Lawson Picnic, with long and colorful history, nears 110th edition

People all over the county have been enjoying the Lawson Picnic for over 100 years.

By Linda Emley

A few days ago 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 lunch time so I called one of my Lawson friends, 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 Picnics was in 1874 and it was at this event where 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 before the first I.O.O.F lodge-sponsored picnic would take place in 1902.

The I.O.O.F. lodge chose a different town each year for its annual picnic and Lawson happened to be the town of choice in 1902 because two railroads went through and 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, prettiest baby contest, speeches from politicians and a good old fashioned basket lunch.

Acccording to the history book, one of the more memorable picnics was on Aug. 16, 1905. The day started with a bang because all the local I.O.O.F., “Odd Fellows” put on their uniforms and marched from the lodge hall to the picnic grounds. They were lined up four abreast with their right hand on the shoulder of the man in front of them. It was a very impressive sight when they 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 o’clock. The high winds blew and a rain poured down that blinded man and beast. Buggies were blown into fence rows and buildings were flattened. Every man, women and child ran for cover and many ended up in a stranger’s house 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. “The Richmond band provided music and a baseball game was played between Excelsior Springs and Polo. Polo won 7 to 5.

“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.”

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 potato sack race was won by Walter and Robert Bales. 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 their 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. Ray 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 headline 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 contests were announced in the Lawson Review. Mr. and Mrs. Thornton Gorham were the oldest married couple with a total score of 162 years. They were 80 and 82 years old. Andy Miller from Mesa, Ariz. had traveled the greatest distance – 1,600 miles.

Twenty-five babies where 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 into 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 110th annual Lawson Picnic starts on Thursday, July 12 and runs through Saturday, July 14. 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. Who knows, you just might be the winner of the 2nd annual couples’ race through an obstacle course on a lawn tractor pulling a wagon.


Have a favorite Ray County memory? Let Linda know with an email to or see her at the museum.

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