From Flashbulb to Flashpoint the Attempts to Curb Fancy Farm Shout-Fests

Jul 30, 2014

Shouting crowd member during Fancy Farm 2013
Credit John Paul Henry

Organizers expect a larger than usual crowd at this weekend's Fancy Farm Picnic in Graves County. The 134 year-old event has evolved from old-timey political stump speeches to a shout-fest as spectators try to overpower the speaker.

In 1975 the Fancy Farm Picnic was a little more refined. In fact, it was quiet enough to hear a flash bulb pop during then-Presidential Candidate George Wallace’s speech. Wallace survived an assassination attempt in 1972 that left him paralyzed below the waist.

Fast forward 38 years to a tame speech from 2013 from Kentucky Congressman Ed Whitfield.

“Lets send Mitch McConnell back to the U.S. Senate and Ed Whitfield back to the House of Representatives," Whitfield said to a roaring group.

Whitfield struggled to overpower the crowd clad in matching shirts, signs and equipped with orchestrated chants.

All of those elements combined don't make it a pleasant experience for the speaker either. Here’s Congressman Whitfield just a few weeks after last year’s picnic.

"I don’t even remember being there. It’s so interesting - I sit up there and I just remove myself from being there," Whitfield said.

"I don’t remember anything anybody says or even when they’re talking. I don’t know what they are saying.”

Taking a zen-like approach to braving the Fancy Farm stage is relatively new.  

Mitch McConnell Supports dressed in matching shirts at Fancy Farm 2013.
Credit John Paul Henry
  The uniformity of the crowd and the prepared chants all come from what former Courier Journal Newspaper Columnist Al Cross calls the professionalization of Fancy Farm, which started about 25 years ago.

“Since Mitch McConnell ran for re-election in 1990, maybe even 89, when he was preparing to run, he bussed in a lot of young people. And naturally they would have similar attire and they would make signs as a group," Cross said.


Cross says a roof over the stage and spectators also kicks up the volume. So, are the speeches worth all the attention? Cross doesn’t think so. In fact, he says they might be overhyped.

“I will plead guilty and say yes, as the political writer for the Courier-Journal I was a part of giving it too much emphasis.  But you get caught up in the special nature of the event and the fact that you  have all these preliminaries before-hand," Cross said.

Cross says those preliminaries which include local party dinners and breakfasts that occur throughout this week provide the most benefit to candidates. 

And for the constituents,  without the picnic there'd be no other reason for such a high concentration of politicians in the western portion of the state which often feels neglected by political leaders. 

Fancy Farm political speaking chair Mark Wilson prefers the weekend’s biggest draw actually furthered civil discourse.

“We have a lot of guests that come from far and wide who actually want to hear what the speakers have to say and there’s been a... the last few years, it's just kind of turned into a shout-fest by the organizers of the opposite party right there and we just want try to reduce all of that if we can."

Wilson says he had a productive conference call with campaign and party leaders to cool their role in the orchestrated shouting. But, Cross says he isn't convinced.

“My guess it will be as loud and as raucous as usual," Cross said.

Tame or not, picnic organizers are calling for sunny skies this weekend, so don't forget sunscreen. They also expect around 20,000 people so you might consider ear plugs too.

WYMC in Mayfield contributed audio to this report.