Rumbling drums and blasts of brass woke freshmen Jacquelyn Kong and Martin Guo in their dorm rooms.
Outside, Picnic Day had arrived.
Neither Bay Area freshman knew much about UC Davis’ annual open house. Once they began wandering from event to event, though, they were hooked.
“I got my first strawberry plant, ever, and that ultimately made my day,” says Kong, who, despite the ewww factor, also found she enjoyed cockroach races.
Both managed to score much-coveted tickets to the Chemistry Magic Show, and Guo took in all the barking and cheering at the Doxie Derby.
“Seeing the little dogs and everyone coming there to be together was really awesome,” he says.
Fast-forward four years later, and it’s fallen to Kong, as chair, and Guo, as vice chair, to guide 14 other directors planning the 100th incarnation of the country’s largest student-run event.
If the sunny, 70-something-degree day predicted for Saturday holds, this Picnic Day might attract 75,000 people or more, guesses Kong, who has been checking the weather forecast obsessively since February.
“All I want for Picnic Day is for it to be a safe, family-friendly event, where everyone just enjoys the day and nothing goes wrong,” she says.
“That’s what I’ve really been emphasizing this year with my directors, along with introducing them to the history of how Picnic Day started and what actually happened each year (since).”
Looking through old news clippings, fliers, photos and posters at each of their meetings, the group has learned their event couldn’t seem much more different in style, substance, its planners and its audience than the event’s humble origins.
“The commonality of it all is just celebrating the campus,” Guo says. “Every year it’s grown, celebrating what the campus has to offer, its students, its faculty and its staff. Every year, it just explodes. There’s more and more.”
This year’s schedule boasts more than 200 events and activities — so many there will be a prize for three people who most quickly can race to 30 of them and scan posted QR codes with their smartphones.
Compare that to the first Picnic Day, on May 22, 1909.
That day, about 3,000 people traveled by car, train and horse-and-wagon to campus to celebrate the opening of North Hall, the school’s first dormitory, at an event advertised around the state, according to “Abundant Harvest,” Ann Scheuring’s history of UCD.
The university served free coffee in the dairy barn — those who wanted ice cream needed to bring their own cups and spoons — and many lounged on blankets under the shade of creekside oak trees.
By 1911, the event had developed into a combined educational event and spring festival. In 1914, students took over its planning.
Two years later, the event took on the name “Picnic Day.” Attendance reached 15,000 — with only 314 students running the event.
An outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease in 1924 resulted in the first cancellation of the open house. In 1938, the unfinished construction of a new gymnasium, needed to house participants, resulted in a second.
The U.S. Army Signal Corps took over the campus to use as a training base during World War II, so Picnic Day went dormant from 1942 to 1944.
While much larger in numbers, Picnic Day has lost some of its stature, says John Lofland, a UCD professor of sociology emeritus and local historian.
The open house once was a regular stop for the state’s top political figures. Gov. Hiram Johnson spoke in 1916, Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown served as marshal in 1962 and then-Congressman Richard Nixon attended as a guest in 1952 — shortly before Dwight Eisenhower tapped Nixon as his running mate.
Gov. Earl Warren joined guests in 1951. He returned as marshal in 1970, less than a year removed from stepping down as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, a tenure that included the landmark decision ending school segregation.
The face of Picnic Day has changed with the campus, too. Only a handful of women attended classes on campus before the opening of the home economics program opened in the mid-1930s.
Women were relegated to activities like the annual fashion show. The 1929 event include a “farmerette” competition: a mix between a beauty pageant and quiz of household and farming knowledge. For the 1936 event, women students showed off time-saving kitchen devices, demonstrated how a table should be set and taught weaving.
In 1969, black students started Black Family Day as an alternative to Picnic Day, of which they didn’t feel a part. That event continues as one of a number of annual spring cultural celebrations.
The changes to the student body are evident in the faces of this year’s directors. Led by Kong, the board is half women and overwhelmingly Asian-American.
One of this year’s parade marshals, alumna Sandy Holman, who is black, was selected because of her championing diversity and understanding. She was nominated by Kevin Lee, an Asian-American board member who interned for her with the Culture Co-op.
Others of color have preceded Holman, but she says it still feels like a “pivotal” time in the university’s evolution — and that she feels encouraged about its future.
“Its a pretty beautiful circle that I’m even on this chart,” she says. “My grandfather, who has moved on to the other side of things, he would have been so excited that his granddaughter had been named a parade marshal. He’d have been tickled pink.”
Any number of Picnic Day activities have vanished with time.
Gone are jousting, the “fat-man’s race” and a greased-pig scramble. Others lost: a 136-mile pigeon race from the Quad to Merced, square dances and, from 1978, $3 plane rides. Threats of protests by vegan groups led to a fistulated cow — a cow with a visible hole in it for research — being taken off exhibition in 1997.
Looking back, some events seem very much of their time. In 1919, after the end of World War I, a stunt flying and aerial combat demonstration was featured. In 1939, military science students demonstrated a variety of weaponry — unaware that a few months later Germany would invade Poland, setting off World War II.
Lofland says fun and games have become central to the day as both campus research and the audience for that research have changed.
The early events included irrigation demonstrations, talks about farm equipment, lessons about pest control. Much research on campus now is harder to show off, however, taking place in sterile labs.
“The University Farm used to cater to agriculture, but now it’s more oriented to high engineering — tech engineering of all kinds — so it doesn’t have that hands-on, down-home quality where people can come and look at things,” Lofland says. “It’s not right or wrong; it’s just different.”
Picnic Day remained on campus only until the 1950s, when, with the encouragement of local boosters, the parade began looping through downtown on a route largely unchanged since.
It was alcohol-fueled behavior downtown, not on campus, that led to talk of the event being canceled for good. In 2011, police arrested 54 people and issued 207 citations for assaults, public urination and other crimes.
Each year since, police have instituted a safety zone around downtown, doubling fines for crimes like minor in possession, and many local businesses have signed covenants voluntarily restricting some alcohol sales.
Picnic Day planners also have encouraged attendees to sign a pledge to behave responsibly. They repeat “family-friendly event” like a mantra.
Progress has been made, city officials have said, but they are still watching the situation with concern.
Guo said this year’s directors have “done a lot of reflecting on the past. We’ve looked at a lot of Picnic Day history. We sort of infused what we’ve learned into our planning.”
That won’t be visible, he says, so much as it will be part of the spirit of the day.
Some pre-week events do have a nostalgic feel. They were to include a competition to guess the weights of various fruits and veggies, competitors racing to change in and out of period garb and, of course, the annual cow-milking competition.
New gatherings are planned for student government alumni and past Picnic Day board members, who will march together in the parade.
Many likely would gawk at a partial budget for this year’s event, which includes about $30,000 from Student Affairs, to cover facilities, grounds, electricity, cleanup, and the like; $10,000 from the Associated Students of UC Davis; and $8,000 generated by sponsorships.
If all goes well, the nonprofit event will break even. The board also hopes to attract donors to set up a foundation to help support future Picnic Days.
The student directors receive $600 apiece for a year’s work, and the vice chair $1,200. The chair is paid a $90-per-week salary. The stipends aren’t paid out to the directors until they’ve completed a report of their segment of the event.
The finished documents, representing the accumulated wisdom of how to run each facet of the event, are passed down from chair to chair, year after year. The used to fill a binder an inch and half thick before the report went electronic.
“I’ll feel like all is well after the parade ceremony, when everything kicks off, because I’ll know that everything is set up and all the logistics are done with. All we really have to do then is make sure the events continue throughout the day,” said Kong, an aspiring corporate events planner whose hometown, Millbrae, is home to about one-third as many people as may attend the open house.
Guo, a biochemistry and molecular biology major from Burlingame, said he hoped that visitors would walk way from this Picnic Day feeling that “Davis is a very tight-knht community, and that when people go to Davis, they join that community.”
“(Success means) minimizing injuries and as little as trouble as possible — and just making sure everyone you see on campus has a smile on their faces.”
— Reach Cory Golden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8046.