Fancy Farm Picnic. Let’s just start with the name.
The first time I heard it, with no event description, my mind drifted towards whimsy and fluff: Martha Stewart convention? Petting zoo? Dressage? Antebellum actors?
Turns out I was a little off. And when I made the trip this weekend from Louisville, I did not expect enflamed politicians shaking their fists in the air; partisan crowds engulfing each other with heckles and howls; the smell of dead pigs thicker than the humidity; and perhaps the most instructive and inimitable lesson in Kentucky politics an outsider could receive in three hours.
Fancy Farm is squeezed into the southwest corner of Kentucky. It’s removal from any urban center adds to its remoteness, its emptiness. There is, however, a uranium enrichment nearby, as well as a state penitentiary, referred to as the “Castle on the Cumberland” for its eerily ornate architecture.
Enter Fancy Farm from the east on Route 80 and you’ll see hundreds of “Team Mitch” posters, referring to Mitch McConnell, staked into the ground. The land is flatter down here. Trees are cleared for corn fields. The density of cars increase each mile closer to the event, with glinting red and blue bumper stickers signaling who the drivers will support this day.
You can smell Fancy Farm before you can see it. It’s estimated that 20,000 pounds of BBQ are prepared for the event. That’s a lot of steaming carcasses wafting through the air. I caught whiffs of it through my window pulling into the miniscule community overtaken by people. The first demonstrators were Tea Partiers, shouldering signs for the newly declared Matt Bevin, who was slated to speak later in the day.
I feared the weather would keep people away. Saturday started with fits of drizzle and low-hanging clouds. It didn’t seem to matter. Thousands flocked from all corners of the state. By 1:30 p.m., the sun was out, and the sweat was flowing.
The site itself is comprised of multiple open-air structures that have not changed in decades. Imagine permanent tents constructed of wood and plastic — ideal, perhaps, for storing tractors or farm equipment. Only now they are stuffed with people. The largest tent is lined with picnic tables upon which hundreds of people are playing bingo.
Further in, children are shrieking over other ancient games. They are attempting to throw dimes into teacups, or plastic rings around the tops of glass soda bottles.
Everything just feels old-timey — and is old-timey. Fancy Farm Picnic began in 1880, and continues, technically, as a fundraiser for the local church, St. Jerome’s Parrish. The age of the event, combined with its geographic isolation and the preaching-like nature of the political speeches, made me feel like I stumbled upon a Southern Revival of the 19th Century. Or, like something straight out of the film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Consult a map and you’ll notice how close you are to the banks of the Mississippi River.
Off to the side, in a separate auditorium, hundreds of people are waiting in line for the famous Knights of Columbus feast. I too endured the lines and was rewarded with vat upon vat of home cooking: three different types of bean dishes, piquant trays of coleslaw, fluffy wings of fried chicken, bucketfuls of barbecue, iced tea so sweet your teeth ache, and pies — tables and tables of colorful pies melting on Styrofoam plates.
I shoveled down what I could, and jumped back into the political scene.
Immediately, I was amazed at how quickly the Alison Lundergan Grimes base had solidified in such a short period. Though Team Mitch may have won the poster war on the way in, the Grimes contingency was strong. Keep in mind she had only officially kicked her campaign off on July 30.
But if you knew nothing about the Senate Race, you might have thought that Kentucky Democrats had been rallying around Grimes for months.
There was this sense among supporters that Grimes was the only person who could defeat McConnell. It made me wonder whether the Democrats genuinely believed in Grimes, or rather, if there was so much pent-up anxiety regarding who was going to run, that Democrats were just relieved to have one strong candidate, and therefore, were in a frenzied, celebratory mode.
Another undercurrent at Fancy Farm this year was the presence of James Comer’s camp. Comer, the state agriculture commissioner, had a gaggle of supporters doing laps around the venue in Comer T-shirts. Though Comer hasn’t officially declared a 2015 run for governor on the Republican side, the campaigning had already begun. Moreover, in an event that one might have thought was only about the Grimes vs. McConnell senate, other story lines — like Comer’s — couldn’t be avoided. And these came out especially in the speeches.
Yes, the barbecue is great at Fancy Farm. But in the end, you come for the 5 minute stump speeches and the reaction by the crowd.
Ferrell Wellman, the emcee of the event and host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky,” called out the speakers one by one, who were sitting on the stage behind the lectern. His introductions of the candidates introduced me to the sporting-like nature of Fancy Farm.
It was as if Wellmen was calling out the starting five players of an NBA team: “At guard, 6 feet, 6 inches, from Wilmington, N.C., and the University of North Carolina……Michaaaaeeeellll Jorrrrrrrdannnn!!!!!” But instead he was introducing nicely dressed, middle-aged politicians. It sounded more like, “And now, your Attorney General, from Louisville, Ky., and Duke University, Jaaaaaaaaccckkkkkk Connnnnnwaaaayyyyyy!!!!!”
The crowd, separated by political affiliation, went berserk each time. They goaded and jeered each other, frantically waving signs and photos. The last time I remember this intensity was sitting at the Dundee Tavern watching the University of Louisville play the University of Kentucky in basketball.
In fact, the crowd was so loud when Senator McConnell spoke, it was difficult to even hear him at times. But his message was clear, and it’s a message that we’re going to hear a lot of for the next 15 months: This election is not about Kentucky, it’s about America. McConnell spent five minutes exhorting the crowd to reelect him because he is one step away from controlling the U.S. Senate, and that means, Kentucky is one step away from having a Kentuckian controlling the Senate. McConnell kept asking the crowd whether we want to instill the U.S. with San Francisco-minded Democrat values, or Kentucky Republican values.
Grimes spoke to an equally boisterous crowd, and provided the natural counterpoint to McConnell’s argument, namely: You may be a leader in the U.S. Senate, but remind me what you’ve done for Kentucky these last 30 years you’ve been in office? How have our lives gotten any better as a result of your leadership?
Grimes is making this election as much about Kentucky, as McConnell is making it about the U.S.
How these bifurcating arguments pan out over the next year will be an interesting political study. Do Kentuckians care more about dictating the national debate, or seeing change at home?
Lastly, there was Matt Bevin, the Tea Party challenger, who, according to many, gave the most electrifying speech of the event. He presented himself as a third-party candidate with lines like: “I’m not going to run to the left of Mitch McConnell; I’m not going to run to the right of Mitch McConnell. I am going to run right over the top of Mitch McConnell.”
Other sub-plots abounded. Why did McConnell exit the stage shortly after his speech? How close is Jack Conway to announcing his run for governor on the Democratic side? Who else will fit into this run?
I anchor and discuss political stories every week on WFPL, and still, I learned more about Kentucky politics in three hours walking around Fancy Farm than I have in the 11 months that I’ve lived in Louisville.
After getting some reaction from the crowd, I began my long drive home, smelling like swine, exhausted, and stuffed with political stories I’ll be thinking about for weeks.
I’ll be discussing them at 1:30 p.m. Monday on-air at 89.3 or streaming at WFPL.org.
So no, as I’ve learned, Fancy Farm is not the whimsy and fluff I had in mind, but its raucous antithesis. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it, which means I’ll certainly be back.