TELLURIDE – On Thursday, July 3, the Telluride Volunteer Fire Department are hard at work in Town Park tending fires of their own, and counting down the hours to the July Fourth Fireman’s Barbecue.
It’s a barbecue unlike any other, from its permanent barbecue pit (a huge brick and concrete oven that’s fired up every year, so the coals must be at just the right temperature for cooking more than 1,200 pounds of beef and 600 pounds of chicken).
The coals glow, the aroma builds, and once the Telluride July 4 Parade wraps up, around lunchtime, more than 2,000 hungry people head to the park for an afternoon of barbecue and games.
“To me, this is Christmas in the summer,” says Telluride Fire Protection District Director John Bennett. “It’s a great fundraiser for us, it’s a great event for our community and it brings the new of town together with the old of town and, of course, all of our visitors.”
Bennett his fellow fire department staff and volunteers put in an all-nighter on July 3, first igniting a fire in the pit for the hot coal base. Meanwhile, the chicken and beef are marinating in former volunteer John Micetic’s “secret” barbecue sauce.
Then things get complicated. Bennett says the beef is put into burlap sacks that are sewn shut for dipping into a flour-and-water mixture with “the consistency of Elmer’s Glue,” he says, for hanging, on a rack inside the pit, over smoldering coals as it’s cooked to perfection. He says the flour-and-water mixture hardens, in the pit, into a hard shell that locks in moisture for perfectly tender, juicy meat. “The meat typically takes five to six hours to cook,” Bennett says, and firemen spend all night event “tending to the beef, making sure we don’t burn the meat. “We typically do about three rounds of meat in the pit and then about 9:30 or 10 in the morning we pull them out, slice it all and add it to all the other pieces of the barbecue puzzle including corn and specially made beans. This meat gets a lot of TLC. That’s what makes it so good.”
Specializing in perfectly cooked barbecue on the Fourth of July is something firefighters in Telluride have been doing for decades. While neither Bennett nor his mom, Claire Bennett could put an exact date on when Telluride’s Fourth of July barbecues first began, they agree that it’s been a Telluride tradition for a very long time.
“I remember it in the early years as a picnic,” says Claire. “It must have been 1945 or 1946, because my uncle just came home from the war, and I went to it with him.”
After the barbecue, she adds, when the sun had set, the fireworks would begin. “I do remember when they did fireworks, they would open the park to cars,” says Claire Bennett, “and park them single file in specific order. It was fun to watch the production from our cars. Those are some of my earliest memories.”
As a boy, John Bennett, says he attended the barbecue’s pre-Fourth of July preparations and that even then, the barbecue pit, in its original location at the foot of Firecracker Hill (the launchpad for the fireworks that all parties agree are very likely to take place this year, thanks to plentiful late-spring rains), was as inventive as the one used today. “It was a fairly ingenious concept,” John says, of a pit that “was on a flatbed rail car. They would pull it in with a winch and pull it out with a winch. They would also dip the meat with the special sauce, which has always been a trade secret, so to speak, and give it a lot of TLC, as well.”
Both agree that the new pit was built in conjunction with the Town Park upgrades that took place in the late 1970s and early 80s.
“The new pit was a really new concept, and it was the very first part of the new park,” Claire Bennett recalls. “It was quite a bit different from the old pit, and it took some adjusting. I remember the first time we used the new pit I went over at 3 in the morning to see how things were going. As things go, it was getting a little colorful, so I decided to leave. We had a really good time and we still have a good time.”
And once again, this year, she say, “I’ll have my needles out and be ready to sew the burlap sacks up. I don’t really know how this started,” she says of the festivities, “but every year, we say it’s better than the last year.”
“This is one of those family community events that makes or is certainly a huge piece of what Telluride is all about,” John says. And that is “a good time, celebrating your freedoms and to support your local fire department.”
The Fireman’s Barbecue will begin sometime around noon on Friday, July 4, after the parade. The barbecue is the Telluride Volunteer Fire Department’s largest fundraiser of the year, and it coincides with Kids Games, hosted by the Placerville Volunteer Fire Department.