A Family Tradition: Derby Day at The Cabin

Whitney and I are published!  Well, we are published in our hometown newspaper, The Cynthiana Democrat.  Our mother asked us to commemorate our family’s long standing, yearly tradition, The Kentucky Derby Party.  Here’s the article:


A Family Tradition: Derby Day at The Cabin

by Whitney & Katie Conner

In 1968, our great-grandmother, Sara Newton VanDeren was chatting with her friend and fellow teacher, Mary Ruth Hendericks, about a recipe she’d just read in the Courier-Journal. “I’ve never tried one of those,” said Mary Ruth. “Well, come over tomorrow afternoon and we’ll make a batch,” replied Sara Newton. The day was May 3rd and the recipe was for a Mint Julep.

The next day, a group of a dozen or so friends and family congregated at the old 2-story house on Leesburg-Newtown Road to sample the famous drink and watch the Run for the Roses. Two of Sara Newton and Edward VanDeren’s five daughters and their families were there, Peggy and Julian Gray and Helen VanDeren Sams, along with Helen Batte, Johnny and Mary Ruth Hendericks, Bo and Lou Hoffman, and Jack and Mabel Shirley. During the party, the kids played in the yard and rode ponies.

To add excitement to the fete, there were jackpots for everyone to play.  All of the horses names were written on paper, folded and placed in a cup. Party-goers paid $1 to draw a name and if the horse won, received the earnings from that pot.  The impromptu party was a success and they decided to repeat the event the following year.  Five years later, the party moved with Sara Newton to “The Log Cabin” on the lane off Finnell Pike, where it has been held ever since.  This year will mark the 45th VanDeren Kentucky Derby Party, which now draws upwards of 150 guests each year.

No one quite remembers what food was served that first year – but today, the party begins with the food. On the Thursday or Friday before the Derby, a small group of friends and family gather around the dining table at the cabin and form an assembly line of benedictine and olive-nut sandwich-makers. Some cut the crust off of 2 pounds of white bread, others spread the filling inside.  Everyone participates in the storytelling.  Once finished, the sandwiches are stacked with efficiency into square tupperware containers and carted off to one of 3 or 4 refrigerators required to hold all the party confections.

The preparations don’t stop there. Up to a month before the party, chickens are being cooked, dough is being mixed, and countless trips to the grocery are made. Peggy and Helen make 300 chicken salad shells.  Our sister, Lindsey Florence, whips up 150 pecan tassies, a task that once belonged to our mother, Kay Conner.  Our aunt, Susan Hess, is in charge of 100 bite-sized cherry cheesecakes.  Years ago, Sara Newton would make hundreds of beaten biscuits, topped with Uncle Howard Taylor’s country ham. Today, our family friend, Viola Ritchie, has picked up the tradition, making 400 buttermilk biscuits to go with 10 pounds of ham.  And then there’s aunt Robin Gray’s cocktail wienies and spinach dip, B.T. Mulligan’s beer cheese, Peggy’s dill dip with vegetables and a chipped-beef cheese ball.  To top it all off, our Uncle Cecil Hess makes the signature drink, Mint Juleps.

The final preparations are made the morning of the party.  TVs are placed in every room of the cabin so that each guest has a prime viewing spot during the 2-minute race.  The food trays are displayed on the table.  Red roses arrive and are staged at the door, next to the guest book.  The $1 pots have been assembled and given to our cousins whose task it is to mingle about the crowd and tempt guests to join in the fun with promises that the winner is still in the pot.  These jackpots were Sara Newton’s favorite part of the day.  She would sit and draw horse after horse during the party, and at the end of the day would share her earnings with her grandchildren, and later, great-grandchildren.

Patrons arrive mid-afternoon, coming from across the county, Sunrise to Connersville, and the country, New Hampshire to Texas, and stay well into the evening.  When asked about their thoughts on the occasion, Bill Caywood and Phyllis Wyles said, “Year after year we gathered to pay tribute to Sara Newton and her fine family, yell for the horses, and indulge in libation most strong. Any regrets? Only that we can’t start all over, for we’ve not finished talking – and bet others are just like us.”

Derby Day, as we know it, is not only a Kentucky tradition, but a family tradition.  Since moving out of the state, we’ve missed a few Christmas celebrations, but we’ve never missed a Derby. We’ve explained to co-workers that Derby Day is our favorite holiday and the remark is typically followed with questions about the atmosphere at the track and the celebrities on Millionaire’s Row. It’s hard to explain that we’ve never even considered going to the race, because the only place we want to be on Derby Day is The Cabin, in Leeslick.

Sara Newton VanDeren and her daughters, Peggy Gray, Helen Sams, and BT Mulligan all served as educators in the Harrison County School System, with over 130 years of service between them. Sarah Newt passed away in 1997, but her daughters continued her tradition for another 15 years. 2012 marks the 45th – and final – VanDeren Kentucky Derby Party.


One thought on “A Family Tradition: Derby Day at The Cabin

  1. Thank you for sharing your wonderful story! I had Mrs. VanDeren, for a teacher in high school. My grandmother, Pauline Dunn Edwards, was a cousin to Sarah Newt and they talked weekly up until one of them passed away. What a shame to put an end to such a rich tradition.

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