On a hot August Saturday morning in rural western Kentucky, hundreds if not thousands of people gather under and around a pavilion where a stage is lined with some of the state’s most recognizable faces. Recognizable, at least, if you follow Kentucky politics. 

Matt Bevin, Andy Beshear, James Comer, Heather French Henry, Mike Adams. They sit side-by-side in a line on the elevated platform, Democrats on the left, Republicans on the right.

Similarly, the Kentuckians who crowd around the covered stage self-segregate by party affiliation, some waving campaign signs, others proudly wearing their chosen candidates’ names across their chests. On stage stands Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell.

“My opponent, Amy McGaff… oh, I mean Amy McGrath… she sends her regrets, she’s still working on her answer about Brett Kavanaugh with her friends at MSNBC,” he said to the crowd with a smirk on his face.

An attendee of Fancy Farm holds a sign outside protesting Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell at the 2019 picnic. Photo: Liz Carey/100 Days in Appalachia

Less than 200 feet away, voters in Russian Cossack hats chant “Ditch Moscow Mitch! Ditch Moscow Mitch!” in an attempt to drown out his comments. Nearby, another group of attendees in red MAGA hats yell back “Four more years! Four more years!”

This is Fancy Farm, Kentucky, an unincorporated town with a population of less than 500. Situated near the Illinois, Missouri and Tennessee borders, the town has one main road with seven streets that intersect it. In the middle, St. Jerome Catholic Church sits on a sprawling campus.

And that is the site of the annual picnic, named after the town, that attracts as many as 10,000 to 15,000 Kentuckians who watch in close proximity as candidates for the state’s top political offices jab at their opponents while children play on the church’s sprawling lawns and the smell of what attendees say is Kentucky’s best-barbecued mutton fills the air.

From Tree Stumps to Live TV

Born of stump speeches and small-town community gatherings, St. Jerome Catholic Church’s Fancy Farm Picnic has a long, storied history in Kentucky politics and is considered by many the kick-off of the state’s election season. It’s billed as the world’s largest single-day picnic, where crowds gather as much for the political theater as they do the 19,000 pounds of barbeque sold during the one-day gathering.

A testament to a large Catholic community there since the mid-1800s, St. Jermone began holding their annual picnic in 1880 as a fundraiser for its parochial school. Back then, a notice in the local paper described a gathering with “a barn dance, picnic and ‘gander pulling’ at Fancy Farm next Thursday. Those that have never seen the latter should turn out on this occasion. It will be interesting.”

Fancy Farm attendees gather outside a pavilion at the 139th event this year. Photo: Liz Carey/100 Days in Appalachia

Within a few years though, the ‘gander pulling’ gave way to politicking when the event began to host candidates for office. At the time, statewide elections were held in August, national elections in November, and the Fancy Farm picnic was seen as a last-ditch effort for politicians to get western Kentucky voters out to the polls. 

“It’s been going on so long that most people schedule their family reunions around it,” said Melanie Rogers, a resident of nearby Milburn. 

In the past, politicians stood on the stump of an old oak tree by the banks of a cool spring to speak to the few that gathered. Today, the event has grown so large and so notable, it can draw in hordes of reporters from across the country and is broadcast live on Kentucky’s public broadcasting station. 

Politicians from the humble to the horrible have spoken at the event, from governors to presidents. Speakers have included U.S. Senators like Alben Barkley, as well as Kentucky Governors like AB “Happy” Chandler and John Y. Brown, Jr. and presidential candidates including George Wallace and Bill Clinton. 

Beyond the central pavilion, the church’s festival takes center stage, where volunteers sell mutton and pork barbecue, lemonade, SunDrop soda, fresh churned ice cream and kettle corn. In the middle of the festival, a bingo game and lottery pull-tabs take center stage – never stopping, not even for the national anthem.

Sam Higdon calls the numbers during the bingo game at the Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky, in August 2018. Photo: AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

Red State, Blue State

Now in its 139th year, Fancy Farm shows the complexity and diversity of a rural red state, where politics are handled through hand-to-hand contact instead of verbal volleys thrown from behind a podium. On stage, the political arrows come fast and furiously. 

“I’m the only candidate in this race with roots in western Kentucky,” Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat, said of his opponent for governor, incumbent Matt Bevin. “Oh wait; I’m the only candidate in this race with any roots in Kentucky.” 

Bevin didn’t hold back either during his turn at the microphone. 

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin stops to speak with attendees at the August 2019 event. Photo: Liz Carey/100 Days in Appalachia

“You talk about collusion,” Bevin said. “The only collusion that has ever ever happened in Kentucky is the collusion between this attorney general…and all the [previous attorneys general] and the abortion industry in Kentucky.”  

“I just want to know what it’s like to run along with the least popular governor in the country?” Beshear’s running mate for lieutenant governor, Jaqueline Coleman, a Kentucky teacher, asked Bevin’s running mate during her speech. All the while, the politically segregated crowd jeers at those the target of their chosen politicians advances.

“I like to keep mine as like a little jab in the stomach – like the way you would treat a family member,” Mike Harmon, the Republican candidate for state Auditor, said. But for him, the event is not just about throwing verbal punches at his political rivals; it’s a chance to talk one-on-one with constituents while possibly grabbing local, statewide and national headlines.

“Fancy Farm … gives an opportunity to have not only a stage that is covered here locally, but is also covered nationally,” Harmon said. “I just think it’s such great fun to be here. I thrive on it. I love getting out and meeting people and I love getting up on stage.”

In some years, like 2019, Fancy Farm garners national attention. Because races could turn Kentucky from “red” to “blue,” reporters from the New York Times, the Washington Post and Rolling Stone joined those from local television stations and the local papers.

Kentucky has been considered a red state since 1956, although it did swing for Democratic presidential candidates Johnson, Carter and Clinton. More than 50 percent of the state is registered Democrat, however, and with a population of 4.48 million people, more than half of the state’s counties have a population density of 50 people per square mile or fewer. 

One of the poorest states in the country, more than 20 percent of its population is on Medicaid. Rural and poor voters in the state, however, tend to vote Republican regardless of their party affiliation, supporting candidates who say they will defend the coal industry, limit abortion, crack down on immigration and provide them with healthcare.

Up Close and Personal

Democrats wave Russian flags as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., addresses the audience gathered at the Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky, in August 2019. Photo: AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

Around noon at this year’s gathering, attendees began to gather. By 1 p.m., the crowd, oftentimes seeded with campaign volunteers bused in by candidates and party officials, began yelling campaign messages back and forth. Around 2, a group of Beshear supporters in bright blue t-shirts paraded through the pavilion and not long after, a group of McConnell supporters paraded through wearing judicial robes and holding pictures of Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s face.

For Mallorie Burcz, who works in the horse industry, Fancy Farm represents the best of politics, where voters get a chance to say what they feel directly to the people vying for their votes.

“The fact that people are allowed to boo and speak their mind?” Burcz said. “It’s like you can actually say how you feel, which I feel like a lot of times you can’t do.”

“It’s an experience,” said Landon Rafferty, who will head to the University of Kentucky soon to begin studying political science. 

And that experience is what’s kept thousands of Kentuckians coming back year after year– the closeness to the people in power who are appealing directly to you, shaking your hand. Well that, and Kentucky’s best barbeque mutton.

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This article was originally published by 100 Days in Appalachia, a nonprofit, collaborative newsroom telling the complex stories of the region that deserve to be heard. Sign up for their weekly newsletter here.