Joyce Oblin of Arlington County, who works for the Small Business Administration, can well afford to pay for a single-scoop ice cream cone. But she walked the six blocks in the noontime heat yesterday to enjoy a frozen freebie. "It's the novelty of it," she explained, licking her chocolate cone. She joined lots of people who queued for an hour for nearly half a block along H Street Northwest and into the lobby and hallway of the National Grange headquarters.

It was the fourth annual Ice Cream Day, sponsored by the Potomac Grange, the national agricultural organization's local chapter. And it's a public tradition that started by mischance.

Back in 1973, the Grange put into its newsletter an invitation for people to drop by on a given day for a free cone. Someone passed the newsletter on to Metro Scene, which ran an item. Whoops! The grangers went into near-panic; the invitation was intended for people on the group's limited mailing list. The Grange scurried for enough extra ice cream to meet a modest demand.

The Grange, seeing that it had stumbled onto a neat public relations gesture, asked Metro Scene to spread an invitation to everyone on a summer day in each of the ensuing years. Last year it barely met demand with 12 gallons. Yesterday it bought 18 gallons and served 550 people -- the last ones with paper cups instead of cones -- and ran out right on schedule at 1:30 p.m., spokeswoman Judy Massabny said.

Among the dippers yesterday were Edward Anderson, a former Nebraska dairy farmer who is the Grange's national master, and Bob Frederick, the legislative director. As Frederick hacked away at a solidly frozen block of chocolate ice cream, he likened it glumly to "a mountain in Georgia -- Stone Mountain." If he had his druthers, he said, on this day that Congress returned from its recess he'd be up at the Capitol lobbying.

Guests came clad in everything from suits and ties to jeans and T-shirts and were of all ages, from septuagenarians down to 2-year-old Raymond Cheek, who happily licked on a scoop of vanilla and pronounced it "good." He was accompanied by his aunt, Rolandia Shines, 7, who carefully spelled her name for the reporter, as her mother, Sherry Pate of Northwest Washington, looked on proudly The Envelope, Please . . .

And now the results of the fourth annual gospel music sweepstakes Sunday at the Kennedy Center:

Three Baltimore entrants and one from Washington were the winners, although the churches sponsoring all eight finalists from the two cities shared $9,000 in prize money provided by the competition's sponsor, Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The sole Washington winner was male soloist Loren Mulraine of the Capitol Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church. The three Baltimore winners were the Good News Choir from St. Edward's Catholic Church, the Teagle Family ensemble from Westport Temple and female soloist Marcia Letitia Faulkner of White Stone Baptist Church.

A judging panel of seven gospel music experts was headed by Archie Buffkins, producer and director of cultural diversity at the Kennedy Center.