Emcee Embraces the History of Fancy Farm

by John Gregory | 08/02/14 7:00 AM

The experience won't be totally unfamiliar when Bill Cunningham takes the stage at St. Jerome Parish today to emcee the Fancy Farm political speeches. The western Kentucky native spoke on that very stage eight years ago when he was a candidate for the Kentucky Supreme Court. So Justice Cunningham knows what it's like to face the traditionally boisterous Fancy Farm crowd.

"It is intimidating," Cunningham says, "and yet you also feel this grand sweep of political history... if you've walked across and talked on that stage."

Organizers of the annual political picnic invited Cunningham to serve as emcee this year, which is expected to draw the largest crowd in the event’s 134-year history. Cunningham says he met with Mark Wilson, chairman of the picnic, and Rev. Darrell Venters of St. Jerome Parrish as well as law enforcement to discuss how to manage crowd noise during the speeches.

Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham. (Photo courtesy of Administrative Office of the Courts)

Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham.
(Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts)

"Our main goal is to make sure it remains a fun-filled political picnic with all the good-natured razzing without interfering with the speakers," says Cunningham. "The right to speak includes the right to be heard."

Cunningham lives in Kuttawa and has written several books about western Kentucky history, including titles exploring the Black Patch tobacco wars and the state penitentiary at Eddyville. He says when Fancy Farm started, the Jackson Purchase area of the state voted solidly Democratic. In those days Fancy Farm was just ahead of the Kentucky Democratic primary, so the event was crucial to party candidates from governor down to local county judges. But Cunningham says state officials later moved the primary back to May to give the different Democratic factions time to heal before taking on Republicans in the November general election.

A Political Field of Dreams
"Of course the overriding recollection of almost everyone who attends is the heat. It seems like it is always the hottest day of the year," Cunningham explains of traditional picnic date on the first Saturday in August. "My fondest recollections are of those old pols like [Gov. Happy] Chandler and [Sen. Wendell] Ford and [Gov.] Julian Carroll who appreciated the theater of the event and kept it light hearted.”

Another aspect of the picnic, according to Cunningham, is the bucolic nature of Fancy Farm, which he calls a political "field of dreams. It sits in picture-perfect rolling green hills and bountiful crops: corn, tobacco, and soybeans. And then the town itself looks like something of a bygone era when people didn't have to lock their doors, always waved to each other on the road, and consider politeness and civility paramount."

Cunningham says western Kentuckians view the picnic as their version of the Kentucky Derby or a University of Kentucky basketball game. It's the one event for his region that draws people from across the entire state.

"When you get right down to it, Fancy Farm picnic is huge for west Kentucky because we are exhibiting Fancy Farm the town and its people as, 'This is the best we have to offer, and isn't it something!'"