SUNDAY SCHOOL PICNICS
Published in the Sunday Journal Gazette
SUNDAY SCHOOL PICNICS DREW THE COUNTRYSIDE
By Forest J. McComb
My father and a group of volunteer workers stopped work and surveyed what had been accomplished. It was late in the afternoon, and the August sun setting in a blaze of glory, gave promise of a fine day to follow. This was the day set – the first Saturday in August – for our annual Sunday School Picnic, and my father was superintendent.
“I believe that’s all we can do today,” father said, and the group agreed. “I want you girls,” he motioned to several, “to trim the stage in the morning. You three boys, haul the organ from the church.” Thus he parceled out the tasks still to be done.
The grove, one half mile from the church, was ready. Every fallen limb was picked and burned. The stage setup for the occasion, consisted of three flat-bottom hayracks set on timbers, and against a large tree for a background. The refreshment stand was a counter enclosure built around more wagons. It’d give room for the workers, serving the multitude of visitors wanting to sample the wares piled on the wagons. These items, not available every day to simple country folk, would be stocked in abundance for the picnic. There’d be candy, ice cream, soda pop, chewing gum, bananas, peaches, watermelons and about every desirable object one could wish.
It was a large grove, but only five or six acres along the highway would be used for the picnic. While the automobile had made an appearance, it hadn’t yet changed “our way of life” and this was still the “horse and buggy” days. These rural folk were used to making their own entertainment, and these picnics were their greatest endeavor. In fact, the need for socializing was so strong that even the threshing-machine was stopped on that day.
The stalwarts of the church gathered early at the picnic ground, and the squirrels and birds, used to the quiet grove, receded farther back into the woods. But the green foliage remained on the trees, to rustle in the breeze and cast shade for the many humans enjoying its texture for a day.
The young ladies trimmed the stage. Rugs were put down on the hayracks for a temporary floor, the American flag hung from a tree, and reams of red, white and blue bunting draped the stage posts and background. The young men hauled in the organ, and the groceries for the stand. A special wagon from an ice cream company brought the ice and ice cream for the day, and the melons and pop were quickly put in cold water.
Folks began to arrive in single buggies and carriages. The horses were unhitched and tied to trees farther back in the woods. Everyone brought their own horse feed, and there was much nickering back and forth among the strange horses.
The picnic marshals, two young men on horseback elected for the day, were ready. They wore red sashes over a shoulder, one right and one left, then across the chest and around the waist, to be tied there in a bow with the tassels hanging to the knee. The well-groomed horses were decorated with small flags and brilliant colored cut crepe-paper along the bridles, reins and martingales. The first duty of the marshals, was to ride out and properly escort visiting schools into the picnic grounds.
They were kept quite busy at this for awhile, as schools were coming from both left and right. First would appear their marshals on horseback, then, one or more picnic wagons accommodating their young folks classes, and behind them as many buggies and carriages as it took to haul the older folk.
The picnic wagons were simply farm wagons with temporary tops. The wagons were highly decorated with flags and strips of bunting, and in case of a large load were often pulled by four head of horses. When they came into the picnic grounds, escorted by the four marshals, and to the music of the band, they were a very impressive sight, and quickly helped set the joyful mood of the picnic.
Each Sunday School brought their banner. These were about two and one half by five feet in size, made of various colors of silk fastened to an eight foot staff, and giving the name and denomination of the school, Methodist, United Brethren, Baptist, and one Salem Reformed school were all represented. The banners were fastened to the trees close to the stage. In addition, our school loaned chairs to St. Vincent Catholic Church for their picnic, and we borrowed their tables. All this was a fine example of neighborliness and Christian unity.
Besides the various schools in attendance, the entire country-side turned out for the picnic regardless of whether they belonged to a Sunday School or not.
The band entertained the crowd in the forenoon, while folks met their friends, talked weather, crops, and politics, or told favorite jokes. Many more, especially children crowded the stands with coins in hand, anxious to sample the wares.
When noon came, sometimes, the women spread the basket dinners out in one long picnic dinner. Or relatives and close friends, anxious to visit, might choose their ground and break up in a group, but anyone happening along was welcome to a bite to eat.
In the afternoon, events at the stage were added. Anyone proficient with a musical instrument was given a spot on the program and visiting schools presented group singing. In front of the stage planks were placed across timbers, providing interested ones a place to sit and enjoy the entertainment. Good speakers were available in the ministers, lawyers from Fort Wayne, or candidates for public office. No electioneering was allowed, but it was a good place for an aspiring candidate to choose a subject and get his name before the public.
The picnic was also a great place for boy to meet girl. They were dressed in their best and on their good behavior. Many a romance blossomed here to culminate later in marriage.
The band, taking over following the state events, set up close to the stand. Folks could patronize the stand and hear the music, or move farther away and visit. It was a long summer day, and the picnic didn’t break up until the sun was setting. The picnic accomplished two things. It furnished a happy day for those in attendance and it made a little money for the church.
These were our ancestors, happy in the making of their own entertainment. True, they lacked much we have today. For instance, they couldn’t step on the gas and leap into the next county, or twist the dial and tune in a radio or TV program. They had better than that – they had each other! For top social performance, man’s fellowship with man is the most satisfying and hard to beat.
Besides picnics, there were weddings, barn raisings, school activities, harvesting the crops, and sickness and death to be shared. Many great friendships were built up among families (not blood relatives) that have endured over the years.
And things for them were in pretty good balance. Hogs were six cents a pound, wheat, one dollar a bushel, and ice cream sodas were five cents apiece. There was no threat of war, at the time, and no Federal Income Tax!
It’s a fact that when we “gain something” we also must “lose something” and the old Sunday School Picnic seems lost to us forever.
P.S. The picnic described was by the Sunday School of the United Brethren Church located in Perry Township, Allen County, eight miles north of Fort Wayne on U. S. Highway 27.