Goodwill, Fellowship, & Community Service
The traditional event was originally a tribute to the start of the fishing season however it soon gained a political function. The planking dates to the 1930s near Smithfield, Virginia, beginning as a small gathering of friends to celebrate the James River running of shad -- the oily, bony fish smoked for the occasion on wood planks over an open flame.
The Wakefield Ruritan Club took over in 1949 and has hosted the event ever since on the wooded property of the Wakefield Sportsmen's club near Route 460 in Sussex County, Virginia about an hour southeast of Richmond and an hour west of Virginia Beach. It is held on the third Wednesday in April each year.
Over the years, the gathering has evolved into a political gossip festival -- a place for candidates to see and be seen and for the curious to speculate about the likely winners and losers of the year's coming campaign season.
In its early years, Democratic party bosses used shad planking as an opportunity to select the next governor. Harry F. Byrd, Sr. and the Byrd Organization, dominated Virginia politics into the 1960s. However, as Virginia became more Republican the event became dominated by Republicans. Recent years has seen substantial representation by all parties, including the Libertarian Party. Generations of Virginia politicians have attended and addressed the Shad Planking gathering. Such legendary figures in Virginia politics as Harry Byrd, Senior and Junior, Mills Godwin, John Warner, John Hager, Doug Wilder, Mary Sue Terry, George Allen and many others have generously given of their time and talent to support this event.
The unique shad cooking technique that is enjoyed today traces it roots to Mr. Paul Cox, of Surry County, Virginia. Mr. Cox, along with several Ruritans including Dr. E.C. Nettles and Mr. Richard Savedge, invited twenty-five of their friends to historic Wrenn's Mill in Isle of Wight County, Virginia for their first Shad Planking. Having attended similar functions in the deep South, Mr. Cox introduced the group to the intriguing process of cooking 15 shad they had caught earlier in the day from the James River on hardwood planks over an open fire. With Dr. Nettles' suggestion and help, the Wakefield Ruritan Club in Wakefield, VA later adopted this time honored tradition as an annual community and fund raising function in 1949. The event has been held every year since to herald the arrival of spring, with attendance increasing in size from the original 300 guests to over 2000 today.
In his 1977 novel, "The Shad Treatment," Garrett Epps called it "a yearly gathering of the white men in Southside [Virginia] -- no blacks, no women allowed -- where the shirt-sleeve politicians . . . gathered to look over the political leadership." That has changed and all are welcome now. Many think that in 1977, then-state State Senator L. Douglas Wilder (D) became the first black to attend. Also that year, Washington Post reporter Megan Rosenfeld was the first woman to attend.
planking is marked by characteristic sign wars between opposing campaigns,
in which campaign workers cover the surrounding area with tens of
thousands of signs ranging in size from yard-variety to 4 by 8 foot
billboards. Indeed, the sign wars are so tied to the event that the term
"shad planking" has become occupational slang for high density sign