Hopewell Presbyterian Church’s Corn Roast: Serving Johnson County
Writer / Joyce Long • Photographer / Ron Stiemert
Like most kids, Ron Kelsay grew up playing in the dirt, more specifically his family’s 400-acre tomato farm in Clark Pleasant Township. When I-65 construction cut through their land in the mid-1960s, Ron’s interest in farming lessened. “I was the Kelsay who jumped ship,” said Ron.
During that time, he enjoyed visiting not only his aunt and uncle on the west side of Franklin but their church, Hopewell Presbyterian Church, where he met Clarellen Simon who would become his wife in 1978. They met while singing in the church’s choir during their mid-20s and have become active members of one of Johnson County’s oldest congregations.
Hopewell Presbyterian Church began as a mission church in the 1820s. The church and its 43 members organized, settling in Hopewell May 23, 1831. Built over 100 years ago, its current building is registered as a historical landmark and is the anchor for the church’s core values: service, fellowship and worship. It also hosts the Annual Corn Roast, a church tradition since 1959 when the congregation needed to double its space to include more classrooms and a larger kitchen and fellowship hall.
In the 57 years since its beginning, Hopewell’s Annual Corn Roast is held the latter part of July, depending upon when the corn is ready. Church member Bill Leser donates one and a half acres of his nearby farm for the 12,000 ears of Ambrosia bicolor sweet corn that will be picked and shucked by church members. Ron Kelsay, who has chaired this event three times previously, and Pat Stevens, the church’s treasurer since 2005 and last year’s chairperson, are co-chairing this year’s event.
Each year’s Corn Roast has its own challenges. When Ron and Pat last co-chaired the event in 2005, they had can opener issues. With a menu that includes ham sandwiches, baked beans or green beans, coleslaw, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers and homemade pies and cakes, that was a big deal. The next year, they bought an industrial can opener.
Pat emphasized how most of the approximately 150 church members volunteer in some manner during the Corn Roast. “We have a lot of cooperation from the congregation. The Corn Roast is a part of our church’s outreach program,” said Pat. Regarding the homemade desserts, “Everyone who is not pie-challenged gets involved,” said Ron.
Typically, corn in Indiana is a foot-high by the fourth of July, so by mid-July, the church can usually predict which weekend the picking can occur. “Both Friday and Saturday mornings at 7 a.m., people come to the Leser Farm, located two miles southeast of the church, to pick corn. Afterward, they return to the church and sit under the shade trees to shuck it,” said Ron. He estimated 6,000 ears of corn are usually harvested for use during the meals. Other ears of picked corn are sold to guests during the two nights of the Corn Roast.
With approximately 1,000 people attending both Friday and Saturday nights, other church members help with crowd control, serving and cleaning up.
SYSTEMS AND SUCCESSES
Because of the Corn Roast’s long-running tradition, those serving have developed systems that work. Because the church’s fellowship hall and kitchen are in the basement, people enter through the south door and then either walk the stairs or take the elevator to the lower level. Downstairs seating features 33 tables of eight, accommodating 250+ people at one time. After the doors open Friday and Saturday night at 4:30 p.m., Pat becomes the “corn traffic controller.” She allows folks to enter as others finish and leave.
Ron notes they have gotten smarter and more efficient through the years. Those in the kitchen keep busy boiling the corn in aluminum cookers that can hold three dozen ears and were specially designed for this event. Previously they used big pots with wooden lids, and occasionally the lids would catch on fire. Corn is distributed in hot/cold coolers, and no one leaves hungry.
Memorial Day Weekend begins the countdown for Hopewell’s Annual Corn Roast as its choir sings, “We’re having a corn roast, our traditional corn roast. The corn’s been planted, leaving nothing for granted. We’re having a corn roast!” From that moment on, the church is focused on its only fundraising venture.
This year’s co-chairs also ramp up their efforts. Ironically, both Ron and Pat have roots in the food industry. Pat’s parents ran a hotel and restaurant business in her hometown of Schwenksville, Pennsylvania. Ron’s parents sold their tomatoes to Stokely-Van Camp. In his semi-retirement, Ron still plays in the dirt, this time growing crops such as rhubarb, strawberries, popcorn, sweet potatoes, onions, green beans, asparagus and yes, even a few Rutgers heirloom tomatoes, all of which he uses in his catering business, Ron Kelsay Catering (Ronald.Kelsay@gmail.com).
Regarding Hopewell Presbyterian’s Annual Corn Roast, both Ron and Pat see it as a way to involve both the church and the entire county. As Ron summarized, “It’s a tradition that keeps on giving!”