Laura Wilkerson

Laura Wilkerson
July 27


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OCTOBER 10, 2011 10:33AM

Company Picnics

Rate: 12 Flag
           When I was a kid I used to go to Company Picnics thrown by the companies for whom my parents worked; Big Rivers Electric and Westinghouse in and around Owensboro, Kentucky.
            Big Rivers would always throw a big shin-dig. There would always be barbeque catered by the Moonlight or the Hickory Pit. Sometimes it would be at a horse farm and there would be horseback riding or sometimes it would be at Ben Hawes State Park with guided tours of the trials lined with ancient trees studded with thorns. Dinosaur trees. There would be drawings by age groups for door prizes. One year a won an electric make-up mirror. Round, yellow plastic ringed with Hollywood bulbs; it flipped over to magnify your flaws.
            “I hope you don’t look at it and break it,” some teenaged wit smirked as his skinny, blonde blond girlfriend snorted over her salmon ruched tube top as a made my way down the runway boardwalk clutching my prize, happy for a moment.
            Westinghouse picnics were also catered affairs but not so lavish. They were held in the large cafeteria in the big square building where my mother and grandmother worked making incandescent light bulbs. Outside was a giant Vacuum Tube first installed when it was a Ken-Rad plant and there was a vogue for oversized novelty statuary like the statue of Gabe Fiorella in a red dinner jacket that stood waving on top a revolving pedestal outside the swanky Gabe’s Steakhouse at the corner of 18th and Triplett streets. For years I believed it to be a statue of Richard Deacon who played Mel Cooley on the Dick Van Dyke Show.
            The Westinghouse picnics tended to be a bit more chaotic, with lots of kids running all over the speckled linoleum floors, more like a Bingo hall, but without the Bingo. The barbeque would be served through cafeteria windows and they would by door prizes and all the kids would get General Electric coloring books and crayons and toy balloons. Still, it was nice to see where so much of my family had worked. I only saw inside where my dad worked once, way out in the country down gravel roads and through fences and past mountains of coal into a steel building that belched steam and clanged with the deafening fire of industry. We stopped on the way there and bought a Bible at a Bank. The Bible was ivory leather with gold lettering with a Catholic encyclopedia and lists of suggested baby names with meanings in the back.
            “I wouldn’t want you to work here,” my Dad said, “Unless it was in one of the executive offices. It’s too hard on a woman on the Floor.”
            At some point both companies stopped throwing Company Picnics. It seems like somewhere along the way most companies have whether it’s been deemed an unnecessary expense and sinful drain on shareholders profits or a potential liability issue if someone was to fall off a horse or impale themselves on a tree I don’t know. After Reagan and Thatcher deregulated American electrical plants Big Rivers became a wholesale producer and three new companies that have been sold over and again to the Brits, the Scots, the Germans and the Poles were created to act as middle men between the producer and the people. Nominally they were still customer owned cooperatives but more money went into executive salaries and less money into maintaining the electrical grid which all of which combined led us to Enron and Rolling Black-Outs and people dying because sociopaths with MBAs are now running the show.
My dad was sectioned off to one of the three offshoots, Kenergy and the picnic stopped.
Picnics had stopped at Westinghouse well before they moved to Mexico in the early 1980s. No word on whether they have ever resumed such Picnics for their new employees. North American Phillips set up shop and made light bulbs for a while, collecting several million dollars in tax incentives from the City and staying the minimum it took to fulfill their contractual obligations before closing up shop, citing as their reason competition from their own new state-of-the art plant in Mexico. There were no picnics there either.
Gabe’s Steakhouse closed sometime in the 1970s. The last I saw of the giant statue of Mr. Gabe he was standing behind a chain link fence on Southtown Boulevard, knocked off his pedestal, jacket painted blue, but still waving with a smile as if to say, “Hi, Neighbor! It’s a Wonderful World!” his tag-line back when he was actually alive and the reigning Bon Vivant of the steakhouse circuit.        

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My dad was a Teamster. We went to Teamster picnics at Alexander Duessen park in east Harris County, near Lake Houston if my memory is correct. It is a shame these type of events don't exist anymore. Seems like promoting camaraderie among your employees and thanking them for their hard work is no longer profitable and acceptable. Got to keep them shareholders happy. Excellent essay!
I remember these well as a young girl in Washington state. My favorite parts of these events, were the "Needle in the haystack" game, only instead of needles, there were quarters to be found! Kids would pile onto the haystacks digging through the straw for the quarters till all were found. And also the root beer popsicles! Once a year and only time we had them. Wonder why we never had those at home. Going to the market for them tomorrow! Or better yet, root beer floats!
This brings back memories! I remember going to company picnics when I was little; the raffles, the games, the food. I think there's another reason big companies don't do these things anymore and it doesn't have to do with money because they weren't that expensive, really. They weren't just fun, they fostered a sense of "team spirit" and of belonging. Getting to know your co-workers on a more personal level and meeting their families along with the boss's family made you feel like you mattered. Same thing with Christmas parties. Not anymore. Why encourage those feelings when everyone might get axed the next day. Your post was a bittersweet reminder of how things used to be.
My dad worked for General Electric in the 1950s and the company picnics were a blast. I wonder if he bought any stock? Thanks for evoking a forgotten memory.
Moonlight bbq is worth the trip over the blue bridge.
Lovely, & sad.
Little places still maintain the tradition, I hope.
There was a time when large corporations served four distinct constituencies: the customers, the stockholders, the local community, and the employees. Picnics were a part of serving that last constituency. Nowadays, corporations serve three constituencies: the customers (only to the extent that they allow the corporation to serve the next two constituencies), the stockholders, and the top executives. Some minor lip service is granted to the other constituencies, but precious little.

Also going by the wayside are company Christmas parties. The last big company I worked for allowed a Christmas party only because large business customers were invited as well, so it was no longer an employee perk, but a marketing event. The last employee-only party I attended required the employee to pay for a ticket to attend.

I wonder how many picnics could be restored if executives cut one or two million dollars out of their annual multi-million dollar compensation package?
I still have some old photos of my folks at the company picnics...back when companies knew how to keep their employees happy.
Happier, anyway.
Nice post, thanks for the remembering of those times.
My mother worked in accounting at the Post Office in Riverdale, Maryland in the 1970's and early 1980's. There used to be a Post Office picnic each year, if I remember sometimes at Greenbelt park. They were fun. We ate hamburgers and hotdogs and ice cream and played until we dropped. My mother learned sign language to talk to some of her deaf co-workers and I remember being in awe of her learning that skill. I would have never found out unless we went to the company picnic. Some companies continue to have these events but they are not as big as the ones I remember and many now have them during the weekdays during work hours, which discourages families from joining.
Thanks for jogging my memory - those company picnics at Daddy's company were magical to kids in the 50's and early 60's. He worked for Pennsylvania Power & Light. His company picnic was held at Safe Harbor Park, the park PP&L owned. Games and chicken and a cake walk on the bandstand. Just fun stuff.
They still have these believe it or not. I work for an electric coop - and maybe that's the key - and we have an annual picnic every year, either a catered bbq lunch and a Texas Rangers game, or a lunch and entrance to Schilliterbahn or something.
Wow, I had almost forgotten about the company picnics of days gone by. Times have changed. Rated.
My company still has an annual picnic and Christmas party.
I understand your nostalgia for those days, particularly from the child's perspective. My place of employment still holds annual company picnics, but I have never understood their appeal.
I like how your early event dovetails into current event(s). And I remember the Psychology Department picnics when I was a kid. At one of these, my best friend and I buried a bird that had slammed into her picture window--we got a rabbi who happened to be there to say a few word over the shoebox.