“What do you like better, Christmas or Wedding Season?”
“The answer would be, um, Picnic Season?”
Picnic season in NEPA is a big deal. It’s a dying deal, but still a big deal nonetheless, and something that, to me, defines summertime and growing up.
Every summer, for as long as I can remember, weekends were dominated by these local picnics, or block parties. Sometimes they’re put on by local parishes, sometimes by the town itself, and it seems as if the majority of the surviving festivities are the pride of local volunteer fire companies.
If you’re not from the area, NEPA picnics can be hard to explain. Think bigger than a block party, but much smaller than a fair. Most picnics either take place in parking lots, picnic grounds, or occasionally a few blocks in the middle of town are shut down to accomodate the crowds. The different events vary in size, crowd make up, and length but have several similar components. All are outdoors and depend on the weather. Most of them favor local vendors for food instead of carnies, and the food almost always consists of pizza, pierogies, clams, and potatoe pancakes. Some picnics are known specifically for one type of food. They even have a certain type of lighting in common (no idea why, but something I’ve noticed), an orange tinged bulb, strung between the tents. The better picnics, the ones still worth going to once you have a liscense, have the all hallowed beer tent.
When I was younger a number of now extinct picnics helped rule the NEPA summerscape. The Browndale Fire Company Picnic (which would have been a convenient half mile from my parents house) went under when I was still in grade school. Pioneer Days, Carbondale’s celebration of Carbondaleness also died when I was young, only to ressurect inself as Pioneer Nights in the recent years. The most crushing blow to the my picnic repetoire was St. Michael’s Blockparty, in Simpson PA.
St. Mike’s was the parish I grew up attending, and the picnic that most defined my childhood. St. Mikes took place over a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday during July and my mother signed us up as children to work the duckpond. Picnics really are community events. My grandmother worked at the instant bingo stand, my mother seemed to help out wherever she was needed, a good friend was at the cotton candy stand next door to us, and my uncle called out numbers at The Big Six, another NEPA picnic staple.
Because the money usually benefits a church, or a borough, or fire company, “small time” gambling is allowed. As we got older we helped to run the under over seven. The maximum bet was supposed to be five dollars, but with beer flowing, music playing, and three teenage boys running the going on’s, it might have bumped up a little. On year we made over 5,000 dollars. I’m pretty sure the priest knew what was going on.
St. Mike’s shut down in 2004, the year I turned 21, which was too bad because it was the last picnic whose beer tent had not been fenced off in a seperate area yet. You could grab a drink, stroll the grounds, dance a polka, and intermingle with those not of age. I was working during that stint and wasn’t even able to enjoy it as much as I’d like. The potatoe pancakes, pierogies, and fried dough, as well as the local polka band’s attempt to win over the non senior crowd with their version of Margartiville also died with St. Mikes.
While picnics are still a staple for my summertimes, they hold none of the importance they did during the picnic age heyday of 18-21. The cool kids in NEPA went to picnics to be seen, to run into other like minded youths, and to underage drink in a public setting. Compared to some of the things I hear kids doing now in school, it almost seems nice, innocent and nostalgic; proof that NEPA really does age slower than the rest of the state (and/or country).
Second on the picnic schedule is the Uniondale (Volunteer) Fire Company Picnic. The Uniondale Picnic (or hicknic, as it’s been dubbed), starts on a Thursday, has a parade on Friday, and culminates with a fireworks display Saturday night. It’s hard to quite describe the ambience of this event to those who’ve never visited NEPA. The picnic takes place on a special picnic grounds (that you can also rent out for parties) with buildings for food, games, a bingo hall, and stage. There’s a flea market, food, firetruck and hayrides, and a beer tent. While you need to enter the beer tent for alcohol, you are allowed to roam the grounds with your beverage. The crowd is always amazing, like people of Walmart come to life.
I attended the Uniondale Picnic this past Saturday. and while the crowd and experience tend to be the same exact thing every year, they had a really good cover band covering Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban songs in a rock format. They also had a dunk tank that anyone who wanted could get into, so….
The peak of picnic season no doubt belongs to the Mayfield Fire Company’s Corn and Clam Slam. The Clam Slam is, in my humble opinion, what all NEPA picnics should aspire to be. It takes place on four days during July: Wednesday through Sunday. The Clam Slam is very much a grown up picnic and what distinguishes it from others is the sheer size of the beer tent. Normally, beer tents are a squshed affair, so that there is room on the grounds for everything else. At the Clam Slam, everything else is squished so that there is room for the beer tent. The tent is enormous and food vendors and the band are located inside. The Clam Slam gets its name from the cheap corn and clams they serve and try and beat the record every year for the amount of kegs kicked. If you hear a gong and a cheer run through the crowd, you know that another’s bitten the dust.
Like many of its brethren, the Clam Slam has a parade on Saturday, which for the residents of Jermyn and surrounding communities turns into an all day party. This since of community is what seperates picnics from fairs. The Corn and Clam Slam is about a fifteen minute ride from where I grew up, but is located in my cousins’ school districts, and they always have all day barbaques Saturday before descending to the festivites, where often friends who’ve left the area and rarely come home are in town.
I always tried to explain the concept of these picnics to my college friends and three years ago invited a bunch of them up to see the Corn and Clam Slam. They weren’t sure how to react and loved how cheap everything is ($2.00 for a large draft beer, $6.00 for a pitcher). It’s since become an annual thing, and we spend that Saturday grilling, playing bean bags, and swimming (we usually end up in the pool post clam slam as well..soemtimes fully clothed).
My other favorite aspect of picnics is it’s penchant for forcing you to drink locally after the beer tent closes (most don’t go past 11…the Clam Slam is the latest at midnightish). Chico’s is the dive everyone heads to once the tent shuts down. It’s only a few blocks and a trip underneath a railroad bridge walk away from the picnic grounds. After the picnic, Chico’s is packed. I’ve sadly been there before on other random summer nights while it was inexplicably cool the summer I was 23, and in general it’s pretty dumpy and smoke filled. The Clam Slam turns it into the place to be.
Old Home Week, Forest City’s (not my hometown, but close enough) has a similar phenomena to the town’s bars. The bars in Forest City are the closest establishments to my house, and in general, with the exception of DG’s (a small bar on the end of town that has a very homey vibe and great pizza and wings), we travel south towards Carbondale (or Simpson, my favorite bar town), or north to the country bars. The FC bar’s are more than a little sketchy. However, during Old Home Week (OHW), The Coalminer’s, home to a clientele that verges on scary, is the place to be. Everyone packs in as soon as the beer tent closes. Last year saw pool top dancing and a jello shot throwing contest. It’s a fun mix of friends, people you went to high school with but forgot existed, neighbors, friends parent’s, and often assorted people you’d never think you’d find in a bar.
Old Home Week has been in danger of closing for several years and there’s rumblings that it won’t happen this year. Regardless, I’ll be in Ireland and will be missing it for the first time. Old Home Week shuts down the town’s main street, has a light parade Thursday Night, fireworks Friday, and also has a parade on Saturday. For three days, the entire area seems like one big party. Forest City is located directly across a valley from my house so once the band starts up, we can here it. We have a time honored tradition of going to the beer tent on Saturday afternoon after the parade, going back to the house for a bbq, and then hitting the festivities up again at night. OHW is fun because while pregames typically involve my friends, these involve my parents and neighbors too.
Picnics have also helped me gauge the summer. The Uniondale Picnic is the weekend after the fourth of July. The Clam Slam is smack in the middle of summer, and OHW marks the beginning of the end. Pioneer Nights signals that there’s not much time left till school starts up again. There’s a number of other area picnics that go on that I don’t attend on the regular: The Clifford Fireman’s Picnic, The Feast of Mount Carmel in Carbondale, and St. Ubaldo’s in Jessup which is said to be a spectacle that shouldn’t be missed.
I hope the picnics stay around for a while. My summer really wouldn’t be the same without them.