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  • Writer's pictureKansas News Service

How running with pancakes in southwest Kansas boosts community spirit and the economy

Pamela Bolivar crosses the finish line to win this year's Pancake Day Race in Liberal, Kansas. She grew up running in the race as a child, and now has won her hometown bragging rights against Olney, England. (Kaden Classen/365th Street Photography)


This year marks the 75th anniversary of what’s known as the Pancake Day Race in the southwest Kansas town of Liberal. It’s an oddity, but these types of community festivals offer economic and less tangible benefits to smaller towns.

By Calen Moore, Kansas News Service


LIBERAL, Kansas — Women dressed in aprons, skirts and headscarves line up in the middle of main street. They're dressed in a traditional English kitchen outfit, but instead of cooking they are about to race. As the women get on their marks they prepare their other race essentials, frying pans and pancakes.


This is the annual Pancake Day Race, a tradition in Liberal, Kansas, for 75 years. People gather to watch competitors run the quarter-mile race holding frying pans containing a single pancake.


It’s a multi-day event in Liberal with an international connection as locals compete against racers in England.


While events like this held in many smaller towns may seem like curiosities, they can offer economic and social benefits that motivate communities to keep them alive.


“We're smack dab in the middle of nowhere, and in a small sense, we're connected internationally,” said Gary Classen, who has been chairman of Pancake Day for eight years.


History

The tradition goes back to Olney, England. The story goes that a woman in 1445 was using up her fats and grains before Lent began, a period of fasting before Easter. She heard the local church bells ringing, which meant she was late. She ran to church, still in her apron with a pan and pancake in hand. This sparked a lighthearted tradition in the English town of women racing down the road with pancakes in hand.


In 1950, a man named R.J. Leete from Liberal read about the race in a magazine and wanted to use it to put his growing town in Kansas on the map. He sent a letter challenging Olney to an international pancake race. The challenge was accepted with only 40 days to prepare.

Since then, a bond between the communities formed through the competition.


A woman wearing a traditional headscarf sits in on the shriving service after the Pancake Day Race. (Calen Moore/Kansas News Service)


Tradition in the modern day

Members of Liberal gather in a church every year and hop on a video call with officials from Olney to compare race times.


A hush falls over the crowded church as an Olney official reveals their best time, 1:03:37. This year, Liberal won the closest race in recent memory with a time of 1:03:03. The crowd exploded in cheers as 19 -year-old Pamela Bolivar from Liberal was declared the winner.


Putting on this festival is no small feat. It takes dozens of volunteers and contributions from the community. Many businesses make donations to support the event. IHOP donates all the batter used in the countless pancake activities, eating contests, flipping contests, races and community breakfasts.


Small towns across the state have their own festivals and traditions. Whether it’s the Tulip Festival in Wamego, Kansas, or the Balloon Regatta in Columbus, Kansas. They are looking for ways to bring people in, and bring them together, no matter how silly.


“Why in the world would you take a 63 second race and turn it into a four-day event?” Classen said. “We embrace the silliness of it and it turns into something big.“


Gary Classen poses for photos next to the winners of Liberal's Pancake Day Race with, from left, Minerba Lopez, Isabelle Sullenger and Pamela Bolivar. This year's race was the closest in recent memory, coming down to milliseconds. (Calen Moore/Kansas News Service)


Economic impact

These celebrations aren’t just a small town's attention grabber. There are economic benefits as well.


Eli Svaty, economic development director for Liberal, said it’s hard to stand out when trying to attract businesses and industries. Having something like Pancake Day plays into the caricature of rural America, but it also makes the town memorable.


“If they don't want to live somewhere, they're not going to move a company there,” he said. “There is a slice of Americana that still exists out here.”


The event itself brings in tourists to stay in hotels and eat at local restaurants. Members of the community gather for the celebration and spend money.


Last year in February, there was an increase in sales tax collections of more than $100,000 compared to the months before and after. Officials in Liberal say it is their biggest day of the year, and some of that revenue can be directly tied to Pancake Day.


For smaller communities in more rural areas, tradition and history can intrigue people to stop by, but also keep them coming back, according to Liberal’s Tourism Director Sally Fueller.


“It's almost a community homecoming. That's when people tend to come back and visit,” Fueller said.


Being known for something as unusual as Pancake Day can make it easier to sell Liberal to tourists the entire year.


“So while we might not actually get the visitors on the actual Pancake Day, people notice liberal because of Pancake Day,” Fuller said.


Rural and social development

According to a study conducted by Iowa State University, small town festivals are possible primarily because of volunteers. Their motivations are centered around their belief they can make a difference and that their town’s identity is tied to the event.


Small town festivals play a role in nostalgia, a tool used for rural development. Children run in their own pancake race and have pancake flipping competitions in elementary schools. Small towns can leverage those values of community to encourage people to stay.


Alexis Delgado and his family watch the Pancake Day parade meandering down main street. He grew up in Liberal and now attends the event with his own children. (Calen Moore/Kansas News Service)


Christy Davis, rural development director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for Kansas, said building a sense of community can be vital as towns try to fight the trend of rural populations shrinking.


“These kinds of events are a way to advance social cohesion. It gives people a reason to get together,” Davis said.

No matter how kitschy, festivals that shut down towns like Pancake Day are something small town locals take pride in. And Davis said it highlights the advantages small towns can lean into.


“There's still community. There's still a place where you're running into people on the street, that you've known your whole life. And that's something that is lost in a lot of places,” Davis said.


This article was used by permission from the Kansas News Service. The Kansas News Service is a non-profit online news organization serving Kansas. For more information on the organization, go to its website at www.ksnewservice.org.

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