For more than six decades, Little York Christian Church in the small town of the same name, located in southeastern Indiana, held a Sunday School picnic on the first Saturday of August. Sunday School picnics are hardly the stuff of story, except that in any given year the attendance at the Little York Sunday School Picnic and Homecoming ranged from 1000 to 3000 people, and sometimes considerably more than that.
The annual event began in 1902, in a time when modern transportation and communication had yet to transform much of rural America and churches and other civic organizations were often at the center of small-town social life. The superintendents of the congregation’s Sunday School sent invitations to other Sunday Schools in Christian, Baptist, and Methodist churches in the area. Each Sunday School was invited to “come, if possible, in a delegation” and bring “special numbers” for its choir to sing at the picnic.
The event was a day-long picnic and concert. In a 12-acre grove with a small wooden stage, booths selling food, drink, and ice cream, and pews and benches on the grass for seating, people gathered to eat and listen. Each church’s delegation stood up in turn to sing for the assembly. Local bands played. Ministers and other speakers addressed the crowds—one year the president of nearby Hanover College spoke; many orators were politicians, running for local, state, and national offices (including Birch Bayh, running for the U.S. Senate, who addressed the attendees in 1962).
In the early years of the picnic, attendance far outweighed the population of the entire county: the census counted 1290 people in Gibson County in 1910, while the Little York Sunday School Picnic drew 3000 people in 1914 and 2000 in 1915. The annual event outlasted other such church gatherings throughout rural Indiana, but finally came to an end in the face of dwindling rural populations and the array of entertainments available in modern America.
Source: Donald Beikman, “Special Numbers at the Picnic: The Little York Sunday School Picnic and Homecoming,” IMH September 1985
A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History published by the Indiana University Department of History.