BALLS MILLS - Burma Shave-type signs dot the landscape leading to Balls Mills United Methodist Church as its prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary next Saturday and Sunday.
The small wooden signs, erected along the berms of Bloomingrove Road and Route 973, and others four miles north of Williamsport in Hepburn Township, sell a pitch to drivers to stop by as parishioners hold a picnic and their popular ice cream social, followed by a Sunday service in honor of the sesquicentennial beneath a tent.
"I think what is most important is we are celebrating 150 years of continuing ministry to this community and that, I think, is quite remarkable," said church pastor, the Rev. Jay Morris.
Balls Mills United Methodist Church, 5941 Bloomingrove Road in Cogan Station, will celebrate its 150th anniversary next Saturday and Sunday.
Morris, who has held pastorate positions for more than two decades at various churches, said he believes the Holy Spirit moves the church congregation and it abides in that movement.
Alongside Morris, the Rev. Wayne Stebbins, a supply pastor who has been retired for 10 years but has served at least four churches in the Methodist charge since then, and his wife Janice, spent time with active church member Dennis Weaver to discuss the anniversary preparations.
"Invitations have been sent to past ministers and members of the congregation to attend the anniversary," Weaver said.
In addition to a firm belief in Christian doctrine, the church is recognized for its annual summer ice cream social and this year will be no different as salt and cream are churned and traditional flavors of vanilla, chocolate, strawberry are added, along with, perhaps, a surprise flavor in the mix.
"We'll have our famous homemade ice cream and a lot of food," Weaver said. The proposed menu includes fries, pulled pork, hot dogs and barbecue. For dessert, other than ice cream, there will be cakes, pies and other homemade goodies.
The picnic will include displays by members of the Bloomingrove Historical Society and Taber Museum, talented quilters and their prized works of art and dozens of activities for the family, including the sailboat regatta on Mill Creek, and other games such as horseshoes and volleyball.
At the festival, T-shirts, hats and mugs will be available, including those of the "Balls Mills Naval Academy."
Local folklore legend has spread far and wide about the naval academy. Legend holds that a man went to the Annapolis Naval Academy, which was quite unusual since all his friends and brothers were farmers.
A simple hand-lettered sign on the front of a vacant, one-room, one-story, unpainted frame building on Academy Street in Balls Mills never fails to catch the eye of people passing by.
It is easily read and probably has excited more curiosity and caused more comment than any other scene there.
With Mill Creek the only body of water less than a stone's throw away from the academy, it causes quite the conversation.
Stebbins can easily recall when the building was used as the polling place for Hepburn Township.
The story of the Balls Mills Naval Academy is more than 100 years old.
At the turn of the 20th century, John Philip Lehman owned a hilltop farm one-half mile outside of the village. His eldest daughter, Mary, was married to John Gilmore, an elementary school principal in Williamsport. They had eight sons, all of whom spent their summers and many weekends helping "Grandpap" Lehman on the farm.
One of the sons, Morris D. Gilmore, received an official congressional appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. He spent four years as a midshipman and graduated in 1911. He served as a submarine commander in World War I, winning the Navy Cross.
The story goes that the local boys would grow tired of hearing of Gilmore's success and were quick to break down their friend's ego, especially when he would start to forget where his roots were, the local boys would re-educate him by referring to their trips to the farm as visiting the Balls Mills Naval Academy. This soon became a joke continued by succeeding generations.
He'd come home during summers, but they didn't want him to become too much of a big shot so they began a Naval Academy of their own, according to Stebbins, who has been in the community since 1949.
When traveling, he has met people with Balls Mills Naval Academy written on their shirts and across the brim of their hats.
The academy idea was embraced by the students at the Balls Mills School and they began referring to their school as the academy.
In turn, some adults began picking up on this idea when Charlie Logue, a reporter for the Williamsport Gazette & Bulletin got hold of it. Charlie, better known as David of Happy Valley, thus was launched into the waves of local folklore.
For most of the century the academy prospered or suffered from various surges and declines in the enrollment of ardent supporters.
The latest period of interest in its continuation and development began in the early 1970s with the creation of an academy logo by Jim and Paul Ertel.
The legacy of the Balls Mills Naval Academy continues to this day through the church. Coffee mugs, sweatshirts, T-shirts, hats and other items usually brings a smile to the face of those receiving a gift depicting the schooner on wheels logo associated with the Naval Academy.