Sunday outings Mid-Missouri parish picnics reminiscent of simpl

Sunday, July 7, 2002

FRANKENSTEIN, Mo. -- Lois Bixenman isn't ashamed to admit it. She's a picnic groupie.

"We like the food. The food is excellent," Bixenman, 66, said recently while carefully dotting her bingo card. "It's just a way to pass away the time on a Sunday afternoon. We pick out the ones we want to go to, but we know it's all good. Bring the whole family because they are going to have a good time."

Good enough for Bixenman to hit 13 or 14 a year, filling her entire summer with Sunday afternoons at the Roman Catholic parish picnics that have long been a part of the social calendar in parts of central Missouri. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the picnics designed to raise money for small-town parishes offer an opportunity to get a taste of old-fashioned, country living.

"It kind of reminds me of the way things used to be," said Clarence Shelley, 66, who recently moved back to central Missouri. He said the picnics take him back to a time when life was much simpler. Back then, he would get 25 cents to spend -- back when soda cost a nickel.

"But back then it was more aimed at local families," Shelley said. "Back then, you didn't drive 50 miles to find something to do. Now, people come from all over the place. But that's good. There's still an old-fashioned atmosphere. It's a fun time."

Drawn by dinners

The picnics are centered in the German Catholic enclaves located within a 30-minute drive of Jefferson City, communities like Frankenstein, Loose Creek, Westphalia and Linn.

Want a hand-sewn quality quilt worth hundreds of dollars? They've got them -- you can buy a raffle ticket or simply fork over the cash for one. How about some homemade pies? They're here too.

If it's bingo you crave, grab a card and pay a small fee. Want to pay poker with a quarter bet, go ahead. Kids' games? Lots of those at prices that won't break a family's budget. And it's all outdoors.

But what draws thousands to the picnics each year -- besides the ever-present beer garden -- are the dinners. With a ticket that can cost up to $8, you get beef, chicken, real mashed potatoes, homemade gravy, vegetables, fresh bread and -- let's not forget -- pie and cake.

Usually, parish members seat people in a hall and serve them. The lines are sometimes long as the ticket numbers are called out, but things move quickly. Diners sit at tables and mix with friends and complete strangers.

Conversation isn't in short supply. Nor is the food. Just like grandma used to make, picnic regulars say.

Each town has a weekend set aside for their picnic, always held on a Sunday and in some towns, for more than a century. Former residents often return each year to their local picnics to catch up with old friends, who they might not have seen in years. Others come back for a family tradition that spans decades.

'Doesn't get any better'

Alyssa Thoenen, 9, who was busy trying to get a ring around a toy sword, said the picnic at Loose Creek is one of the best times during her summer.

"They are really fun because you get to do a lot of things like play games and you can win stuff," said Alyssa, who's been attending the picnic since she was 6. "It does get really hot."

Richard Wieberg, 47, of Westphalia, was busy in his clown suit during the Loose Creek picnic making balloon sculptures for an eager group of kids. He attends about 14 or 15 picnics a year and has been working as a clown for the last 15 years.

"You get to meet old friends from school you haven't seen for years and see how their kids are growing up and you meet new friends, too," Wieberg said. "It's just like the old days. Getting together and enjoying each other's company. Showing off your cooking talents, your sewing talents, and the kids have all kinds of fun. It doesn't get any better than that."

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