CORBIN — Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.
It’s almost time for the 134th annual Fancy Farm, a unique political spectacle you can find nowhere else. The annual fundraiser for St. Jerome’s Parish in far western Kentucky is also the world’s largest picnic.
Neither statement is an embellishment. Last year, around 12,000 people descended on the little hamlet of 500 residents located 10 miles west of Mayfield. Among them were reporters from The New York Times, NBC, The Washington Post, and NPR and the usual contingent of statewide media.
As Mark Wilson, the event’s political chair, said in 2013, “I think this year is just an appetizer for next year.” Well, next year will be here on Aug. 2 and I expect the number of national media and the crowds to be even bigger, hungry for a taste of the country’s most watched election between incumbent Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes.
The spectacle of politicians trying to be heard over raucous partisan crowds is exceeded only by the quality of the food and the hospitality of good people like Greg Higdon, the Carrico Family (in charge of smoking that delicious barbecue) and the always affable, accommodating Wilson. Around 20,000 pounds of barbecued pork, mutton and chicken will be served along with locally homegrown vegetables and homemade desserts.
It’s steeped in tradition. A.B. “Happy” Chandler showed up in the 1930s, saw the political potential and began going every year. Soon politicians were speaking every year beneath an old tree which didn’t survive a lightning strike in 1974. Some interpreted that as divine displeasure. But former Gov. Louie B. Nunn explained it this way: “Too much fertilizer will kill anything.”
The tree was replaced by a covered pavilion and a speaker’s stand, and it’s all getting a major facelift this year in anticipation of national attention. The wooden stand at one end of the pavilion has been replaced by a spiffy concrete and brick structure. Wilson said there will be a larger, restricted area for the press.
But Wilson and Fancy Farm are working on a more important change.
As Nunn observed, there can be too much of a good thing. There was a time when a lone heckler in the audience could tempt a politician to interrupt his speech to engage in witty back-and-forth insults which often produced memorable lines and elevated – or diminished – a candidate’s profile.
But then the politicians began bussing in supporters who had previously rehearsed and choreographed chants and insults. They screamed in unison to drown out and discombobulate the speaker. It caught on and caught reporters’ attention who wrote about how well — or how poorly — a candidate performed in the face of screaming, apoplectic partisans. That encouraged even more of it and the political rhetoric became secondary.
It’s gotten out of hand. So Wilson and the St. Jerome clergy have asked Steve Robertson, Chair of the Republican Party of Kentucky; Dan Logsdon, Chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party; McConnell’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton; and Grimes’ father, Jerry Lundergan to have their supporters tone it down this year.
“We’re not trying to take all the fun out of it,” Wilson said, “but it’s just gotten way out of hand and we want to calm it down a little.” After all, he reminded me, it is a church picnic and fundraiser. So what has been the reaction?
“They’ve all acted pretty positive about it,” Wilson said.
Good. The media should report who cooperates and who doesn’t. No one, including the good Catholics of St. Jerome, objects to a little political hell-raising, but as Nunn observed, too much fertilizer will kill anything.