“Actually, it comes to a point where most people have to have some encouragement to be interested in elections and they get encouragement in different ways. You did whatever you thought would make them be for you in the elections. If it was hoeing corn, pulling fodder, digging potatoes, gathering corn, milk the cows, hugging the women, or diapering the babies—whatever it took.”
—Ruby Watts, Judge Pro Tem, Knott County, KY
Watts wasn’t alone in his practices. Plenty of other mountain politicians bought gingerbread cakes from elderly women and distributed them to people in the hope of gaining a few extra votes. By doing this, candidates earned the goodwill of the gingerbread bakers and of the people who received a free piece of cake.
Of course, this was just a subtle means of vote buying… but you didn’t hear many complaints as local women generously passed out samples of their best family secrets.
Scots-Irish immigrants to eastern Kentucky would have known about the election tactic of ‘buying gingerbread’ from the old country. Here’s a snippet from an 1855 British novel titled The Heir of Selwood :
“I do not, however, approve of my friend Walter’s manners!” whispered the captain to Miss Norman. “There is a fitness of things even in buying gingerbread at a fair. He is behaving to-day in a manner highly commendable at an election; but his deportment is too candidatorial for ordinary occasions. As a member, it is right to court popularity; it is infra dig. To seek it as a man. All this distribution of gingerbread is trivial and out of place.”
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does ryhme,” Mark Twain once observed. As recently as June 2007, Knott County Judge-Executive Randy Thompson was convicted of scheming to buy votes; the federal jury also convicted John Mac Combs and Phillip G. Champion, deputies under Thompson, and Ronnie Adams, a former magistrate who now works for the county.
The Knott County town fathers have in recent decades figured out a way to take this negative and turn it to a positive. And so, in 1981 the county government created a Gingerbread Festival in Hindman to be held, naturally, when election day rolls around. Each year local folks vie for the title of Knott County’s best cook, bringing samples of their tastiest stack cakes, shucky beans and gingerbread. The Saturday parade features the world’s largest gingerbread man.
Sources: Our Appalachia, by Laurel Shackelford, Bill Weinberg, Donald R Anderson, University Press of Kentucky, 1988
The heir of Selwood By Mrs Gore, Catherine Grace F. Gore, Routledge, 1855, Collection of Oxford University