Fancy Farm Picnic draws thousands each year
By Patrick Smith
Each year, on the first Saturday in August, people visit Fancy Farm, Kentucky, for a church picnic.
But this isn’t a normal church picnic where attendees bring a dish to pass and old-timers talk about the weather. This is the Fancy Farm Picnic — complete with more than 10,000 people, 18,000 pounds of barbecued pork and mutton, rows and rows of carnival-style games and political stump speeches from candidates who, over the years, have vied for every major office in the Bluegrass State. Even presidential candidates have stopped by to take part in the revered Kentucky tradition. And, all of this is hosted by a town of fewer than 500 people.
For anyone who hasn’t experienced Kentucky weather in August, the temperatures often climb into the 90s by midday, and the humidity is thick enough to make any clothing other than what’s vitally important seem gratuitous. But the weather doesn’t stop people from attending by the thousands — nor do the miles of parked cars or the smell of hickory wood smoke so heavy that it forms a haze over the picnic grounds. The allure of the picnic seems to draw more people in each year.
Though the picnic has always been a notable event, locals attribute the growth to the added attention the media has given the event in recent years. Local television stations and newspapers often feature reports about what to expect leading up to the event each year. And in the days and weeks that follow the event, headlines featuring the words “Fancy Farm” will regularly grace publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post. National television stations like MSNBC provide live reports, while C-SPAN broadcasts the political speeches live. Even Food Network has featured the picnic’s home-cooked, hearty fare.
This year’s event will be the 135th Fancy Farm Picnic, and as always, there will be free admission and free parking.
Those familiar with the raucous infield crowds of the Kentucky Derby will find some similarities during the political speeches given at Fancy Farm. The atmosphere features politicians trading jabs, while in-state supporters and opponents, who arrive by the busload from as far away as Lexington, bicker back and forth so loudly that it’s difficult to hear the candidate’s speech. They’ll also heckle the candidates — something some hopefuls have learned to deal with, but making it difficult for others to stay on point.
In the political arena, it’s an event so big, national political action committees create teaser video trailers for the speeches that will be given at the event by their candidates, like when Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was challenged by Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grimes in 2014. It’s also inspired local businesswoman Cynthia Elder to write a book, “The Politics of Fancy Farm,” which she hopes to have completed in time for this year’s event.
During the event, Democrats will line their tents with blue yard signs, while GOP supporters do the same with red signs, leaving a walking path just a
But the event hasn’t always been so politically charged. A.B. “Happy” Chandler is often credited with the picnic’s transition from a local homecoming event to a stage for political speeches while he was running for Lieutenant Governor in 1931. Over the years, Vice Presidents Alben W. Barkley and Al Gore, U.S. Senators Jim Bunning and Rand Paul and U.S. presidential candidate George C. Wallace have spoken at Fancy Farm.
The picnic’s traditions are maintained by families that have held volunteer jobs for generations. On Friday morning, meat is unloaded from a box truck, blessed by a Catholic priest, and thrown onto two rows of fiery barbecue pits that go on for hundreds of feet. It’s monitored through the day and night by volunteers, before another group of volunteers arrives at 6 a.m. to begin deboning, weighing and preparing the meat in styrofoam containers. Never mind the simple presentation, the barbecue is cooked so well, hungry patrons stand in line 20-persons-deep to fork over their cash at 7 a.m. — three hours before the picnic formally starts.
Officially named the “World’s Largest Picnic” in 1985 by the Guinness Book of World Records, there’s more than just barbecued pork to eat. The waist-high black chalkboard menu for the 2013 picnic listed 1,900 pounds of chicken, 1,400 pounds of potato salad, 410 pounds of lima beans, 258 pounds of green beans, 225 pounds of peas and 193 gallons of corn. They sell out every year.
While the children’s games are held under small, pop-up tents and steel-beamed buildings, and the political speaking takes place at its own open-air pavilion with a permanent stage. The largest building houses hundreds of feet of picnic tables, lined with people playing bingo. Every hour or so, participants play a new card for a big prize, such as a flat-screen television, or tickets to see the St. Louis Cardinals or Kentucky basketball.
Then there’s the raffle. Each year, picnic organizers give away a vehicle. This year, same as 2014, they’ll raffle a brand-new four-door Jeep Wrangler hard top. Winning the biggest prize can be as cheap as $5, and you don’t have to be present to win.
For a more social gathering without the political pressure, the Knights of Columbus Hall is the place for fellowship on Friday night. A fish fry and music follow the 5K walk/race, and the endless preparations for the picnic begin in February. Family members depend on relatives to drive in and fly in from places like California, Texas, Minnesota, Virginia and New Jersey just to see friends and volunteer for the jobs their families have held for decades.
The bands continue to play on Saturday, and the K of C Hall holds a continuous home-cooked meal at its air-conditioned facility. The money raised — usually about $200,000 dollars gross — goes to St. Jerome Catholic Church, a parish of about 650 people, and the Diocese of Owensboro, Kentucky.
And no matter what brings visitors to the Fancy Farm Picnic — the politics, the food, the games or fellowship — longtime picnickers don’t plan on missing it anytime soon. But if they do, at least they know it will be the only church picnic featured the next day in The New York Times.
If you go
The 2015 Fancy Farm Picnic will take place on Aug. 1.
The political speaking portion of the event will be emceed by Matt Jones of Kentucky Sports Radio.