FACT CHECK: ST. JOHN’S PICNIC 2.0

(Editor’s note: I am filing this post from Brookfield. My babysitting duties here were extended late last week and I will not be able to attend today’s Cemetery Walk. I am deeply disappointed. I was really looking forward to a presentation by Ernie Pulvermacher on J. Wm. Worm, the Princeton Fire Company’s first chief and an interesting and influential character in “Old Princeton. The programs begin at 1 and 4 p.m. You need to be on time, because Worm’s gravesite is the first stop on the walk. Have fun!)

Here is another example of Princeton history being disrespected and altered in the 21st century.

I had a déjà vu moment last week when I bought a copy of the Princeton Times-Republic at Kwik Trip to read an article about the Princeton Historical Society. There was a story about the St. John’s picnic at the bottom of the page. The opening paragraph said it would be the “117th annual picnic.”

I knew that was wrong because I had done a Fact Check last year when I saw a poster claiming it was the 116th annual celebration.

Here are the facts: This was not the 117th annual picnic, because it has neither been held annually since 1906 nor has it been been held 117 times.

The nuns at St. John’s taught me language matters.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary – “occurring or happening every year or once a year; yearly.”

By definition, an “annual event” is held yearly. The school district annual meeting held each summer is a good example. It is held rain or shine, regardless of who’s on the school board or in the superintendent’s chair.

Newspaper articles and research by previous Princeton historians documented the fact that the first St. John’s picnic was held in 1903.

Princeton Republic, June 25, 1903 – “Next Sunday the Polish school will give a picnic in Wyse’s grove near the church. The committee in charge are making arrangements for a big time. There will be all kinds of games, amusements, and refreshments. Prof. Weinkauf’s brass band will furnish the music. Don’t forget to attend. A big time for everybody.”

The “second annual” picnic was held in 1904.

Princeton Republic, July 21, 1904 – “The second annual picnic of the St. John Polish school was held Sunday in Wyse’s grove. The picnic was a success in all ways, a large crowd being in attendance. The fact that it rained during the afternoon made the receipts less than they otherwise would have been. The receipts for the day were over $300. The Ideal band furnished the music.”

Researchers have found no information on a picnic in 1905. An article bearing a Princeton Historical Society byline published in 1998 concluded there was no picnic that year. We can document the event resumed in 1906 and continued through 1947.

Princeton Times-Republic, Aug. 14, 1998 – “This Sunday St. John the Baptist Parish will celebrate their annual picnic. This is the 42nd since its rebirth in 1956 under Father Joe. Many people of this area call this the ‘Polish Picnic,’ as it began earlier this century to support the Polish Catholic School. The first of what was to become the annual Polish School Picnic was held on Sunday, June 28th, 1903. The second annual picnic, held in 1904, almost proved to be the last. During the picnic a fire broke out in the priest’s dressing room in the southeast corner of the church. The fire burned but little before being brought under control. … The picnic was skipped in 1905 but became an annual affair in 1906. This picnic would run for over 40 years before temporarily ending in 1948.” (Princeton Historical Society)

A newspaper ad in 1914 called it the 9th annual picnic, reflecting the “annual” count restarted along with the 1906 re-start date. It was not the 12th annual because there was no picnic in 1905.

We can find references to the picnic in the newspaper each year through 1947.

Princeton Times-Republic, Aug. 7, 1947 – “Preparations are under way to make the Big Picnic at St. John’s Catholic School ‘bigger and better’ than ever before. The date: Sunday, August 17. The place: church grounds. As an added inducement this year, a champagne ham dinner, with all the trimmings will be served from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Cake and ice cream will be served for dessert. There will also be hamburgers and hot dogs. … John Naparalla is chairman of the committee and his assistant is John Kalupa.”

The picnic was not held from 1948-1955, per parish minutes, older living parishioners and newspaper reports.

Princeton Times-Republic, Aug. 16, 1956 – “Sunday is the big day for the famous home style chicken dinner and old-fashioned homecoming picnic sponsored by St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. It is nine years since the last picnic, when it was discontinued because of restrictions, the amount of work and other reasons. This year the new church officers and the new pastor encouraged the decision to bring back the annual affair.”

St. John’s has not used its traditional picnic grounds in the former “Wyse’s grove” in recent years. There is talk of moving the bandstand out of the grove next year.

That, in a nutshell, is the history of the picnic. To recap: The picnic started in 1903 and continued in 1904 (2), was not held in 1905, resumed in 1906 and continued through 1947 (41), resumed in 1956 and has continued through 2022 (66).

If my math is correct, that would make the 2022 picnic the 66th annual and 109th overall.

So, when I saw the article in the Aug. 18 paper claiming it was the 117th annual picnic, I sent a note to Berlin Newspapers asking for a correction and included pdfs of two pages from the Princeton Times-Republic as documentation: the frontpage story from 1956 explaining that the picnic had not been held for nine years and the article from the Princeton Historical Society in 1997 pointing it out it started in 1903. (See pdfs at bottom of file.)

I also offered to send a copy of the page from the history of St. John’s parish written by Alice Krystofiak in 1987 indicating the picnic had stopped and then resumed in 1956.

I also provided a link to the 2021 Fact Check regarding the picnic.

I did not include a dictionary.

My correction request was denied, I was told in an email, because there was insufficient information to determine it wasn’t the 117th annual picnic (and none that it was). Huh?

The newspaper suggested perhaps the 1956 newspaper and 1998 historical society articles were incorrect, not the 2022 press release or reporter, and that “annual picnic” might not mean a picnic held annually. Ugh. Where are the nuns when you need them?

I bought the newspaper again this week because there was an interesting story on the front page about an old press made by a familiar Princeton name. It was a good read, and I was relieved to not spot any obvious historical errors. But a story and photos from the picnic were included on an inside page. The headline and story again proclaimed it the 117th annual picnic.

LOL

Like talking to a brick wall!

I’m not sure whether someone in Berlin needs a lesson in grammar/language or math, or both.

I assumed all along this was likely an innocent mistake made several years ago when someone in charge of picnic publicity, or a reporter who didn’t do their research, was told incorrectly that the picnic started in 1906 and did not know the picnic went on hiatus during Father Karwata’s final years here.

The Times-Republic wordsmiths in the 20th century knew better and were more concerned about accuracy than their 21st century successors. Picnic previews in the newspaper from 1956 through the end of the century avoided specifics regarding the start or number of picnics. They likely were avoiding using “annual” because they were versed well enough in grammar and language to know that would be incorrect. Newspaper articles in August 1988, 1994, and 2000, for example, said the picnic had started in the early 1900s, without mentioning a date, and resumed in 1956, and did not claim it had been held annually. The writer of the 1997 historical society article took the same precaution, explaining very clearly: “This is the 42nd since its rebirth in 1956.”

That changed in the 21st century.

An article in August 2005, after historians such as Alice Krystofiak and Gary Wick were no longer available to cry foul, reported the parish was celebrating the picnic’s 100th anniversary. (See pdfs at bottom of file.)

I suspect this is where the newspaper and/or parish originally mucked up our picnic’s history. (I did not have access to 2001-2004 papers here.)

Princeton Times-Republic, August 18, 2005 – “It’s been a part of local history for the lives of residents over the past ten decades, and it’s heading into another century of memories, friendships, food, and festivities. The St. John the Baptist Catholic Church Picnic marks its 100th anniversary on Sunday, August 21. Events will be held on the shady church grounds, located at Princeton’s west end.”

If the first picnic had been held in 1906 rather than 1903, 2005’s would have been the 100th picnic – but not the 100th annual picnic. Perhaps the average layman who didn’t like English class (I even enjoyed diagramming sentences!) would not understand the difference, but writers and editors should. A 100th anniversary (marking 100 years since the event started) is different than the 100th annual event (held yearly for 100 years).

The sidebar story about the picnic history written by a parishioner also made it clear, like previous published reports, that the picnic was not held annually in the 1940s. Nevertheless, the Times-Republic called St. John’s event in 2007 “picnic 102” and referred to it as the “104th annual picnic” in 2009. The newspaper, and I assume parish, has continued the erroneous count annually (used correctly here) since the original sin.

It doesn’t matter where or when the error originated. We now know better, and the newspaper has an opportunity – I and my J profs would say obligation – to set the record straight.

The odd thing here is there is no debate. No one at St. John’s disagrees with the parish’s historical information. Just the newspaper. An old friend I saw at this year’s picnic suggested the “xxxth annual” line in the press release is routinely updated each year. In a court of law, this would be an open-and-shut case.

Few people other than local historians and newspaper archivists care whether it was the 109th or 117th picnic. It certainly won’t affect the historical significance of the event or the sale of dinner tickets or corn-hole entry fees next year.

So the question becomes, why would a newspaper keep repeating and spreading inaccurate information after being shown it was wrong? I can’t explain that, and I’ve sat in the editor’s chair at weekly newspapers, daily newspapers and newspaper groups. I know how the sausage is made.

A newspaper’s credibility is built on accuracy. The newspaper in this case turned accuracy into a joke. They repeated the error on Aug. 25, reveling in the joy of sticking it to the crazy old history guy, simply because they could. That would draw a yellow penalty flag for taunting in the NFL.

Pride and pettiness trumped accuracy.

Boy, they really showed me!

I laugh as I share my tale with former colleagues and we shake our heads, but it’s a sad commentary on how unreliable once-proud weekly newspapers have become across the industry. It’s painful to watch the demise as a historian and journalist.

I have examined every edition of the Princeton Republic and Times-Republic available on microfilm from 1867 to 2000. It is a case study of what happened to many small newspapers and what I experienced over the course of my career, and will make an interesting chapter in Volume II of my history of Princeton.

The Times-Republic was a vibrant local newspaper under the guidance of publishers such as Harry Hobart in the 1940s, Phil Norman and Bob Francis in the ‘50s, and Jim Wolff in the ‘60s. The newspaper’s decline began when Wolff – the last publisher/editor to live in Princeton – sold the paper to a small chain in the late 1960s. The hometown editors who kept the newspaper on track following Wolff were Ruth Gruenwald, Mary Swed, Alice Krystofiak, Carol Murphy, Susan Kent, Marie Schlaefer and Barb Weir. The newspaper’s slide became more obvious when ownership eliminated the Princeton editor position and lost years of community knowledge in the early 1980s.

The sudden death of Raymond “Duke” Schlaefer, printer-turned-general manager of the Princeton office who had lived here for 32 years, in 1986 removed another layer of institutional/community knowledge.

The chain also expanded the local reporter’s coverage area to include Omro or other communities, and in more recent years replaced full-time reporters with correspondents (independent contractors), some of whom don’t live in the communities they cover and receive little professional training.

Princeton is fortunate to still have a local newspaper, but the inevitable result of the chain’s financial decisions over the years is a less accurate, less complete newspaper of less value to readers and future historians as a “paper of record” than its 19th and 20th century editions.

Here’s the correction the Princeton Times-Republic should have run: “Due to incorrect information provided to the Princeton Times-Republic, a story on Page 1 of the Aug. 18 edition erroneously reported St. John’s Catholic Church was holding its 117th annual picnic. The first picnic was held in 1903. Picnics were held annually from 1906-1947, resumed in 1956 and have been held annually since that time. We apologize for the error.”

That wasn’t so painful, was it?

I’ll give the newspaper another chance at redemption this week and will request a correction for the Aug. 25 errors. 🙂

With our history corrected, we can travel back in time next August and re-celebrate St. John’s 110th Polish Picnic, the oldest church picnic in the state, held annually since 1956!

(Editor’s note: Next year will also be the 175th anniversary of the founding of Princeton and statehood for Wisconsin (1848-2023). In keeping with centennial and sesquicentennial celebrations in 1948 and 1973, respectively, civic leaders are planning a big celebration for the demisemiseptcentennial. The Polish Picnic, meanwhile will celebrate its centiventennial (120 years, 1903-2023), and 2023 will also be the semiseptcentennial (350 years, 1673-2023) of the Joliet-Marquette expedition that traveled the Fox River through the future home of Princeton en route to the Mississippi. Party on, history nerds!)

Thank you for reading and caring about local history … community journalism, basic grammar, and basic math. Unlike the newspaper, I welcome corrections.

You can adjust the size of the pdfs using the percentage in the gray bar at the top of the page and move up and down using the guides on the right edge. The first two are rough “quick scans,” so I apologize for the blur.

Fact Check: While the St. John’s picnic information is correct in the historical society article above, some information is not. The picnic in 1893 was not the first for St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. The Princeton Republic reported St. Patrick picnics in 1886 (June 17 edition) and 1889 (August 22); proceeds were used for church repairs and a new bell, respectively.

Fact Check: If the first St. John’s picnic had been held in 1906 (it wasn’t) rather than 1903, the 2005 celebration would have been the 100th picnic. But, again, language matters. A 100th anniversary (marking 100 years since the event started) is different than the 100th annual event (held annually for 100 years). I suspect this is where the newspaper and parish originally began mucking up our picnic’s history. A copy editor also might question using “100th anniversary” rather than “100th picnic.” My cousin celebrated her 50th wedding anniversary last weekend. They were married in 1972. Princeton and Wisconsin, founded and formed (statehood), respectively, in 1848, celebrated their 100th anniversary, or centennial, in 1948 and sesquicentennial in 1973. The centennial of an event started in 1906 would’ve been 2006.

Fact Check: I really enjoyed reading the history regarding the picnic in the 1950s. That’s the picnic – and little aprons – I grew up with and the people I remember as parish leaders. The only error I saw was the statement that the picnic halted during World War II due to rationing. It ended a few years after the war and resumed in 1956.

Leave a Reply