Monday, March 06, 2006

Pancake Races and Community Myth Building

Early last week I was driving through southwest Kansas, and happened to roll through the town of Liberal on International Pancake Day. Unfortunately I was a few hours early for the American half of the pancake race, and couldn't stay and watch the throng of apron-clad women racing with frying pan in hand.

For those of you wondering how the heck one actually races with a pancake or why pancakes get their own special day (as opposed, to say, french toast), let me briefly bring you up to speed. Historically, women in England are said to have made pancakes on the last day before the start of Lent (Shrove Tuesday) as a means of consuming accumulated cooking fats before they began their own period of self-denial.

Legend has it that in 1445, a frazzled woman from Olney, England was so intent on frying up her pancakes that she lost track of time. Upon hearing the church bells calling everyone for service she rushed out the door, still clad in her apron, and ran to the church with frying pan in hand, thus becoming the first "pancake racer." And over the years it developed into a Olney tradition.

Jumping ahead to 1950, the Liberal Jaycees saw a picture of Olney's pancake race in a national magazine. They became intrigued with the Olney tradition - so much so that the Jaycees fired off a letter to the vicar of Olney challenging them to a race. As a result, Pancake Day and its associated race became an international event with Liberal and Olney competing against each other.

Since then Liberal has created a number of locally "flavored" celebrations and activities associated with the race, successfully weaving Pancake Day into its own history and intellectual traditions. Pancake Day is now part of the great story of Liberal, KS, gaining itself a significant amount of international attention as well as economic benefit. If you're interested in learning more, check out

Granted, if you're not from the general region you may very well have never heard of the event, but anyone growing up in Kansas, SE Colorado, NE New Mexico, or the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas is well aware of this seemingly strange, yet intriguing race. I certainly recall hearing about it every year growing up in southcentral Kansas.

The story of Liberal's adoption and incorporation of the Pancake Day tradition is something other rural communities should take note of. In a time when such communities are increasingly struggling to maintain their viability and vitality - to keep their young people from leaving (let alone attracting new people) and the community dying - they need to find an edge.

Building themes, events, celebrations, etc., around unique and interesting local traditions, stories, or myths, or adopting them from elsewhere as Liberal has done here can help provide such an edge. The key is to construct a community "myth" or "tradition" that the locals can feel proud of and functions to help bind the community together, and at the same time is fascinating enough to draw attention and visitors from outside the community. While such "myth building" isn't the answer in and of itself for a struggling rural community, it can be part of the solution.

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