"[I enjoy] the fellowship, getting to see people that I haven't seen in a long time that come. A lot of the people that's always come [now] are deceased, but there's still some around," said Morris with the Stilesboro Improvement Club, an 18-member group that sponsors the picnic and is charged with maintaining its pre-Civil War venue. "A lot of people don't even know [Stilesboro Academy] exists. They do not know it's even there, and that's one of the things we try to do at the picnic and when we have our Chrysanthemum Show ... we always try to inform people about the building being there and when [Union Gen. William] Sherman marched through and didn't burn it down and [other historical stories].
"My older brothers went to school there. It's just a meeting place for a lot of people that were raised in the community. [So newcomers] -- they get to come and see the building and how old it is and what it meant to people in our community as they were growing up."
On Saturday, the 152st annual May Picnic will start at noon on the grounds of Stilesboro Academy, located on Taff Road off Highway 113, eight miles west of Cartersville. Participants, who usually begin arriving at 11 a.m., are encouraged to at least bring one dish to share with others. Referred to as the longest continuously held picnic in the nation, the first gathering was held to celebrate the dedication of the academy when it was completed in 1859.
The three-room building that Sherman spared on his march to Atlanta served as a school for children in the first through 12th grades from 1859 through the late 1930s. When the Bartow County School System wanted to close the academy, the Stilesboro Improvement Club paid what the lumber was worth and in turn received the deed for the school in 1939.
"[The May Picnic is] such a remarkable tradition and I'm just lucky to be part of such a remarkable tradition, because it is the oldest continuously held picnic in the United States," said Ann Mascia, member of the Stilesboro Improvement Club. "[In its heyday] hundreds of people attended around the turn of the last century and they would put on special excursion trains from Tennessee, Alabama [and] south Georgia, and people would just pour into the picnic. A lot of them were people who had attended Stilesboro Institute and of course families of those people and of the current students. When it was a larger event, they would have ball games, play baseball and [hold activities] like that.
"A lot of times during the years, we have staged a maypole dance. When the picnic was 100 years old in 1959, we did a maypole dance and we did a parade of costumes. People came dressed in various era costumes, like someone showed up in a World War II uniform and we had a number of people who wore Civil War era [clothing]. I was probably 10 or 11 and my mother made me a semi-long dress. Children didn't wear dresses to the floor in the Colonial times. They wore like mid-calf length dresses. [So] she made me a dress that length and white ruffled pantaloons underneath it and then the pantaloons went all the way to your ankles," she said, adding the parade of costumes was one of her most memorable and favorite May Picnics. "I've got a photo of it here. That was so exciting for me."
For Mascia, events like the May Picnic present an ideal opportunity for people to view Stilesboro Academy and discover its role in the area's history.
"Once upon a time there were hundreds of academies like this one all over the South built by the citizens of the community to get rid of homeschooling and consolidate into an actual organized school system," Mascia said. "In this instance, one person gave the land and another had a saw mill and he donated the services of his saw mill. Other people donated timber from off of their land to be sawed up and made into lumber. And there were people who donated their farm workers to work on the building.
"The actual monetary cost of the academy was $5,000, and an architectural firm in Euharlee drew up the plan for it. And it functioned as the equivalent of first through 12th grade. It is [rare for this building to still be standing] because most of the academies, if they weren't burned when Sherman's army came through in 1864 then they were allowed to just fall apart or they were torn down because people just didn't realize the historical significance of it and didn't appreciate what a remarkable piece of architecture they were."
For more information about the May Picnic, contact Mascia at 770-382-7773.