Whoever coined the phrase, “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” never heard of Paso Robles’ Pioneer Day, where the slogan is “Leave your pocketbooks at home.” In this day and age where people are getting taxed, solicited and robo-called at every turn, it is both refreshing and encouraging to attend a function that is basically one big “thank you” to everyone for simply being part of the community. Let’s take a look back at the history of Pioneer Day and see how it all got started:
The annual event began 88 years ago in 1931, two years into the Great Depression, the worst economic downturn the industrial world ever faced. Local townsfolk, business owners and churches invited farmers and ranchers to come in from the fields and celebrate the community as well as show their appreciation for all they provided to the area. Owner of local business Perfect Air and lifelong resident John Kropp said that it was an unspoken rule that businesses would close their doors for the first half of the day to enjoy the annual celebration.
“It’s a celebration of the town, its people and its spirit,” Pioneer Day Chairman Paul Viborg said.
Probably the most famous part of the festivities is the free “bean feed.” David Kudija, along with up to 30 other Lion’s Club members, local Boy Scouts and their parents, serve a free lunch to the town. Starting at 7 a.m. the troupe cooks over a half-ton of beans, coupled with 500 pounds of hamburger, 300 pounds of onions and 100 pounds of bell peppers along with 24 pounds of seasoning. The beans simmer for hours in massive metal cauldrons. Over 150-years-old, the metal vats were first employed to cook whale blubber to attain the valuable oil. Paul said that the metal drums are so old, there was only one welder in the area who knew how to work with their ancient metallurgy.
For almost 50 years, the original bean recipe, created by Vic Buckley, original owner of Vic’s Café, has been a closely-guarded secret. Originally, the town served stew to its denizens who were invited to participate in a potluck located at Robins Field.
One of the more colorful traditions in the history of Pioneer Day was Diamond Lil’s Barbary Coast Girls. Started in 1961 to help liven up the festivities, the gals consisted of Ellen “Diamond Lil” Tully, Lydia “Cuddles” Wolf, Nella “Hot Lips” Lipinsky, Betty “Lulu” Luke and Norma “Crystal” Vanderlip. The ladies adorned themselves in colorful custom-made dresses and originally tossed out fancy garters to the more attractive men in the crowd. According to a 58-year-old newspaper clipping, gentlemen should not entertain any “after parade notions” since the gals were guarded by their jealous and belligerent husbands; Henry “Whip” Tully, Mel “Muscles” Wolf, Walter “Slash” Lipinsky, Manford “Biceps” Vanderlip and Russ “Torpedo” Luke.
The first year the dance hall girls rode in style in the parade in a “surrey with a fringe top.” The next year Joseph Moore of San Francisco donated an authentic “Talley Ho” wagon with the stipulation that it be available to the Girls of the Barbary Coast for as long as they participated in the parade. The fun loving ladies did not limit themselves to only celebrating Pioneer Day, the lavishly dressed ladies participated in parades up and down the Central Coast.
Diamond Lil’s dance hall gals also helped raise money for the festivities by selling “smooth puss badges.” Out of respect for the field workers and ranch hands attending Pioneer Day, townsfolk grew out their beards. However, if one forewent the development of whiskers they could (and still can) purchase a badge for a dollar. However, those badgeless few found with smooth cheeks run the risk of being whisked away and tossed into the “Hoosegow,” a caged wagon that paraded them up and down main street. Traditionally, the prisoners were dunked in a horse trough at the end of the parade route but that practice fell by the wayside. As with tradition, the Ladies of the Barbary Coast are the judges of the Whiskerino Contest. The colorful gals determine who among the men have the most unique, best, fullest and best overall mustaches on the steps of Carnegie Library.
Though many traditions have come and gone over the long history of Pioneer Day, the centerpiece of Pioneer Day forever remains the parade. Apart from the horses, dancers and floats, Roblans are treated to a series of world class agricultural equipment. These tractors, restored and maintained by local residents, are symbolic of the success of Paso Robles brought about by townspeople and the agricultural community working together for a better tomorrow.