While no one can quite pinoint when the Groundhog Supper at Garden City's First United Methodist Church first started, those who continue to help with the longstanding event haven't forgotten its purpose.
"I think it started in the '40s," said Tim Miller, who oversees the event these days as a member of the United Methodist Men. He went on to explain that the church has always used the event as a fundraiser, enticing patrons with a steady menu of whole sausage, mashed potatoes with gravy, biscuits, sauerkraut, applesauce and an endless assortment of pie.
Folks from around southwest Kansas make the supper a must-eat, as they have for much of their lives, and Miller says the proceeds go toward funding for scholarships, Boy Scout programs, choir programs and church activities.
Last year, The Telegram reported that 2017’s supper was the 69th recorded, making 2018’s, presumably, the 70th. That puts the date of the first supper somewhere around 1948. On that, there is no consensus.
Miller noted that they used to play live music years ago because attendees would have to come and sit and wait for their food. Now, takeout is an option, and everything moves a little more quickly, he said.
“It’s been interesting over the years, the changes to modernize the way we make things,” Miller said. “It speeds things up.”
But despite the speed and modernization, the event has dwindled over time in attendance, along with church membership, Miller said. Even the good weather on Tuesday, a balmy January day with a high of 70 degrees, stood to deter attendance by simply giving people other things to do.
“Years ago, there weren’t so many things to do,” Miller said. “Everybody’s got five things to go to. So we’ve got takeout. That’s been picking up over the years. People just come in and grab and go rather than stay and eat. That helps some, too.”
At $7 a plate for adults and $3.50 for kids, Miller's estimate of 800 to 900 attendees makes the supper at least somewhat lucrative. But still, Miller said, as many as 1,400 people used to come, meaning the revenues have declined more than a little.
Up until two or three years ago, Rodger Funk has helped with the supper, after moving back to Finney County in 1962 from South Dakota. He said a lot has changed since then, namely the choice in dishes and silverware, which are now Styrofoam and plastic.
“We used to use dishes and silver, ya know, and I was in charge of the dishwashing detail for years,” Funk said.
At 90 years old, Funk speaks fondly of the old days with a persistent smile as he peers from behind thick frames. He says it took him and the boys until 10 o’clock at night to clean up all those dishes.
“Now they throw everything away,” he said.
When asked if he knows specifically when and why the event got started, he said he wasn’t sure. The nonagenarian wouldn’t have been able to ask any of his contemporaries, either.
“The people that I worked with are all dead,” he said.
More than anything, Funk said, the event is a chance for the United Methodist Men, the group that hosts the supper, to spend time together in fellowship, especially as the group declines in activity.
As chairman of the drinks — a title derived from his self-ascribed role as “chairman” and his designated oversight of the drink situation — Cedric Hands said he has been involved with the supper since he was about 24. He is now 65.
“I think the menu has been fairly similar,” Hands said. However, he noted, the hash browns previously served were replaced by instant mashed potatoes, “because that way you don’t have to peel them.” And as for help, that’s dwindled, too. Hands said he formerly had 32 people working under him. Now he only has 24 — a drop he associated with declining patronage at the church.
He also noted that other organizations hold their own sausage suppers with the same name — “Groundhog Supper.” The Knights of Columbus held theirs Sunday, and Deerfield will hold one Wednesday at the Deerfield Community Building.
As for his role as Chairman of the Drinks — which orchestrates all orange juice, water and coffee distribution — Hands said he’s trying to find someone to pass the torch to.
“You try to get off of being chairman of your committee, but they say you either have to find somebody to replace you or you have to die,” Hands said. “I haven’t found either case yet.”
Contact Mark Minton at firstname.lastname@example.org.