Diller's Grandaddy of All Picnics

When the 300 villagers of Diller decided to have a community picnic in 1897, they had the remarkable forethought to set up a paid dining hall for party crashers. Over a century later, the Diller Picnic draws a crowd fit for a county fair, and Diller’s citizens crank out enough grub to satisfy nearly 8,000 hungry visitors a day.



(This story originally appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)


THE GRANDDADDY OF all picnics in Nebraska was first served up on Aug. 12, 1897, when the 300 villagers of Diller decided to do lunch. They met on the banks of Indian Creek at the former Otoe Indian Reservation, but as they started their feast, the townsfolk soon needed room in those picnic baskets to feed many more.

A gathering of more than 5,000 from all over southeastern Nebraska and across the Kansas border let their noses lead the way as they ventured into Jefferson County to join the party, where there was fried chicken, bread and butter sandwiches, homemade jellies, baked pies and cakes as well as pickle treats and pickled beets. But the Diller folks had come prepared, and a dining hall near this grove had been set up for party crashers to fill their bellies for just a quarter. The crowd stuck around for a steam-operated merry-go-round, a new fizzy drink called cola and a marching band.

Then after the chewing stopped, jaws dropped, along with a parachutist from 2,000 feet. He landed safely from the first balloon to launch in Diller since its birth in 1880.

Now, 118 years later, the town is a little smaller, but the celebration is even bigger. A turnout nearly 40 times the size of this village of 260 is expected from July 3-5 for the Diller Picnic, which really stretches out more like a county fair.

A crowd of more than 8,000 is predicted just for Saturday night’s traditional show-stopping parade, where hand-crafted floats merrily roll on, with weird and wonderful creations like guys floating in a giant fish tank and a mobile skit spoofing American Idol. And don’t doubt the parade’s head count – Chairman Doug Lottman nearly has radar vision when calculating the 12 blocks crammed with spectators. You also can count on Lottman showing up again atop one of the delightfully inventive floats sponsored by his company, Lottman Carpenter Construction. One of this year’s Lottman entries will have riders circling about on a giant bicycle built for seven as a tribute to Diller’s merry-go-round.

This year’s theme is Fast & Furious, and all three days will live up to the name with a flurry of activities, said Randy Sandman, the village board’s vice chairman and CEO of Diller Telephone and Diode Communications, the family-owned business he’s been working at since the late 1960s. The festival returns with its mud-drag races and tractor pulls, and the annual pasture golf tournament played with tennis balls where a 16-gallon keg of beer greets golfers every three holes.

“Every year more stories are created, and to protect the innocent I will not divulge them,” said Sandman, who gets to start the parade with the civil defense siren. “They give me the key to the building and then they say, ‘Go blow it.’ ”

This year’s blow-out attraction is the Redneck Farm Olympics on Main Street. These “world-class” athletes will clash in contests like the cow-chip throw, egg gathering, hay-bale tosses and some Olympian efforts involving goat-shoeing.

“You gotta see that to believe it,” Sandman said. Of course, there’ll be plenty of food around the picnic grounds, with a pancake feed, chicken barbecue and two local Lutheran churches grilling burgers, brats and dogs, as well as dishing out homemade deserts.

Another treat for many families is the American Legion’s bingo, which longtime parade announcer Beth Roelfs says outshined the number games on her visit to the Las Vegas strip.

“When somebody has won their third game in two hours they know they’ll owe everybody a hamburger,” she said.

Roelfs said the biggest treat at the Diller Picnic is families sharing this tradition with the next generation. As a child, that tradition was taught to Roelfs by her now 85-year-old mother, Cleo Perkins, who last year was honored as the parade grand marshal, along with another longtime volunteer, Mildred Kotas.

“The picnic has instilled a sense of community and support and volunteerism that is modeled and then taught and assumed by generation after generation,” Roelfs said. “Families want to share that tradition with their children, and then those children grow up and want to share it with their children.”

Once again, a rich tradition will be passed on in Diller. Along with the mustard and relish.

Now join us in an early picnic feast as we share recipes from the village’s cookbook, A Taste of Diller.

Mama's Salsa on Strip Sirloin

Loren Grone

You’ll be dancing the salsa after whipping up this dish that sings out summertime. It’s perfect for a backyard lunch or creating your own picnic by the lake. If you want to rival the Diller Picnic, be sure you make enough for about 13,000 plates.

 

1 sirloin steak, cooked to your taste

1 qt canned whole tomatoes               

1 ½   cups chopped bell peppers

1 ½ cups chopped onion

4 oz green chilies

2 Tbsp granulated garlic

1 Tbsp salt

1 Tbsp black pepper

1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

 

Makes 2 quarts

Mash tomatoes and mix in the remaining ingredients. Cover and let set several hours for full flavor. Keep refrigerated and it will stay good for a month. Serve over sirloin steak.

 

Apricot Wraps

Floyd Scheele

As part of its 125th birthday party in 2005, Diller gathered more than 300 recipes from around Jefferson County. This colorful creation from the cookbook A Taste of Diller really caught our eye. Apricots are one of the early signs of summer, and with almonds it makes a healthy wrap to embrace. And a little bacon never hurt anything.

 

1 14 oz pkg dried apricots

1/2 cup whole almonds

1 lb sliced bacon

1/4 cup plum or apple jelly

2 Tbsp soy sauce

 

Makes 4 1/2 dozen

Insert an almond into each apricot. Cut bacon strips into thirds. Wrap a strip around each apricot and secure with a toothpick. Place on two ungreased baking pans. Bake uncovered at 375° for 25 minutes or until bacon is crisp, turning after 15 minutes. Place on paper towels to drain. For the dipping sauce, combine jelly and soy sauce in small saucepan. Cook and stir over low heat until warmed and smooth. Place apricots on paper towels to drain.

 

Lemon 7-Up Salad

Joyce Oltman

When 5,000 gathered in 1887 for that first Diller Picnic it was more than 30 years before 7-Up was invented. We suspect many there would have been bubbling over with enthusiasm for this clever recipe. Is this dish more Jell-O or salad? Let your taste buds decide.

 

2  pkgs lemon Jell-O

2 cups hot water

2 cups 7-Up

3 bananas, sliced

1 cup marshmallows

1 small can crushed pineapple, drained

 

Topping

1/2 cup sugar

2 Tbsp flour

2 Tbsp margarine

2  Tbsp pineapple juice

2 cups whipped cream

1 cup shredded American cheese

 

Serves 6

Stir the Jell-O, hot water and 7-Up together. Let set until syrupy in refrigerator. Add bananas, marshmallows and pineapple. Put in a 9-by-13-inch pan and chill.

Topping: Mix sugar, flour, margarine and pineapple juice together and heat until margarine is melted. When cool add in 2 cups whipped cream and 1 cup shredded American cheese. Pour over top of Jell-O and spread. Sprinkle with American cheese.


(This story originally appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

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