday in August - 94 years running.

Except for a couple of missed years when the world was at war in Europe and the Pacific and so many of those tough and hard boys from the farms of Smyrna and Hickory Grove and Sharon were using bayonets and rifles instead of mule teams.

And the few men who stayed behind - and the women who knew only work and worship and family and country - plowed those fields themselves.

The smell will come from an iron pot, outside in the open air in the same spot where the fire has been built forever.

Inside that pot, stirred with an old boat oar and cooked for hours that turn into days, will be salt and pepper, onions, enough butter from those one-pound blocks just like your grandmomma used to use for pound cakes to clog the arteries of a battalion of aerobics instructors - and the better part of a cow.

No preservatives. No labels. Just white bread, as much as you want, to sop up all the juice that runs down the arm like memories.

Wednesday is the only day to get the famous Hopewell hash. Almost exactly, to the ounce, a full ton of beef hash.

Hopewell hash is not food. Hopewell hash is history.

"It is one big family reunion out here, where we are all family even if we are not related," said Melvin Howell, the chief cook whose daddy cooked the hash and whose granddaddy cooked the hash and whose son helps cook the hash.

Howell is a magistrate judge by trade, but as a cook for the hash, he has a job more important than flowing robes of justice. The cooking starts tonight and will be stirred in arm-wearying shifts by volunteers.

Because, plainly, "people love their hash," said Chris Revels, one of the organizers of the annual event with the Tri-Cities Club. The tri-cities are the communities of Smyrna, Hickory Grove and Sharon - not cities at all, but a trinity nonetheless in this place where God and hash unite on the third Wednesday in August.

"It is a way to escape everyday life, if even for a short while, just like it was more than 90 years ago when it started," said Revels. "There's a word for it. Fellowship."

The day started all those years ago - 1918, it is believed - the crops were in, and area farmers and families wanted to celebrate their shared toil and worship together.

Sure, the school closed generations ago when centralized schools became the norm. Yet the oak grove is the same. The pride is the same. The community spirit is the same.

"The hash is the same, too, just the same as it always was," said Howell. "Except when I was a kid - I am 65 - they would butcher a whole bull."

Nowadays, the meat comes from a butcher.

The music is solely Gospel. A singer once asked if he could sing "The Green, Green Grass of Home," said lifelong Hopewell hash volunteer Dale Mitchell, but was told without hesitation: "No way - you'd be run out in a heartbeat."

Because Hopewell Day never gets modernized. That's the joy of it. It takes time to cook, and talk, and listen, and eat.

All that plays out again Wednesday, in a way and in a place unlike anywhere else.

Big Wednesday - when the famous Hopewell hash is served in cardboard tubs that will never be recycled for anything because of the delicious hash that soaks the cardboard into eternity - is one day of an America that almost does not exist anymore.

Except for outside Hickory Grove, in the middle of the week on a Wednesday, on a rural road in York County.

Want to go?

What: The 94th Annual Hopewell Day

When: Food is available starting at 6 a.m. and will be sold throughout the day. Pints and quarts of hash for take-out will be sold. Gospel singing starts at 10 a.m.

Where: The old Hopewell Schoolhouse, on Hopewell Road outside Hickory Grove. From York, take S.C. 49 to Sharon, then take S.C. 211 to Hickory Grove, then turn left on Hopewell Road.

Information: Call Chris Revels at 803-925-2840.

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