Fancy Farm Picnic

Festivals, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on July 16, 2000

In Kentucky, politicians go where the people areand with good reason. Folklore has it that anyone in Kentucky politics who doesnt speak at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic doesnt get elected.

Im not sure whether most politicians believe this is true, but a lot of them show up anyway, says Bob Spalding, the events chairman and director for the last 24 years.

Aug. 5, 2000, marks the 120th consecutive Fancy Farm Picnic. Some 15,000 people, including dozens of candidates with a taste for savory barbecue and an even greater appetite for votes, attend the politically charged eventthe unofficial kickoff of fall campaigning in Kentucky politics.

Spalding describes the Fancy Farm Picnic as a forum for back-home politics, a homecoming for former residents, and a destination for those who love barbecue, good company, and outdoor fun. Admission is free, and $7 buys all the barbecue and extras you can eat ($3.50 if youre 12 or under).

This year, the Fancy Farm community (pop. 500), so named by its founders in 1843 for its many elegant farms, will barbecue about 18,000 pounds of pork and mutton. Thats roughly 2,000 pounds more than in 1984 when Fancy Farm set a Guinness World Record for the largest one-day picnic and barbecue.

The picnic, held on the first Saturday in August, began before the Civil War as a gathering among families after tobacco crops were harvested. It was suspended during the war and resumed in 1880. Over time, the picnic gained popularityespecially among Kentucky politicians who saw it as a prime opportunity to stump for votes (originally, to speak from the high ground of a tree stump).

Speaking at Fancy Farm is open to candidates running for any Kentucky or national office. Turnout is particularly heavy during highly contested congressional races.

You just didnt ignore the opportunity to come down here and get exposure, says Lloyd Clapp, former speaker pro tempore for the Kentucky House of Representatives. Clapp, who retired in 1986 after 21 years in office, spoke at the Fancy Farm Picnic almost every year of his political career.

Fancy Farm also is popular with candidates courting the national vote. Kentucky native and former Vice President Alvin C. Barkley made regular appearances during the 1940s. Perennial presidential candidate George C. Wallace attended, and Vice President Al Gore, a former U.S. senator from Tennessee, stopped to campaign in 1992. Spalding is optimistic that one or both candidates in this years presidential election will attend.

While political turnout at the shindig is unpredictable, its schedule remains the same. Carnival-like games begin at 10 a.m. and continue throughout the day. A band plays bluegrass and country music until 2 p.m., at which time the politicking begins.

For this, the audience gathers near the remains of the old lyin tree, named for the free-flowing promises of ambitious politicians who once spoke beneath it. It was critically wounded in 1974 by what has been described as a nonpartisan bolt of lightning.

Political speeches conclude at precisely 4 p.m., and the music flows again until the picnic ends with the raffle of a new car at 11 p.m.

Berry Craig, an associate history professor at Paducah Community College, uses Fancy Farm as a teaching tool, saying the event steps back to a time when candidates relied more heavily on their live oratory skills than on television ads and the media.

I always encourage my students to go to at least one Fancy Farm Picnic, he says, because its a throwback to the stump-style speaking that Kentucky and Tennessee were famous for a hundred years ago.