Pancake Day Race boosts community’s economy

This year marks the 75th anniversary of what’s known as the Pancake Day Race in the southwest Kansas town of Liberal. It’s an oddity, but these types of community festivals offer economic benefits to smaller towns.

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February 29, 2024 - 2:01 PM

Pamela Bolivar crosses the finish line to win this year’s Pancake Day Race in Liberal, Kansas. She grew up running in the race as a child, and now has won her hometown bragging rights against Olney, England. Photo by Kaden Classen/365th Street Photography/Kansas News Service

LIBERAL — Women dressed in aprons, skirts and headscarves line up in the middle of main street. They’re dressed in a traditional English kitchen outfit, but instead of cooking, they are about to race. As the women get on their marks they prepare their other race essentials, frying pans and pancakes.

This is the annual Pancake Day Race, a tradition in Liberal, Kansas, for 75 years. People gather to watch competitors run the quarter-mile race holding frying pans containing a single pancake.

It’s a multi-day event in Liberal with an international connection as locals compete against racers in England.

While events like this held in many smaller towns may seem like curiosities, they can offer economic and social benefits that motivate communities to keep them alive.

“We’re smack dab in the middle of nowhere, and in a small sense, we’re connected internationally,” said Gary Classen, who has been chairman of Pancake Day for eight years.

History

The tradition goes back to Olney, England. The story goes that a woman in 1445 was using up her fats and grains before Lent began, a period of fasting before Easter. She heard the local church bells ringing, which meant she was late. She ran to church, still in her apron with a pan and pancake in hand. This sparked a lighthearted tradition in the English town of women racing down the road with pancakes in hand.

In 1950, a man named R.J. Leete from Liberal read about the race in a magazine and wanted to use it to put his growing town in Kansas on the map. He sent a letter challenging Olney to an international pancake race. The challenge was accepted with only 40 days to prepare.

Since then, a bond between the communities formed through the competition.

Tradition in the modern day

Members of Liberal gather in a church every year and hop on a video call with officials from Olney to compare race times.

A hush falls over the crowded church as an Olney official reveals their best time, 1:03:37. This year, Liberal won the closest race in recent memory with a time of 1:03:03. The crowd exploded in cheers as 19 -year-old Pamela Bolivar from Liberal was declared the winner.

Putting on this festival is no small feat. It takes dozens of volunteers and contributions from the community. Many businesses make donations to support the event. IHOP donates all the batter used in the countless pancake activities, eating contests, flipping contests, races and community breakfasts.

Small towns across the state have their own festivals and traditions, whether it’s theTulip Festival in Wamego, or theBalloon Regatta in Columbus. They are looking for ways to bring people in, and bring them together, no matter how silly.

“Why in the world would you take a 63 second race and turn it into a four-day event?” Classen said. “We embrace the silliness of it and it turns into something big.“

Economic impact

These celebrations aren’t just a small town’s attention grabber. There are economic benefits as well.

Eli Svaty, economic development director for Liberal, said it’s hard to stand out when trying to attract businesses and industries. Having something like Pancake Day plays into the caricature of rural America, but it also makes the town memorable.

“If they don’t want to live somewhere, they’re not going to move a company there,” he said. “There is a slice of Americana that still exists out here.”

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