If you’re willing to make the drive to Graves County this weekend, be sure to wear something that’s NOT red or blue—unless you’re ready to rally for your favorite political candidate. The average church picnic conjures up images of potluck suppers, neighbors sharing a picnic table, or children playing across the lawn. When you attend St. Jerome Catholic Church’s Annual Picnic in Fancy Farm, Kentucky, fellowship and meals shared among friends becomes a loud, raucous political rally, where the color red or blue obligates you to cheer (or jeer) the candidates delivering their stump speeches underneath the Lyin’ Tree.
Ongoing as a church and charity fundraiser since 1880, St. Jerome’s Annual Picnic and BBQ, known simply as “Fancy Farm” across the Commonwealth, captures the full attention of the nation during contentious election years. Upwards of 15,000 people attend annually and consume more than 18,000 pounds of BBQ mutton and pork while listening to candidates speechifying from the platform. The largest recorded attendance was in 1992, when nearly 20,000 people turned out to see Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
Fancy Farm, Kentucky itself counted its population at only 458 in the last census, and it takes all those citizens and more to pull off the largest political event in the state. More than 600 volunteers work tirelessly each year to smoke pork and mutton, fry chicken, set up, and later clean up what can only reasonably be described as a hootenanny.
Every candidate gets an equal voice at Fancy Farm. The two major political parties line up their candidates, testimonials from prominent party members, and their loudest volunteers and supporters to make a showing at Farm Farm.
Though the parties are very clearly split—Democrats to one side of the podium, Republicans to the other—the crowd is actually very genial, if not down right friendly. We’ve never seen a single person heckled for a particular lobby they were espousing or candidate they were supporting, though trust us, the candidates were heckled plenty. Colorfully dressed characters from both sides roam through the crowds with their particular shtick.
Last year, we spent most of our day wandering through the crowd, scoping out the various carnival games, entering the raffle to win a car—a tradition since 1924—and of course, eating BBQ. You have to try the barbecue nachos; they’re a more recent addition to the menu.
St. Jerome’s Catholic Church held the first annual church picnic in 1880 “down by the creek,” according to local oral histories. The event was moved to a location near the local elementary school in the 1910s to offer shelter in case of bad weather.
The picnic has always been held on a late summer weekend, or in other terms, close to Election Day. Such a large gathering of citizens was an opportunity for local and state candidates to come and make their final pleas to voters underneath the old oak tree in front of the school.
The so-called “Lyin’ Tree” was struck by lightning in 1974, but the stump remains behind with a plaque that reads: “Lightning struck this 133 year old oak tree on April 15, 1974. The tree trunk remains a symbol of the years since 1880 where political speeches were made on the first Saturday in August at the Fancy Farm annual picnic. Some of America’s greatest statesmen have spoken under the shade of this great oak tree.” Former Republican Governor Louie Nunn joked at the 1979 picnic that the tree had died as a result of all the political speeches over the years, saying, “too much fertilizer will kill anything.”
Nunn has a place on a long and illustrious list of politicians who have campaigned at Fancy Farm, including Vice President Alben Barkley, Senator John Sherman Cooper, and Governors AB “Happy” Chandler, Wendell Ford, John Y. Brown, and Martha Layne Collins. Most recently, the picnic was a flashpoint for the 2014 U.S. Senate race between challenger Allison Lundergan Grimes and victorious incumbent Mitch McConnell.
Sponsored by the St. Jerome Parish, the political events of the day start with prayer and the state song and national anthem. As every native Kentuckian knows, it’s hard not to swell with pride while singing the state song surrounded by thousands of friends from the Bluegrass State. Then the candidates come out.
Surrounded by staffers, supporters, family, and the state police, the crowd propels the speaker onto the dais (newly renovated to look like a front porch with fans to keep the speakers cool) amidst yelling supporters and taunters. From there it’s lights, camera, action, with scores of local and national media reporting the scene for those who didn’t attend.
Never is the term “stump speech” more clearly defined than at Fancy Farm. Candidates are (almost) literally delivering their campaign promises from a stump. The proceedings are much too large and engineered now for anyone to actually stand atop a tree stump, but you get the gist.
And it’s not like there’s really anything new to say at Fancy Farm. Most folks are there as supporters for a particular candidate, and its hard to imagine the majority go with an open mind that could be swayed. In fact, Fancy Farm has become a sort of pan-generational tradition where the Good ‘Ole Boys pass on their connections and handshakes to the up and coming movers and shakers of the various political parties.
That being said, Fancy Farm is an Experience—capital E. For a state with such a diverse political climate, the small, deeply-rooted Kentucky town is the quintessential locale for such a unique tradition. Travelers with an open mind shouldn’t miss a yearly opportunity to convene with colorful characters and bombastic politicians, or to treat themselves to a good meal that’s been more than 130 years in the making.
If you go:
It will be HOT! We’re talking the first weekend in August in a Southern town, in a large field without much shade. Dress comfortably, wear good walking shoes that you don’t mind getting a bit dirty, and don’t forget sunscreen.
What it costs:
Nothing. Unless you want to eat BBQ, and you DO want to eat BBQ. Plan to bring cash with some decent variation amongst your bills, you don’t want to be the rude person in the concessions line holding 15,000 people up because you were waiting on change.
How to get there:
Its incredibly easy to make the drive down to Graves County. Take the Western Kentucky Parkway and the Purchase Parkway toward Mayfield, then up Kentucky 80 to Fancy Farm. You can also navigate by the density of political signs along the road as you drive, but that’s less precise.
If you spend the weekend:
Your best bet is to backtrack toward the State Resort Parks at the Land Between the Lakes, or book a hotel room in nearby Paducah. But, book ahead of time! Western Kentucky hotels fill up quick this weekend.