One doesn’t need to look hard to find a zany festival in Kansas.
Lucas has the Adam’s Apple Festival. Because, you know, the town is home to S.P. Dinsmoor’s historic Garden of Eden.
Elk Falls celebrates its outhouses each year with a festival on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
Cuba has the Rock-A-Thon. Participants rock around the clock for a week in rocking chairs, sometimes raising more than $25,000 for community projects.
WaKeeney has a Buzzard Bash, celebrating turkey vultures. Wilson, Dodge City’s Boot Hill and Harper all have testicle festivals, a showcase for deep-fried Rocky Mountain oysters.
But perhaps no festival in Kansas walks the line between bawdiness and boosterism quite like Fredonia’s Sausage Fest. A truly family-friendly festival, Sausage Fest takes place in the town square on the last Saturday night in August. It celebrates community but with a twist – double-entendres on male genitalia.
It’s the kind of event where you can sign up for the 5K Wiener Walk. Join a scavenger search known as the Quest for the Gilded Banger. There’s also the Wiener Weway, where participants scarf down a hot dog, drink a beverage and run with a Kielbasa baton in a relay around the town square.
Unlike many time-honored festivals in other Kansas towns, Sausage Fest started a relatively short time ago.
The inspiration for the festival came from a conversation two airline passengers had in 2015.
“Every good story starts, of course, with a trip to Las Vegas,” says Jennifer Bacani McKenney, the instigator of the festival and a family physician at the Fredonia Regional Hospital. “So, I was on my way back (from Las Vegas) and just like any good trip to Vegas, I was hoping that no one would sit by me, or that whoever sat by me wouldn’t want to talk.”
Not the case.
“I had a very talkative person … and at some point, I just had to concede and said I’d talk about Fredonia. I am very proud of my little town. He started asking, ‘Do you have any of those fun festivals like a lot of small towns? Do you have a garlic festival?’ And so, I’m like, ‘Well, we don’t have a lot of festivals, but we do have a homecoming but nothing that’s really unique.
“We talked about how there were a lot of farmers and livestock, pigs and things like that. I said we had lots of meat – and that turned into a meat fest, which … turned into a sausage fest and that was the birth of the whole thing.”
A festival comes to life
Bacani McKenney is no stranger to community involvement. She serves on the Fredonia school board and helped establish the Fredonia Area Community Foundation.
She’s also a member of the board of directors for the Kansas Health Foundation, a significant funder of the Kansas Leadership Center, which publishes The Journal.
Sausage Fest would seem to represent a much different kind of venture for a member of a profession not commonly associated with frivolity. And yet, the idea stuck.
Bacani McKenney introduced the concept to Cultivate Fredonia, a group of Fredonia residents who work to identify community needs and provide solutions. She had been instrumental in helping form Cultivate Fredonia in 2012.
The community growth initiative works on beautification, housing, business and healthy living projects, Bacani McKenney says.
“I asked them what they thought and that we could use (the festival) as a fundraising event for Cultivate Fredonia,” Bacani McKenney says.
The festival would raise money through the sale of ribald T-shirts – “Bigger and more satisfying than ever!” read the one celebrating the festival’s fifth year – and beer. Cultivate Fredonia could then use the money to fund activities such as Every Child Deserves a Bike, where second graders can sign up to receive a bicycle.
The idea resonated enough that a festival planning committee was formed. The committee’s ideas soon began to arouse the community. “We were all coming up with this idea – you may have heard the idea of a sausage fest and what it means in pop culture?” Bacani McKenney asks.
Ah no. Reporters can lead sheltered lives, please explain.
“Let’s say a group of guys was going to a party and they were going to pick up women, for example. But the whole party was basically men – like the ratio of men to women, was way high. So, lots of men might refer to it as a sausage fest. Their odds are not good at a sausage fest.”
And the festival takes place from 6 p.m. to midnight?
It is a reference to a comedy released in the late 2000s featuring actor Jonah Hill.
“A young man on there references seeing a young woman and says that he just went from six to midnight,” McKenney says. “Some people understand it; some people don’t. But those of us who get it have a good little chuckle.”
But this is a family-friendly fest?
Yes, all money raised goes toward funding projects in Fredonia. Besides bicycles for children, proceeds from Sausage Fest have helped Cultivate Fredonia place a Fredonia sign at the town’s roundabout and financed work on a skate park and a story path park north of the town library.
The festival’s total package can’t help but bring out the curious.
On the concrete steps at the town’s bandstand in the square, Martin Stookey, age 61, and his father-in-law Ron Blowers, 84, both from Independence, sat observing this year’s events.
“We came to see what it was all about,” Stookey says. “First time we ever heard of it.”
A story from a local newspaper and posts on Facebook piqued their interest.
“I was intrigued. It sounded like fun. I figure it must be about having a bunch of good hot dogs,” Stookey says.
As the festival evening rolled on, people of all shapes and sizes, some in costumes but all in various stages of satisfaction, appeared on the lawn of the square.
Carrie Stookey, Martin’s wife, was watching the Wiener Weway.
“I found out about this on Facebook on the What’s Happening pages,” she says. “I didn’t know if people were just that innocent or if they were trying to poke the bear a bit with the audience. I just thought it couldn’t be this naughty.”
This year was the fifth rendition of the festival. Sausage Fest failed to launch in 2020 and 2021, so plenty of get-up-and-go was evident this year.
Like any good festival, songs played in the background over speakers (although the Rubber Band apparently didn’t make the playlist). Neighbors and friends came together. Some drank beer. Others ate sausages – an apple gouda sausage went down easy.
Fredonian Cassie Edson was dressed in a long, white, flowing Victorian gown. Accompanying her was her dog, Angel, a 13-year-old dachshund who was sporting a pair of white angel wings. After years of running in the weenie dog races, the costume contest seemed more her speed.
“We always come to all the dog events. It’s just a lot of fun.”
Amy Thurlow, a Fredonia preschool teacher, is on the festival’s planning committee. She and her family have lived in Fredonia for the past seven years.
“The year we moved here was the first Sausage Fest,” Thurlow says. “We loved it! We thought it was so clever. We had so much fun, and I met Jen (Bacani McKenny) that night. And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to get involved with this thing. So, I just kind of asked if I could kind of be on the committee, and so, it’s been fun ever since.’”
In the past, vendors have given common foods raunchy names, Thurlow says. A simple biscuit with cheese becomes Schweddy Balls, a reference to an Alec Baldwin “Saturday Night Live” sketch. Sausage on a stick, wrapped in a cinnamon roll and icing drizzled on top becomes a Sticky-stick.
A town grows in its history and rises to celebrate
Located in southeast Kansas, near the Fall River, the town of more than 2,000 residents in Wilson County has a rich history. That area of Kansas was considered French territory and part of the Louisiana Purchase, which the United States acquired in 1803.
Kansas became a territory in 1854, and settlement near Fredonia began in 1857. The Fredonia Town Co. was organized in 1868, when the town’s land was platted.
Through the decades, the town has relied on the oil, natural gas and coal industries.
Other festivals the community hosts are the Old Iron Days in September and the Fredonia Fall Festival in October. But it seems fair to wonder if those two celebrations might get caught in the lengthening shadow of this Johnny-come-lately.
On the night of the Sausage Fest, the Rev. Alice Purvis, minister at Fredonia’s First United Methodist Church, sat on a bench in the square watching and sometimes smiling at the events.
“This festival is mostly about community,” she says. “It brings us together – in general, I don’t think our community history has anything to do with sausage. But truly, it’s like watching a movie. The kids just love it, and the adults who are watching catch all the secret jokes.”
When it comes time for the festival, the town square is filled with families – and family games – such as a cornhole tournament in which teams of two participate to see who can feed the cornhole the most sausages. A Mr. Hot Link Pageant features men who must raise money prior to the festival and then show off a talent and give a short speech.
And then, there is the Chorizo Challenge arm wrestling tournament and the Hurtin’ for a Squirtin! contest in which participants don hazmat suits and duel with ketchup and mustard squirt bottles. Pets – well-bred and otherwise – can be entered in a costume contest, which also has a human category. This year’s winner was a goat named Lady Baba, dressed up Lady Gaga-style.
Energetic families can pile onto the Wiener Wagon, a six-person pedal bike, and for $5 per person ride the length of the town square.
Always planning, always building relationships
“Honestly,” McKenney says. “It’s been all positive. We haven’t had anybody say this is inappropriate or not OK for kids.”
Perhaps the most fun, she says, comes not only from the festival but the planning committee meetings.
It’s not unusual for the committee of adults to have a libation or two as they create plans for next year’s festival.
“Even when we first started this, the idea is that if we did it right, this would be hilarious,” Bacani McKenney says. “We are very careful about the innuendos and double-entendres – they can’t be just blatantly offensive.”
And by the end of the evening, most people are listening to the music and dancing in the streets.
“It’s just a huge homecoming,” McKenney says. “People sometimes ask about all the different hats that we wear as family doctors in small towns. What I tell people is that this is a good example of relationships and relationship building.
“This festival may be the most ridiculous idea for a festival and is kind of pushing the limits – but this is my hometown. I’ve built relationships with business and community leaders. People believe this is a good idea and that we care enough about each other that we are going to support it and put money back into the community.
“We stress that even though it’s super fun and everybody has a good time, the underlying thing is that it’s for a good cause.”
So here’s the long and short of it: If your desires tend toward partying from six to midnight, Fredonia awaits.
A version of this article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
Sign up for email updates about The Journal’s content.