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Local News

August 31, 2011

Countdown to Pancake Day: Pancake Day history

CENTERVILLE — We’re counting the days till Pancake Day. Folks from all over the country will be converging on the Centerville Square to eat free pancakes, visit with friends and family, watch the parades, crown the queen and just be part of the big Centerville reunion we call Pancake Day. But do you know how it all began? Lisa Eddy was lucky enough to be able to review all of the notes, pictures, newspaper accounts and items saved from the very beginnings of Pancake Day when Joyce Bieber asked her to compile a book to commemorate Pancake Day’s 60th anniversary in 2008. The information was overwhelming and utterly entertaining. Here’s what she found that tells about how it all began.

Centerville’s famous “Pancake Day” began in 1949 as a way to say “Thank You” to all of the people in the Centerville area for their patronage of Centerville businesses. In 1971, Paul Beer came back to Centerville for Pancake Day and remembered how it all began.

“A group of us were talking things over in front of Bob Elgin’s store and one of the group mentioned that the town should be doing something in the way of a celebration. Another mentioned he had heard of the Pancake Day idea somewhere and that really was the start of Pancake Day as it is known today. None of us realized at that time just how big it would get. I can remember there was Bob Elgin, Jimmy Adamson, Al Farber, Bill Stephens, Fred Wedekin and Warren Langfitt in the group, and possibly some others,” recounted Beer.

After this conversation, Frank Klum, Roy Rinehart, Fred Wedekin and Oliver Klipping made a trip to Shenandoah to confer with the officials about their Pancake Day event. These men brought back with them the ideas and the energy to create the first Pancake Day in Centerville.

As luck would have it, Centerville was home to a Pillsbury plant, who provided the pancake mix for the first year’s event and for several years thereafter. The Penick-Ford Company donated the syrup. Milk, cream and butter were provided by the Jones Dairy in Corydon, more butter was donated by Swift & Company. Around 15,000 pancakes were prepared on three or four griddles at the old Armory building on East Van Buren, where the line was as long as 100 people waiting for their maple-ey goodness.

There has been a Pancake Day Queen contest since the very first year. Joan McCalment from Unionville, Mo., was the first young woman named as the Pancake Day Queen.

Other events during that first year included a wood chopping contest and a horseshoe pitching tournament, with prizes awarded. The bandstand on the square was constantly filled with entertainment, including the music of The Melody Boys, The Golden Chain Troubadours, Myna and Pauline, and Fern and Norman.  Tucker the Magician was also there to entertain the crowd of 6,000. At the end of the day, a new 1949 Oldsmobile was given away — the lucky man, Terry Piatt of Moulton, was the winner.

The next year, a big parade was added, and some of the same events were repeated. Pancake Day grew even larger. In the years that followed, Centerville’s Pancake Day continued to grow, becoming a major regional event, where governors and pageant winners were often in attendance. According to the local papers, crowds of up to 50,000 people were claimed. Many celebrities, politicians and entertainers were a common site during those years of growth. Everyone wanted to be a part of Pancake Day. Many of the businesses got into friendly competitions to see which could come up with the best float. Bands came from miles around to compete in the band competition. Nearly all organizations, clubs, an schools had an entry in the parade. Over the years, Shriners, antique cars, horses, and more were added to the parade.

For the first five years, Pancake Day was held on the first Thursday in October, then moved to the last Thursday in September in 1954. The children were let out of school for a half day to attend the Thursday event. In 1964 the Kiddie Parade was added to the list of events on Pancake Day. In 1965, Pancake Day was changed to the last Saturday in September, where it has remained ever since.

In 1953, the Pancake Day Committee sold commemorative buttons as a fund-raiser. Over the years, many people have purchased one every year, and have an impressive collection.

Centerville’s Pancake Day has become famous. It has been mentioned in Time magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Des Moines Register and many publications all over Iowa. In 1988, a large group of citizens gathered in front of the courthouse to be filmed while proclaiming, “Good Morning, America!,” which aired on ABC. Since the early years, WOI, KTVO and KCCI television stations have covered the event at some point in time.

Over the past 63 years, Pancake Day has changed in many ways, but it has kept its original claim – free pancakes to thank the patrons of Centerville businesses.  In 1949, no one would have imagined that the Centerville Square would become host to over 1,000 empty lawn chairs several days prior to this annual event in anticipation of another great festival! Those lawn chairs are a testament to the pride and enthusiasm for the never-ending story of Centerville’s Pancake Day.

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