FANCY FARM – For more than 130 years, the Fancy Farm Picnic in Graves County has been an important destination every August for any Kentuckian running for state or federal office. The COVID-19 pandemic changed that this year, but the event still raised money for St. Jerome’s Catholic Church without politicians or large crowds.
In a normal year, anyone arriving in Fancy Farm in the early afternoon would have had to park blocks away from the pavilion where political stump speeches take place and walk the rest of the way. That was not the case Saturday at the 140th annual Fancy Farm Picnic as small groups came and went, but despite the quiet atmosphere, two constants remained: the sale of raffle tickets and pit-smoked barbecue.
Andy Hayden, a co-chair of the picnic, said the church was still selling plenty of pulled pork and mutton. A car or truck has also typically been raffled in the past, but this year, the prize was instead an utility terrain vehicle (UTV), a Polaris Ranger.
“We started at 8 a.m.; people were lined up at 7:15 or so even as it was drizzling rain,” Hayden said. “Luckily, we haven’t had a big downpour. Typically, we sell it at one meat stand, but this year, we decided to have it in two so we could spread everyone out even more to create a little bit of a safer environment.”
Hayden said that in addition to helping the church with some its regular expenses, much of the money raised each year goes to support local charities or families in need. While the cancellation of the political speeches and the popular Bingo games didn’t completely wipe out St. Jerome’s fundraising capabilities, Hayden – who is 38 and has been to the picnic every year of his life, having grown up attending St. Jerome’s – said it was certainly surreal to see so few people wandering the grounds on Saturday.
“A lot of the parishioners have said it just feels strange walking up here and not seeing thousands of people walking around,” he said. “It’s just a bit sad that we don’t have the crowd that we typically have, but we certainly have made the most of it. We’ve had a lot of support from people that still came and bought the meat, and we’ve had a tremendous response from the people buying the raffle tickets.”
Although it’s unclear in the historical record exactly when the picnic became inextricably linked to political stump speeches, the tradition dates back nearly to the very beginning, Hayden said.
“This is the 140th picnic, and I want to say that after the first two or three, local politicians caught wind that there were gatherings,” Hayden said. “It was just a parish homecoming at that point, and as Cynthia Elder, one of our ladies who is kind of a historian in the church, said, ‘As politicians find that there are people gathering, they tend to find the crowd.’”
Hayden said Elder did not believe the political speaking had ever before been disrupted at the picnic, even during times of great turmoil like the first and second word wars. He acknowledged it was especially strange to not have speeches during a presidential election year, as well as a year in which the most-watched U.S. Senate race in the country is unfolding in Kentucky as Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is being challenged by retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath on the Democratic side.
Hayden said that once the pandemic hit, organizers talked about whether the picnic should be postponed until the fall, but they ultimately decided there was no guarantee than conditions would be safe enough by even October to have a normal event.
“We just said let’s do it, and we knew it would be in some sort of reduced capacity, but we said let’s do it safely and responsibly,” Hayden said. “From an organizing standpoint, that’s what’s been gratifying. All of our workers have been masked up all day long. Thank goodness it’s not (close to) 100 degrees like it typically is.”
Of course, it isn’t just the Fancy Farm Picnic itself was that was affected by the pandemic, but all the political events surrounding the picnic. Both political parties encourage supporters from around the state to attend and pack the pavilion to loudly voice their support for their side during the speeches. The parties also hold big events the night before the picnic every year, which act as major fundraising events for their organizations. The Democratic Party always hosts a Friday night bean dinner at Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park in Gilbertsville, and in the last few years, the Republican Party organizations from Calloway and Marshall counties have coordinated to bring big-name speakers to Lovett Auditorium on Murray State University’s campus. There are also usually breakfasts hosted by both parties the morning of the picnic, so canceling the speeches definitely has an effect on hotels and tourism in the area and the regional economy in general, Hayden said.
“(A lot of people come) to western Kentucky, and typically, those folks are here for three or four days, whether it be the Democratic or Republican breakfasts, or the bean dinner in Marshall County,” Hayden said. “So it’s always a big deal, and all of those events were waiting on our decision to decide (whether there would be political speaking) because if we weren’t having ours, then the politicians weren’t coming, Mitch McConnell or (1st District Congressman) Jamie Comer or whoever it might be. So they were waiting on us to make a decision and so it has that trickle-down effect. (Most politicians) don’t come to western Kentucky very often, or it sure doesn’t seem like it.”
Ellen K. Thomas was helping out with the raffle and said her family has been a part of the car booth for around 60 years. With the political speaking, the “fun run” and all the events leading up to the picnic canceled this year, it was decided to raffle a UTV rather than a car or truck. Even so, raffle ticket sales remained strong on Saturday, she said.
“Our parishioners have shown up and showed out and everybody that has supported St. Jerome for all these years has continued to support us this year and we’re doing great with the raffle,” Thomas said.
Thomas said raffling a UTV instead of another kind of vehicle saved the organizers about $15,000, and this was also the first year they did online raffle ticket sales, so she said that had added to their success.
“There was a consideration of not having the picnic at all, but with it being the 140th year, we just couldn’t (cancel),” she said. “We had to do something, so we did our best. Of course, everything runs like a well-oiled machine here, and other families who normally don’t do booths pitched in to help and it’s just been great.”
Thomas joked about the off-and-on rainy weather on Saturday, saying it felt “very 2020” to have one more obstacle get in the way of the picnic. Still, it was at least not nearly as hot at the picnic as it usually is, and she said her family members still came from out-of-state like always, whether it was a normal year or not.
“My family is home from Huntington Beach, California, Dallas, Texas and Minneapolis, Minnesota,” Thomas said. “They come every year and (the pandemic) didn’t stop them this year. It’s more or less a homecoming, it’s not really all about the making of the money and all that. It’s a homecoming for everybody to get together. That’s what we love about it. For those this year that didn’t come home, I’m sure they sent money in for the raffle and today they are missing their mutton or pork sandwiches.”
Bert Nichols, a Louisville resident who grew up in Fancy Farm, said he came back home for the weekend to visit his mother. He also came by the picnic to pick up some of the signature pit-smoked barbecue and feed it to his extended family.
“I’ve got four family members who are looking forward to this,” he said, holding up his bag of barbecue. “One lives in Richmond, Kentucky and one lives in Louisville. You can’t beat what you get here. It’s got that special spirituality to it!”