Editor's Log: Church Picnic Season Is Upon Us
Polkadate May 2019. Growing up in Schulenburg this writer was a triple minority (Methodist, Celtic, left-handed); at least when it came to celebrations. It wasn’t until a driver’s license and a ’55 Chevy were procured that the world of church picnics landed in my life. After that Central Texas took on a whole new viewpoint.
The Church Picnic (CP) season is upon us. Over the years, the terminology of these family/friend reunion and fund-raising functions has varied. Wikipedia defines the word picnic as “a meal taken outdoors (al fresco) as part of an excursion – ideally in scenic surroundings, such as a park, lakeside, or other place affording an interesting view, or else in conjunction with a public event such as preceding an open-air theatre performance, and usually in summer.”
This is a fairly accurate description of the numerous events occurring in Central Texas in the upcoming months. An even more accurate updated description is found in Donnie Hon’s Church Picnic Polka that is occasionally performed by the Dujka Brothers and Donnie at various picnics. The rollicking polka tells of a young man asking a fair young lady out for a date in the springtime. She replies, “Okay boy, but this date will last all summer.” The song takes off and follows the couple attending picnics far and wide, celebrating the dancing, music, food, and fun that is to be had at a church picnic.
Depending upon who wrote the advertisement, CPs have been billed as “Picnic”, “Church Picnic”, “Church Feast”, “Church Picnic and Bazaar”, and this writer’s favorite, “Bazaar.” (I use to confuse it with the word “bizarre.”) The CP is generally held on the Sunday nearest the day of observance of a particular saint that the church is associated with and as most people are aware of, there are two exceptions, Praha (always Aug. 15) and St. John always July 4). More about Praha later.
The majority of CPs are Catholic, however every church has a public fundraising function. They all include a meal and generally homemade items, ranging from pickles to handicrafts, to sell in order to raise money for local programs that don’t always fall under the financial umbrella of the normal tithing.
FAMILY, FRIENDS, MEMORIES
In communities across Texas and neighborhoods in larger cities, the church has been the focal point of the community for many generations. A CP being consistently held at a certain time period allows for folks who have moved away to plan a return to their native region where they will meet with up with family, friends, and memories. The opportunity to participate (work) at the picnics to raise money for their home parish is always readily available.
The smaller the parish, the larger the picnic it seems to the thankless, unpaid organizers; as it becomes difficult to find workers to staff the ball throw, train rides, parking, dunking booths, preparation, clean-up, etc. The volunteer shortage has made the picnic amusements, in particular, an iffy situation (e.g., can’t find anyone to work the fishpond.) Some of the more diligent volunteers make it a family tradition (e.g., for several generations, we have always worked the ticket booth or made the cole slaw). Bless Them.
For some people, the CP starts long before the doors to the church opens at the end of Mass or service and the crowd spills forth to get into the dinner line (before beer sales are allowed). Dozens of parishioners have been cleaning the hall and grounds, preparing the food and serving lines (try preparing 5,000+ plates in an hour and a half), getting all the amusements in working order, getting the electrical ready for the music and auction, troubleshooting issues (where did the trash bags go from last year?), ensuring enough restroom facilities, and countless other chores that have to be in place by 11 am.
There are several parishes, Plum comes to mind, where for months hogs were fed and cared for by parishioners. Then several days prior to the picnic, the process of converting them into fresh, unfrozen sausage links begins and continues around the clock until it’s time to eat and sell bulk the day of the picnic (last Sunday in June). Many others are getting the fires going the night before to barbecue meat and others are arriving before sunrise preparing chickens for frying. During the morning, huge crocks of iced tea are being brewed; and potatoes, beans, peaches by the barrel full are being prepared. These folks have it down to a science on how to feed over 5,000 people in a short time span. (Wonder how many gallons of good water and pounds of sugar for the sweet tea are needed?)
After the food is consumed and while the kitchen is cleaned, and the hall is being prepared for Bingo, the visitors are sitting around picking their teeth (good picnics supply toothpicks), and listenging to the music. It has been said that a picnic’s first band has always been a brass band as it brings back the memories for the older attendees, is of the patriotic vein, and its sound drives away the post-stomach stuffing doldrums.
In the “Old Days” (late 1800s to mid-1900s) most communities and some parishes had their own bands that provided the music, e.g. Moulton, Louise, Moravia, and Engle. The Baca and Bartos family orchestras had band arrangements to play brass music early in the day and then the same musicians switched to dance music (polkas and waltzes) for the evening. Dancing was originally performed on wooden platforms, some temporary, some permanent. As the parishes prospered, they constructed pavilions or halls for the dancing.
After the brass music, the dance music kicks off, the majority of the style is “old time” meaning polkas and waltzes; this is when grandparents grab their grandchildren and try to get in a few dance lessons before the kids “have to head back to the city.”
BOY MEETS GIRL
The dancing provided not only fun, but a method where a girl and a guy could meet, as the mostly agricultural lifestyle of the early days demanded days of (sunup to sun-down) labor or a combination of farm labor before and after schooling for all family members leaving little time for socializing with the neighbors. The CPs also provided a time for the adults to “network” with each other, both for friendship and daily needs, such as finding who had a pasture for rent, or how well a certain piece of farm machinery might perform. There was also the thrill of winning five pounds of flour or sugar at the Bingo. Two major CP events that have gone by the wayside are political speeches and baseball games. In 1960, the St. John Church picnic, featured a baseball game between Moulton and St. John, during which the George Machart Orchestra played in the pavilion (beer, 20 cents and the meal, a dollar).
Now we get to the bazaar portion. This is where funds are raised by selling generally homemade items and souvenirs. It’s always worth a stop by the now “General Store” to see if someone has donated some truly unique handmade embroidery and artwork. From time to time during the year, some churches would have a bazaar in addition to the annual CP. The church auction is the major money-maker of the picnic. Interested people donate everything from jars of pickles to cattle feed. Back in the day, the Fall CPs would auction off a bale or three of cotton in addition to other items. The auction’s big items are now calves and handmade quilts with hundreds of other items testing the auctioneer’s voice.
ROAD TO PRAHA
Very few folks refer to the St. Mary’s Pražká Pout CP with that title. It has simply become universally known as "Praha", as in “are you going to make Praha?” This unique function is always held on the exact day of St. Mary’s feast on Aug. 15. This year it will be on a Thursday, and this writer guarantees that there will be 10 acres of Czechs on the six acres of the parish grounds (wild guess).
At the 2018 picnic, 6,830 meals were served. And for those of you who are curious, the picnic grossed $216,414 and netted $169,414. $19,773 dollars of beer was sold (you know who you are). These figures are from the church website which has published the report from the picnic. While perusing in-kind donations, one gets an eyeful of the “etc.” that was mentioned above on what it takes to put on a picnic, e.g., printing of hand-fans for the auction, tarps and tents for shade, a dumpster, 7,000 napkins, water-cooling fans, ice truck with fuel, food for the workers, a refrigerated truck for keeping the food fresh, a sound system, tickets, and septic system trucks make up a short list of what it takes for a successful picnic. This writer’s favorite donation was from the Chaloupka Dairy: all the milk needed for making the batter for the fried chicken to serve 7,000. So that’s why it’s so tasty.
Once the last item is sold, and the last dance is danced, the real fun starts for the volunteers: clean up and repair. As you’re headed home, the volunteers sweep and mop the floors and restrooms, clean and store, for next time, all the kitchen and grounds (amusements) equipment, then sit down and figure out the financial side and decide if you yourself had a good time and are ready to do it again in 11 months and 20 something days. It must be worth it for the volunteers (some volunteers work two CPs), most CPs are over 100 years old and a few over 150 years.
PICNICS IN 1936
In 1936, October was a busy month for CPs. The cotton was picked and the temperatures were a little cooler. Buckholts had an early Mass with the picnic and bazaar held on the school grounds at Marak. A chicken and sausage dinner and supper were served. Four bales of cotton were auctioned for 30 cents a pound along with other beautiful articles. Bingo was played all afternoon and night. A platform was built close to the school for the dance given that night. The local boys and girls danced the Czech Beseda in native costumes.
The Shiner Parish had its picnic and bazaar at Bluescher Park with tables “filled with delicious foods.” Amusements on the grounds were the Beano stand and good music supplied by Patek’s Band. Total receipts were $1,435.16. Beano was an early name for Bingo, played the same way utilizing a cigar box with numbered tokens inside and beans for markers on the card.
Frenstat had its bazaar on Wednesday despite the rain. East Bernard had a bazaar on Columbus Day, and the parish treasury was enriched by $1,800, with $850 coming from the sale of seven bales of cotton at 34 cents a pound, and a chance to win a Buick. Richmond’s Sacred Heart Church held a bazaar and netted $624. Rosenberg’s Holy Rosary Parish picnic and bazaar was a huge success “with crowds so thick that you had to push your way through.” Many attractive booths with beautiful prizes were present so that the affair took on the atmosphere of a carnival. Three bales of cotton were sold at 18 cents a pound. A total of $1,300 was raised. Beasley, had its picnic and bazaar with services being held in the church and the picnic on the L.A. Bushnell property. It was well attended with Baca’s New Deal Orchestra stopping by, and the Krenek Orchestra of Orchard played day and night.
Hallettsville Sacred Heart Parish Picnic and Bazaar was held at the American Legion Park with a sumptuous dinner served at 11:30 “for a nominal fee.” In West, the picnic and bazaar was held on a Thursday with dinner and supper, speakers, and an auction of cotton and other articles. This writer is unsure of the intent but the ad says that “St. Joseph’s Hall will be given away at 4 pm.” Kohut’s Orchestra played for the dance that night. (You can multiply any of the dollar amounts by 18 to get amount raised in today's dollars.)
Over in Goose Creek (now Baytown), the picnic and bazaar were held with BBQ available all day and booths with “fancy work,” food, cake, ice cream, and candy for sale were erected, along with Bingo and a fortune wheel. In Sweet Home during this time the Wagon Wheel Tavern did double duty as a drinking/ dancing venue and the community center for large gatherings. The Catholic church held its picnic and bazaar with the very best dinner and supper, drinks, etc. The county judge gave a speech on the “Latest In Politics” and the priest talked about his trip to Europe. The same day the Cuero 4th annual, all-day picnic, carnival, and dance was held in the new Cuero Municipal Park. It billed itself as the Biggest Church Picnic in South Texas.
The is just a sampling of the many CPs that have entertained and kept the church programs, from building funds to youth programs, in action and serving the community. Please see the Texas Polka News Summer Festival Guide (March 2019) and the monthly Church Picnic listing in the Texas Polka News so you may support and maybe even volunteer at the next picnic. Also please thank any and all volunteers you encounter at the picnics.