20 minutes — and a world of worry — away from the political theatrics

For a weekend, West Kentucky becomes the center of the political universe. Here’s what some people who live there had to say.

By: - August 7, 2023 5:50 am
A man in a pink shirt stands next to a wall with the phrase, "Bardwell: A Community of Unity."

Philip King, the mayor of Bardwell, poses inside his flood-damaged city hall. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)

BARDWELL — Mayor Philip King has a problem. A flash flood on July 19 turned Bardwell’s Front Street into a river and dumped at least seven inches of water on city hall.

Spending the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed for repairs would be a waste, he says, because the building would just flood again, as it did in 2009.

“If you redo it, you’re going to have another flood, you’re going to be in here again,” King said. “It just is what it is.” 

Bardwell, the Carlisle County seat of 700 residents, sits about 20 minutes from the site of the Fancy Farm Picnic, which on the first Saturday of August draws politicians and media from across Kentucky and beyond for speeches and theatrics as it did again this year.

Light brown floodwaters covers Front Street from the view through a windshield.
Front Street in Bardwell turned into a virtual river on July 19. (Courtesy of Philip King)

With so many ears attuned to what visiting politicians say in westernmost Kentucky, the Lantern set out to hear also from people who live there.

On the eve of this year’s gathering, Bardwell felt even more removed than usual from the hoopla. 

Looking drained as he examined where flood-damaged flooring and drywall had been stripped away, King, who hasn’t been to the Fancy Farm Picnic for a decade, said rural West Kentucky is “pretty well forgotten about” — a sentiment shared by others, including elected officials, interviewed by the Lantern.

Local priorities differed – sometimes sharply — from what political candidates shouted from the stage. 

West Kentucky is hundreds of miles from the state capital of Frankfort; west of the Tennessee River, Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, and bounded by the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Andrew Jackson helped negotiate its transfer from the Chickasaw in 1818.

For example, Calloway County resident Mary Buck, who founded a mutual aid group, would like to hear candidates talk about poverty and how to provide affordable housing and transit to ease its effects.

But that is a “pretty heavy subject,” which, she figures, is why politicians prefer to focus “more on the hot button topics.” 

“It needs to be talked about,” she says. “It needs to be more than talked about — it needs to be fixed.” 

Up on the Fancy Farm stage, facing cheers and jeers, few, if any, candidates mentioned poverty or affordable housing, though they did tout “infrastructure.” 

Cameron versus Beshear

Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron largely focused on social and cultural issues and attacked “the Biden agenda.” Cameron criticized Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear for posing for a picture with a group of drag queens and slammed Beshear for COVID-19 public health restrictions on gatherings, including religious ones.

“He sent the state police after Christians on Easter Sunday. He closed down Main Street and bent over backwards for Wall Street,” Cameron said. 

Daniel Cameron speaks at Fancy Farm, Aug. 5, 2023. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Austin Anthony)

Meanwhile, Beshear criticized Cameron for his running mate choice of Sen. Robby Mills, R-Henderson, and Mills’ support for a controversial pension law that sparked teacher protests and was struck down by the Kentucky Supreme Court. 

“When I went to court and saved the pensions of every teacher and every police officer, Robby was mad — Robby was big mad,” Beshear said. 

Beshear also touted his economic development record, saying “billions of dollars” of investment was coming to Western Kentucky while also highlighting rebuilding efforts following the 2021 tornado outbreak that hit the region and devastated the Graves County seat of Mayfield. 

Andy Beshear speaks during the Mike Miller Bean Dinner, Aug. 4, 2023. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Austin Anthony)

Edge of homelessness

Buck, the mutual aid group leader in Calloway County, assumed Mayfield’s recovery efforts would be mentioned at Fancy Farm because they’re in the same county. But she had also hoped more systemic issues faced by Kentuckians would come up. 

Buck sees those systemic issues regularly through her organization, the Calloway County Collective, a nonprofit associated with the local United Way chapter that helps residents with a variety of needs, medicine, food, baby supplies and more. The organization started as a Facebook group to help Kentuckians in her West Kentucky community support each other in the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Just recently, a friend Buck has known “probably since middle school” reached out to her. 

“She did not want to reach out to me, I know. But she was just absolutely desperate. And she has been living in a hotel for over 100 days,” Buck said. “She’s been working every single day to pay for a hotel room so that she and her son aren’t homeless.” 

Vines cover some two-story buildings in Bardwell.
Buildings in Bardwell. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)

Her friend’s situation, she said, reflects larger community needs that she often sees while running the mutual aid group — especially the lack of affordable housing and affordable transit to get people to work in Murray, Calloway County and West Kentucky. 

A University of Kentucky analysis found that Calloway County had the highest housing demand out of all 120 counties in the state. Two other Jackson Purchase counties, Fulton and McCracken, were also among the top 20 counties for demand. 

“I think that it’s harder to address some of these issues that we face so often when we’re dealing with anyone who’s in a bad situation,” Buck said. “I think it’s hard to say that people aren’t able to feed themselves and clothe themselves and pay their own bills without already sounding like we’re failing and our politicians are failing us.” 

Buck said she believes Calloway County has enough jobs, but it’s another hurdle to have reliable transportation to get people to their jobs. For those who do have a roof over their heads, she said, paying for that housing can sometimes make something like a car payment difficult.

A mop bucket sits next to other equipment inside Bardwell City Hall.
Some of the damage inside Bardwell’s city hall. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)

Disaster recovery

In Mayfield, a community that struggled with poverty before an EF-4 tornado took out a significant amount of lower-income housing, bringing in well-paying jobs is also top of mind. 

Derrick Parrott, a Mayfield city council member who helps students at the local school district who face personal and academic challenges, said there are still people with immediate needs in Mayfield that aren’t being met. 

“It’s a tough task,” Parrott said. “People have a tendency to fall through the cracks. It’s just important that we do our best to make sure that those that are in need get the help that they deserve.” 

Since the tornado, Parrott said that those in power throughout the state government have been a lot more supportive and communicative, which he appreciates. But he can’t help but wonder why it took a “tornado to be noticed.” 

For Crystal Fox, a social worker who’s the president of a nonprofit working to help empower minority youth in Mayfield, addressing the basic needs of families is vital before her community can be rebuilt for the longer term. 

Mayfield’s tornado-damaged courthouse on Dec. 11, 2021. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

“We need to make sure that our family’s basic needs are met before we can focus on these long-term goals of building back a community that was not thriving to the best of its ability before,” Fox said. 

Another Mayfield resident, Atina Lindsey, was part of the throng enjoying barbecue and bingo on the grounds of Saint Jerome Catholic Church where she is a member. Saint Jerome put on its 143rd Fancy Farm Picnic on Saturday.

“I think Western Kentucky gets left out a lot in the grand scheme of Kentucky,” she said. “They want to say they swoop in and help and do a lot of things. But we don’t see it.”

People wait in line to get barbecue at the Fancy Farm picnic in Graves County.
Barbecue, bingo and and other games are among the attractions at the 143rd Fancy Farm Picnic, Aug. 5, 2023. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)

Lindsey still worries about the area’s recovery from the devastating tornadoes and wants to see more progress with the rebuilding of Mayfield. She wants a new courthouse after the tornado toppled the centuries-old downtown building. Graves County’s temporary circuit court clerk’s office is operating out of a Mayfield strip mall. 

“I’m Republican through and through, but I just want somebody that’s going to do the job regardless of who they are,” she said.

‘ … what are you going to do?’

In contrast to more traditional campaign events and debates, Fancy Farm is known for its “roasting” and jokes, says Fancy Farm political director Steven Elder. 

He said the political events leading up to the speeches also provide West Kentuckians with an opportunity to meet candidates and elected officials in person to share their views and concerns. 

A paper sign is taped to the door of Bardwell City Hall: "City Hall is now located at the red brick building in the Bardwell Baptist Church parking lot!"
A sign on the door of Bardwell’s flood-damaged city hall states operations have temporarily moved. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)

“We enjoy the zingers, we want to have a lot of fun,” Elder said. “It’s them being here in Western Kentucky that provides the people here the opportunity to talk about the issues they want to hear about.”

But those jabs and attacks also play a role in why King, the Bardwell mayor, hasn’t attended the picnic in more than a decade. He last showed up at the invitation of former Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher.

He said candidates are more likely to “bash each other” than talk about the needs of communities like his. 

As mayor of Bardwell, King’s top priority is getting a new city hall built out of the floodplain — something that he estimates could cost around $1 million — a daunting and expensive challenge for a small community like his.

“’Don’t even bring up who’s running against you. It’s ‘what are you going to do? And how are you going to get there?’” King said. 

As much as King would like to hear candidates offer practical solutions to current problems, he predicts that “COVID closures” and “gender” could drive Carlisle County voters’ choices in November — along with “people looking for a change.”

Correction: The spelling of Philip King’s first name was corrected.

Train tracks in Bardwell, Kentucky.
Train tracks in Bardwell, the Carlisle County seat in West Kentucky. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)


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Liam Niemeyer
Liam Niemeyer

Liam covers government and policy in Kentucky and its impacts throughout the Commonwealth for the Kentucky Lantern. He most recently spent four years reporting award-winning stories for WKMS Public Radio in Murray.