How Fancy Farm evolved from local gathering to the most unique political speaking venue in the country

07/30/2015 12:56 PM

FANCY FARM — This Saturday marks the unofficial kickoff to the political season as one of Kentucky’s oldest political traditions, Fancy Farm takes place. But what you may not know is how this event actually evolved from a local gathering into the commonwealth’s most notable political event.

Cynthia Elder, a St. Jerome parishioner and volunteer for the Fancy Farm Picnic, says the first advertisement of the gathering was in the July 31, 1880 edition of the Mayfield Monitor.

“At that time it was advertised as a dinner and a gander pull,” Elder said. “It was just a get together, and then it turned into a homecoming through the years where families would come home and be able to see each other at picnic time.”

Back in the early days, it was a place where politicians could make their “last ditch stand.” That’s because the picnic was on the last Wednesday in July and the state primary took place was on the first Saturday in August. In 1956, the General Assembly moved the primary date to the current fourth Tuesday in May.

The tradition of statewide candidates speaking at Fancy Farm dates back to 1931 when former Gov. A.B. Happy Chandler spoke as a candidate for Lt. Governor. After winning that office, Chandler said that Fancy Farm was good luck and was a regular there most years after.

It was at that point, all serious political figures in Kentucky began to make Fancy Farm an annual stop.

Over the years, the late former congressman and vice president Alben Barkley, from nearby Wheel in Graves County, was a regular along with long time Senator John Sherman Cooper.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, then Jefferson Co. judge-executive, made his first appearance in 1984 laying the groundwork for a successful campaign against incumbent Dee Huddleston. U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, the Democratic nominee for vice president visited in 1988, as did Tennessee Senator Al Gore who came to Fancy Farm in 1992.

Mark Wilson, longtime chairman of the political speaking committee at Fancy Farm says that there’s an art to speaking there with half of the crowd cheering and the other half heckling.

“You have to have, what I call down home country style stump speaking oratorical skills for lack of better terminology,” Wilson said. “I’ll tell ya, a lot of our better speakers tend to come from the eastern Kentucky area…A lot of our old eastern Kentucky boys know how to do old country style stump speaking.”

Wilson said that one of the best at it was the late U.S. Senator Wendell Ford.

“I kind of equate Wendell in NASCAR terms, he was kind of the Dale Earnhardt of politics,” Wilson said. “If you come here, you wanted to hear what “give ‘em hell” Wendell Ford had to say.”

“Wendell knew how to handle the crowd. If there were some hecklers out there, he would get after them.”

In 1986, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jackson Andrews gave what many consider to be the longest and most boring speech in Fancy Farm history.

Andrews spoke for 37 minutes and read every word in his 20-page speech, ignoring boos and shouts to “sit down and shut up” even from members of his own party.

The following year, candidates were given a time limit.


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