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Ray County icon Alexander Doniphan spoke at 1874 Lawson Picnic

Attorney, veteran and  protector of  Mormon settlers Alexander Doniphan made his last public speech at the 1874 Lawson Picnic.

Attorney, veteran and
protector of
Mormon settlers Alexander Doniphan made his last public speech at the 1874 Lawson Picnic.

By Linda Emley

One day I was at the Enchanted Frog in Lathrop and I decided to swing through Lawson on my way back to Richmond. It was getting close to lunchtime so I called my Lawson friend Lisa Smalley, and we met in downtown Lawson. We visited the Lawson Review so I could see the paper’s collection of old newspapers and then headed across the street to have lunch at Catrick’s Café. I hadn’t been in Lawson for years, but I felt right at home because that’s the way it is in Lawson.

This week is the annual Lawson Picnic and I thought it would be fun to share a few stories from the past of this wonderful local event. Everyone claims that 1902 was the year that it all started, but I found an interesting story about an earlier Lawson Picnic that dates before 1902.

There was a Lawson Centennial Book printed in 1971, and it has a two-page story about the Lawson Picnic. It says that one of the earliest Lawson picnic was in 1874, and it was at this event that Alexander Doniphan made his last public speech for the benefit of the Democratic Party. Doniphan would have been 66 years old and living alone in Richmond in 1874 because his wife had died the previous year. It would be another 22 years, however, before the first picnic sponsored by the International Order of Odd Fellows lodge would take place in 1902.

The I.O.O.F. lodge chose a different town every year for its annual picnic, and Lawson happened to be the town of choice in 1902. Two railroads went through Lawson, which would make it easier for people in other towns to attend the picnic. Children from the Odd Fellows home in Liberty rode the train to Lawson and got to enjoy the day with the people of Lawson. The first year was such a success that plans were made for another picnic in 1903, and the legendary Lawson Picnic became the longest-running picnic in Ray’s history.

Some of the events in the early years were baseball games with other local town teams, barnstorming airplane shows, $10 airplane rides over Lawson, games for the children, a prettiest baby contest, speeches from politicians and a basket lunch.

One of the more memorable picnics was on Aug. 16, 1905. The day started out well because all the local Odd Fellows put on their uniforms and marched from the lodge hall to the picnic grounds. They were lined up four abreast, each with his right hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him. It was an impressive sight when Odd Fellows performed the drills that they had been practicing for many weeks. Around mid-afternoon, the skies started turning gray and the hot air felt like a heavy blanket on the crowd. Everyone started packing up but the storm broke around 4 p.m. The high winds blew and a rain poured down that blinded man and beast. Buggies were blown into fencerows and building were flattened. Every man, women and child ran for cover, and many ended up in strangers’ houses cold and wet. Despite the muddy mess, 1905 was the first year that the I.O.O.F. lodge made money on the Lawson Picnic.

On Aug. 9, 1922, the 20th annual picnic was bigger and better than ever. The Lawson Review shared the following account. “Another success picnic has been added to Lawson’s long record of entertaining its friends in a truly delightful manner. Not a thing happened on Wednesday to mar the picnic. The weather was fine, there were no accidents and the crowd was large and out for a good time, and a thoroughly enjoyable day was the experience of all. It was estimated that 5,000 or more people attended. About 2,000 cars were in town.” The Richmond band provided music, and a baseball game was played between Excelsior Springs and Polo. Polo won 7 to 5.

Miss Mabel Morrow won first place in the needlework contest. Mrs. F. W. Scott had the best preserves. Little Billy McGinnis was the winner of the baby contest, while the Walter and Robert Bales won the potato sack race was won. We can’t overlook the tug of war contest where “Joe McKee’s Army” took the first-place prize. While reading over this article, I could see all the children running around and enjoying a “Mayberry R.F.D.” type of fun day with family and friends. This is what makes a hot summer day one that you will remember for many years to come. I asked one of my friends if he ever went to the Lawson Picnic in the good old days of his youth and he remembers getting to ride the rides with his friends from school. County kids did not always get to see their friends in the summertime and it was always a special treat to see them at the picnic.

In 1952, the 50th Lawson Picnic was held on Tuesday, Aug. 12. John Rainwater, the picnic’s veteran showman, was in charge of the events. The Lawson Review headlines on Aug. 14 read, “Clear Skies for Lawson Picnic.” I’m sure everyone was happy that the storm of 1905 was not repeated.

The 1952 picnic was sponsored by the Lawson I.O.O.F and the Lawson Camp of the Modern Woodmen of America. Some of the special events were the baby contest, the oldest married couple, the largest family attending, the person coming the greatest distance, best dressed young lady, an eating contest and a fiddlers’ contest. Amusements, rides and concessions were also available.

A few days after the picnic, the winners of the contest were announced in The Lawson Review. Mr. and Mrs. Thornton Gorham were the oldest married couple with a total score of 162. They were 80 and 82 years old. Andy Miller from Mesa Arizona had traveled the greatest distance of 1,600 miles.

Twenty-five babies were in the baby contest, and the judges had a hard time picking a winner, but the small, blue-eyed, blond daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Clevenger of Nashua won the first-prize award of $5.

The watermelon-eating contest was my favorite story. “The watermelon didn’t have a chance in the watermelon-eating contest for boys. A whole watermelon was consumed in nothing flat–even the seeds disappeared. The rind was all that was left. Jimmy Clevenger ate his way in to fame and the $1 first prize. James Teegarden, another Lawson entry, won second-place honors in a very close contest.

“Some real old-time fiddling took place in the fiddlers contest, which was the last event on the contest program. John E. Thompson of Excelsior Springs was the first-place winner.”

The 112th Lawson Picnic starts on today and run through Saturday. Events have changed over the years, but it just keeps getting bigger and better. If you are looking for some good old-fashioned fun this week, Lawson is the place to be.

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