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Passionate about the picnic: 'Pie ladies' love their sweet job

BY GENEVIEVE POSTLETHWAITgpostlethwait@paducahsun.com

For Joyce Wilson and Linda Spalding, "the pie ladies" of the annual St. Jerome's Fancy Farm Picnic, the Saturday before the biggest Saturday of the year got off to an early start.

Wilson was working in her garden before 7 a.m., and Spalding arrived soon after. Together they picked yet another batch of pink-eyed purple-hulled peas, all for next Saturday's event. The two septuagenarian friends have served as co-chairs of the Pie Cutters for well over 25 Fancy Farm Picnics, billed as the largest one-day picnic in the world.

"Now don't get me wrong, we don't bake all those pies!" Wilson said. "I love to grow a garden. That's my thing. And what's the use of having it if you can't share it with someone?"

In Fancy Farm, it's understood that every family in St. Jerome parish is expected to contribute whatever they can for the picnic feast, including pies, cakes and fresh vegetables like Wilson's peas. If you can't bake pies, Wilson said, you buy them - at least three per family. As a community they will serve up fried chicken, barbecue pork and mutton, homemade slaw and potato salad, homegrown vegetables including corn, green beans, butter beans, tomatoes and onions.

And of course, your choice of pie.

Sitting in the shade of Wilson's garage between her breezeway and garden, Wilson and Spalding spent the late morning Saturday shelling the piles of peas they'd picked, telling stories of Fancy Farm Picnics past and, on more than one occasion, finishing each other's sentences and speaking in unison.

"We were at the final picnic meeting the other night, and she and I were the oldest people there," Wilson said. "But that's all right!" she and Spalding said at the same time.

The women said that everyone with any connection to Fancy Farm seems to make it to town for the picnic almost every year, for fun and for work. To Wilson and Spalding, and most of the Fancy Farm community it seems, fun and work are one and the same when it comes to the picnic.

Both women have been working the picnic in some capacity since they were young children. Wilson started out working her aunt's cake walk that once stood where the bingo tables now stand. Spalding's first picnic gig was helping out with a booth for kids that involved knocking over teddy bears. If the kids knocked over a certain number of bears, she said, they'd get a cigar.

"I thought that was the most ridiculous thing I'd ever seen," Spalding said. "I thought, well why don't you give them a candy bar? But when kids got a cigar, they thought that was something."

Little things like the games and booths have changed, but Wilson and Spalding insist that the picnic is about the same as it's always been. It's just gotten bigger. The women are well aware that this year's picnic will be one of their biggest ever, with 20,000 people or more expected to descend on Fancy Farm to hear Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, among others, speak.

They likely won't hear the speeches, however, and rarely do. They'll be busy handling the pies.

Starting early once again next Saturday, Wilson and Spalding will lead about 15 others in accepting, organizing, cutting, refrigerating and serving (hopefully) enough pies to feed the thousands of pie-loving picnic-goers. After so many years of manning the table together, the two friends aren't intimidated by the work, the crowd or the big-name politicians.

One year, then-Kentucky Governor John Y. Brown and his then-wife and former Miss America Phyllis George made a visit to the picnic, and George made several visits to Wilson and s pie table.

"She came over, picked up a piece of pie, and then actually put her nose on that piece of pie!" Wilson said. "When she saw something else, she put it down for some other poor soul to pick up, and she walked away. Miss America, I saw that."

Wilson said she picked up the nose-indented pie and put it in the trash.

Under the watch of these two women, all of the pies - coconut, chocolate, pecan, cherry cheesecake, lemon meringue, chess and more - are in very good hands.

"Linda, she's my right hand, and I'm hers," Wilson said.

"We're both the same age, but she can work circles around me. And I'm no slouch. We're going to work till we can't wiggle no more."

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