At Kennywood, school picnics used to mean real picnics.
I’m lucky. My birthday is June 5, and growing up, that day would sometimes coincide with our school’s Kennywood picnic. I loved it. Not only was the school year winding down, but my birthday became a big, special event—the most exciting day of the school year.
Back then, school picnics included a genuine picnic. Grandma Sebak expertly packed a big basket with homemade specialties, and Mom filled our old plaid Thermos satchel. Before we considered riding anything, we had to help haul stuff to our carefully selected table, staking a claim for the day. In later years, I remember my brother, Skip, and I lugging a silver cooler to the green picnic tables.
Some years, we set up in the pavilions under the trees behind the Penny Arcade. Later, we switched to the grove between the train and the Log Jammer (where the Whip was once located). We always seemed to be surrounded by families we knew from church or school or the neighborhood.
The idea of picnicking in West Mifflin is one that pre-dates the park itself. Before there was a merry-go-round, there were 19th century families who came with food to eat on the bluff high above the Monongahela. Andy Quinn, Kennywood’s director of community relations, says that school picnics probably started around 1906— carrying on a slightly political tradition that was started by Christopher Magee, now best remembered for the hospital named for him.
During the early 1960s, we always went on St. Valentine’s school picnic day, which didn’t always coincide with the Bethel Park school district’s day. But later on, things were better coordinated, and it became a community-wide celebration. Now, in May and June, the park welcomes 97 school districts for picnics that are held every day of the week, except Sunday.
In my documentary Kennywood Memories, there’s a family in one dreamy, old movie eating on a blanket, and although I never remember eating on the ground, the white-haired woman in the clip always reminded me of my grandmother. We never considered going to the cafeteria or the Parkside Café; buying park food was a luxury, and we waited until our dad arrived later in the day to get some chocolate-dipped treat or ice-cream sandwiches. And back then, no one ever imagined eating french fries at a picnic.