Since humanity first learned to dip food in hot grease, state fairs have been a test kitchen for groundbreaking advances in what can be deep-fried, and the Kansas State Fair is no exception. But for the past 70 years, that fair's most popular dishes have included the chicken & noodles and fresh pies served up by the parishioners of the South Hutchinson United Methodist Church.
When we came across this orange pencil for the church's cafeteria at the fair, we wondered, “Why does a church need a custom pencil at a state fair?” But a single search made it was obvious: this wasn’t just a church group selling snacks to hot and hungry fairgoers, it is an institution that has remained a perennial favorite for decades. It’s likely that at some point these pencils were used by Church volunteers to write down or record any number of things like:
Volunteer lists and schedules
How many raisin cream pies would be needed tomorrow
That funny thing Fran said earlier
So how did the church get into the fair game? A storm destroyed their church in 1948, so members began serving up the unusual fare for a state fair to quickly raise the money necessary to rebuild. The new structure was built in 1951. Their state fair chicken and noodles and variety of homemade pies, however, were such a hit that long after the fundraising goal was met they continued feeding hungry fairgoers. They are now one of the Kansas State Fair’s oldest continuous vendors.
Ella C. Downs had already raised six children and retired from a career as a school teacher in 1948 when she rolled up her sleeves to help the South Hutchinson UMC raise funds with state fair food. When she returned from a trip to California in 1950, Ella brought a recipe for raisin cream pie that is a staple on the menu to this day. In the late 60s, 20 years after she started, and she was still running the show at 84 years old!
Current Pie Coordinator, Judy Snyder, began volunteering in 1952 when she was in second grade (and Miss Ella was in charge) and the food was still served on “real plates with silverware”. Today, she oversees the production of all varieties of pie for the fair - including Ella C. Downs’ raisin cream pie. While the pies are baked fresh daily, the from-scratch noodle preparation begins in July, two months before the fair opens, to ensure that the 1,200 pounds of noodles needed will be ready .
The 2017 fair marked seven decades since the first helping of chicken and noodles and first slice of pie was served by the volunteer staff from South Hutchinson United Methodist Church. Only two other food vendors have been feeding fairgoers longer: the parishioners of Our Lady of Guadalupe who have been dishing up tamales, tacos, and enchiladas for 71 years, and the aptly named Dairy Bar for almost 90 years where you could get an ice cream cone for a nickel in the 1930’s when it first opened.
Our pencil clearly came from an earlier, less digital era in the South Hutchinson UMC's Kansas State Fair reign, so we can easily imagine Miss Ella using one like it to jot down notes, instructions, and recipes for the squad of young egg crackers and noodle dryers in the little brick cafeteria in the 1960’s because she knew she was still teaching the next generation even though she was no longer in a classroom.
-Chris Alan Jones