The last week of my internship at the Lexington Herald-Leader wasn't phenomenal, but still interesting. I helped cover a gas leak at UK, a tractor-trailer getting stuck under an overpass and drove to the scene of a shooting in the middle of the night that supposedly didn't happen. Thankfully, this weekend I was able to travel down to a small town south of Paducah called Fancy Farm for an annual political picnic.
Despite taking place in the middle of nowhere, people and news organizations from all over flocked to Kentucky for coverage of the picnic. This year was the biggest picnic in its 134-year history with 20,000 attendants.
The Fancy Farm picnic is a political gathering where several Kentucky politicians deliver speeches. These are not ordinary speeches. They are given in a bold, brash, no holds barred fashion. There is no mercy. All this is done in a small open shelter where spectators yell at and occasionally heckle the orators.
It was my first time going so I had pretty big expectations.
Once I pulled into the small church parking lot where the event was held around 10 a.m., I was immediately overwhelmed with how many people there were. Red and blue shirts donning political affiliations dotted the ever-growing crowd. Light country music provided background as kids played ring toss while their parents lined up to get a taste of the world famous barbeque the picnic is known for. People sat in a small shed in the middle of the church's expansive backyard while playing a rousing game of BINGO. And of course, you had the occasional person who dressed up in an over-patriotic red, white and blue suit with a witty picket sign to go along with it.
As one of the reporters I was working with put it, it truly was a slice of Americana.
Usually a nationally covered event, this time the picnic received international focus because of the senate race between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, one of the most prominent elections in the nation this year.
As I walked around the church grounds, watching friendly taunting from both sides of the political spectrum like a tailgate before a football game, I ran into many of my friends from WKU and even a faculty member. I was pretty shocked to see them there and it was at that moment I realized this was a pretty big deal. They all seemed so passionate and filled with the spirit of politics. When the time came, I unfolded my lawn chair that I was instructed to bring days in advance by an experienced reporter, sat down and waited for the show to begin.
The crowd erupted in both cheers and jeers as politicians like Sen. Rand Paul and Gov. Steve Beshear walked onto the stage. Beshear didn't waste any time getting into the Fancy Farm mood by going straight at McConnell after taking a picture with him.
"I just had to get one last photo of the senator before Kentucky voters retire him in November," he said.
Although I was behind the stage where the speeches took place, I was able to see and hear the rowdy reaction of the masses of hundreds, if not thousands of people. Despite the reputation it gets for being an unforgiving, unfiltered, barrage of madness, most of the crowd taunted quite civilly.
No one was safe during the fiery lectures. President Barack Obama, Democrats, Republicans, career politicians, The New York Times, "outsiders." All were insulted or mocked in one fashion or another. The only ones safe from scorn were, of course, Kentucky citizens.
The speeches lasted for about three hours in total. Everyone began to pack up and leave once the big-wig politicians were replaced by their local, lesser-known counterparts. Those that left early missed out as some of the locals still packed a punch.
As I left the town of about 500 to head back to Paducah where I was spending the night, I still couldn't believe that such an event got so much media attention. I can only imagine the headaches and stresses that this small community goes through when preparing for a crowd 30 to 40 times its size every year. The picnic has been going on for so long that there is no doubt in my mind that they've nailed it down to an exact science, but the thought still boggles me.
All in all, it was a spectacular event. The four-hour drive was worth it. Standing in 90-degree weather in a button down with a t-shirt underneath and khakis was worth it. Dealing with spotty wi-fi while trying to upload the video I was assigned to do was worth it. My only regret was that I didn't come years sooner.