Historical Marker #1682, located in Fancy Farm, KY (Graves County) notes the longstanding and ongoing tradition of the annual Fancy Farm Picnic, a colorful political convention and cookout.
Out of the many rules of culinary etiquette, perhaps one of the most important is, “don’t mention politics at the dinner table.” But in far-west Graves County, on the first Saturday of every August, that is exactly what thousands of people congregate to do.
The annual Fancy Farm Picnic is a massive barbecue and bipartisan campaign rally held on the property of the historic St. Jerome Catholic Church, known for its flame-cooked meats and flaming political debates.
Residents carry out the barbecue supper in grand style, cooking thousands of pounds of chicken, pork, and mutton every year. The event even holds a place in the 1985 Guinness Book of World Records as the “World’s Largest Picnic,” on account of the 15,000 pounds of meat cooked that year.
As the guests eat, the event proceeds into its next phase: the political rally. Every prominent state campaigner of any party is expected to make an appearance at the Picnic to eat, socialize, and deliver vibrantly informal speeches, full of razor-sharp jibes, jabs, and quips to decorate the next day’s headlines. Speakers deliver their speeches from a covered pavilion, built in 1968 and outfitted with large white fans to stave off the late summer heat, although in decades past, speakers would simply orate from the bed of a truck parked under an old tree in front of the church building. It was often joked that “that tree heard more lies than any other tree in Kentucky,” before it was split by lightning in 1974. A silver plaque remembering the days of those old speeches now graces its stump.
It is not precisely known when the Fancy Farm Picnic began, but it is known to have roots in the early days of Kentucky. Catholic families from Maryland arrived in the area in the 1780s, most of which were directly descended from the Lord Baltimore’s settlers, who had fled from England due to religious persecution and founded the colony of Maryland in 1634. Sixty of these Catholic families signed an agreement to move to the area at the soonest possible date, with the first group departing Maryland in 1785 to establish Fancy Farm as one of the first settlements in the Jackson Purchase.
These families’ efforts resulted in a tight-knit Catholic community, centered around the St. Jerome Church, built as a log structure in 1836. The community would hold picnics during the summers, and local politicians and religious leaders would take advantage of the crowds to address voters and congregation members.
The Picnic went on hiatus during the Civil War, and was not resumed until the 1880s. Over the succeeding decades, the event grew in scale, and attracted increasingly prominent speakers. By the 1930s, the likes of U.S. senatorial hopeful A. B. “Happy” Chandler were attending. Since then, the most notable guests have included former Vice President Al Gore, Vice President Alben Barkley, and notorious segregationist George C. Wallace.
In August 2020, the Fancy Farm Picnic still went on, but the political speeches were cancelled in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.