Imagine leaving behind your relatives and friends to pack your life into a wagon and set out across the uncharted Great Plains, rife with danger at every turn. In the 1800s, thousands did just that, departing from St. Louis, Missouri to head out west. Many of those kindred spirits landed in the fertile farmland of what would one day become Linn County, Oregon, and through their hardship and achievement, they developed a life long bond. In 1887, the Linn County Pioneer Association formed, kicking off an annual reunion for the homesteaders, where adventure stories could be shared and recorded. They had left family behind, so they created a new one.
Originally, membership necessitated proof of residence prior to 1855, but following the deaths of the founders, requirements were loosened to include anyone dedicated to preserving heritage and shaping the future. For its first several years the gathering bounced between nearby Crawfordsville and Halsey, but each and every year since 1893 the residents of Brownsville have come together on the banks of the Calapooia River to celebrate perseverance and kinship, making the Pioneer Picnic the longest continually running community event in the state.
In those early days, families from all over Linn County would journey for miles by horse and buggy, setting up tents and blankets to enjoy three days of musical performances, theatrical exhibitions and church services at the historic grandstands. Today, those customs hold true, along with a whirlwind of carnival games, pie eating contests, a three-legged race and a quirky Penny Scramble, where children jostle to find the coppers hidden in a large square of sawdust. The winner pockets the spoils, along with some additional prize money
Competition has been a mainstay at the Pioneer Picnic, but in the past, not everyone has approved. During 1917’s festivities, the games were deemed too noisy and distracting from tradition, and thus were eliminated. The ban didn’t work out as planned, when two teams assembled for a game of tug-of-war over the river, leaving visitors from Mountain Home soaking wet. Lumberman skills are also put on display, following the induction of the Logging Jamboree in 1956.
Undoubtedly, the highlight of each year is the Grand Parade, where descendants of the original settler families ride down Main Street on decorated floats and antique cars, oftentimes dressed in 19th Century garb. Prime sidewalk real estate is claimed with camp chairs. Excited children hold baskets, ready to snatch thrown Tootsie Rolls and lollipops. Faithful subjects stand ready to wave to the newly crowned picnic queen and her court.
For 2016’s procession, lifelong Brownsville resident Mary Lou Neher took on the esteemed responsibility of Grand Marshall. Her grandparents Flavis and Anna Eggleston founded the Brownsville Creamery on Kirk Avenue, a family owned shop renowned for its delicious ice cream. In 1983, Mary Lou’s own mother Mattie K. Eggleston occupied the same role, so upon hearing of her invitation, Neher queried, “Are you sure? I don’t know if I’m old enough.”
She went on to perform admirably, as any of her fellow citizens would. Community is the driving engine of Brownsville’s most beloved celebration. Without the support of local businesses and countless volunteer hours, things would not be the same. But in the spirit of their predecessors, the residents of this small town are hardy. They may not have to deal with rattlesnakes and bouts of dysentery anymore, but through inclement weather (rain nearly cancelled the event on several occasions) and times of war, the mantra has always been that the picnic must go on.
Some things have changed at the Pioneer Picnic—the founders most likely didn’t hold a 3-on-3-basketball tournament. Still, many things have not changed at all, and at its heart, the principle of fellowship rings true. In 2017, the Pioneer Picnic will celebrate its 130th anniversary and takes place June 16-18. For a more detailed schedule of events visit historicbrownsville.com.