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Batter Up!

Posted September 26, 2012 in Uncategorized

The lawn chairs show up earlier every year.

Volunteers take on the pancake-making duties during the annual Pancake Day celebration in Centerville.

Throughout the week leading up to Pancake Day, Centerville residents pass this bit of conventional wisdom back and forth, shaking their heads in mock disbelief at the growing army of lawn chairs filling up the sidewalks around the square.

This year Joyce Bieber decided it was time to embrace the lawn chair with the theme “Pull up a chair and enjoy the show.”

Bieber, executive director of the Centerville–Lake Rathbun Area Chamber of Commerce, says the fact that residents are trying to get the best spot for viewing the big parade days ahead of time is a testament to the pride and excitement of Pancake Day.

“The lawn chair is one of the most visible signs of Pancake Day; it is one of the most discussed things,” Bieber says. “It can be kind of a source of irritation if you’re trying to get things set up, but we just decided we are glad people are so excited about Pancake Day that they want to make sure they have a spot for the parade.”

Actually, people’s lack of concern about leaving their lawn chairs out in public overnight was Bieber’s introduction to Centerville. Bieber, who is from the Cedar Rapids area, started her job as Chamber director in September 15 years ago. That first Pancake Day, she mostly observed.

At the time, she says, she was surprised when people started putting their lawn chairs out on Thursday. So she followed suit — even though she was worried someone would steal her lawn chair.

“People said, ‘Oh, no one will steal it,’ and nobody did,” she recalls with a laugh.

Musical entertainment is a big part of Pancake Day. The event will get an early start with a kickoff concert the night before. Standing Hampton, a band that has performed several times in Appanoose County, will bring its mix of ’70s and ’80s power pop and classic rock to the square on Friday night at 8 p.m. In case of rain, the concert will be in the Central Park Ballroom at Manhattan Steakhouse.

A Monopoly float in the big parade illustrates the 2011 theme, “It’s All Fun and Games.”

Bieber says that while fewer high school bands march in the big parade than in the past, there are other musical options, such as local and area bands that perform on the stages in the afternoons. Some of those entertainers this year include Unc Corey on acoustic guitar at noon on the North Stage and Minor Details, a singing group from Truman State University, at 2:30 p.m. on the Main Stage.

One of the most popular entertainment acts in 2011 was Elvis impersonator Bruce Buttel. Buttel performed last year just weeks after he was named the Older Iowan Idol in a singing competition at the Iowa State Fair. Bieber says the crowd enjoyed his performance so much it was natural to have the well-known local figure perform again this year. Elvis fans can catch Buttel’s performance at 12:15 p.m. on the Main Stage.

Nashville recording artist Sherry Lynn will perform in the evening on the Main Stage during the intermission of the queen pageant and afterward. The pageant begins at 5:30 p.m. with the coronation scheduled for 8 p.m.

Kash Johnson, Kyler Johnson and Ava Whitney in the 2011 Kiddie Parade.

Some of the non-musical entertainment will include carnival games, rides and activities all day in the northeast courtyard, pony rides and face painting all day in the southwest courtyard, Jonathan May making balloon creations in the band shell at 9 a.m. and the Iron Dreams Strongman Contest on the east side of the square at 2:30 p.m.

“We try to have entertainment for people of all ages,” Bieber says. “I think that’s really important. For little kids we have the kiddie parade and the pedal pull, and we are having Mr. Steve, a children’s entertainer.”

Mr. Steve performs at 10:30 a.m. in the band shell following the kiddie parade at 10 a.m. The pedal pull takes place at 2:15 p.m. on the west side of the square.

These days every burg has its own town festival, but they all got their start at some point. Pancake Day’s genesis came in 1949 when a group of businessmen got together to discuss starting a celebration, according to “Pancake Day at 60 Years,” a commemorative book compiled by the Chamber of Commerce and published in 2008.

Based on another town’s festival that featured free pancakes, the businessmen decided on Pancake Day. The free pancakes served as a way to say thank you to the people in the area for their patronage of Centerville businesses.

Pancake Day was a good fit with Centerville’s business community at the time because the town was home to a Pillsbury plant that provided the pancake mix for the first several years. The Penick-Ford Company provided the syrup, and Corydon’s Jones Dairy donated the milk, cream and butter with Swift & Co. also donating butter. About 15,000 pancakes were prepared that first year.

Today, Hy-Vee supplies the batter. Volunteers mix it up in milk cans, and the pancakes are cooked on griddles that have now been in use for years.

“We’ve gotten new tents over the years, but so much of it is still the same,” Bieber says.

Pretty much the only thing that first Pancake Day was missing was a parade. Musicians performed in the bandstand all day, contests were held (in horseshoe pitching and wood chopping), and Joan McCalment of Unionville, Mo., was crowned queen. The celebration went on all day and into the night. At 9:30 p.m., one lucky attendee won the big prize, a 1949 Oldsmobile.

Organizers added a parade the next year. Pancake Day started out on the first Thursday in October, then moved to the last Thursday in September, then in 1965 landed in the spot on the calendar where it still remains: the last Saturday in September.

Elvis impersonator Bruce Buttel entertains the crowd at the 2011 Pancake Day. This year Buttel will perform at 12:15 p.m. on the Main Stage.

Bieber says one of the things that stands out most about Pancake Day is the tradition. In her 15 years as Chamber director during Pancake Day, she has seen things change little. The day started out as a way for businesses to thank patrons, and representatives of many businesses still flip pancakes in the morning.

“A lot of those businesses have done it for decades, really,” she says.

Town spirit
By Chamber estimates, at least 800 volunteers have some role in Pancake Day each year.

“Volunteers are really a huge part of Pancake Day,” Bieber says. “Without our committee, we wouldn’t be able to have it, and beyond the committee the people that flip pancakes and work in the information tent and sell the carnival tickets, sell pop, pick up trash, put up the tent, take down the tent, organize the parade lineup — there’s just so many components.”

Whether they volunteered or not, Pancake Day holds a special place in the heart of many.

“So many people maintain a connection to Pancake Day,” Bieber says. “They grew up here or they lived here for a couple of years, and they come back for it. We have one of the biggest and one of the best festivals in the state, and that is something that people are really proud of.”

Bieber says the festival relies less on donations than it used to because the committee has instituted more money-making aspects, such as pop sales and gourmet pancake sales. Gourmet pancakes are available in the pancake tent for a suggested donation of $4 and can be topped with a variety of goodies like strawberries, blueberries, bananas, pecans, whipped cream and chocolate syrup. The gourmet pancakes come with bacon and sausage.

Donations are still important, though, and Bieber says the community is supportive.

“People are happy to put a couple of dollars in the donation buckets when they go through the [pancake] line,” she says. “They see a whole day of entertainment, and they want to keep it going.”

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