Friday, August 17, 2012

Mackay Free Barbecue History and Tourist Park Improvements by WPA

The History of Mackay’s Free BBQ and Famous Stone Oven

September 2011 Compiled by Earl Lockie, South Custer Historical Society

On the occasion of the Mackay’s 73rd annual free BBQ, it may be a fitting time to reflect back on how the traditional affair all got started, and why the free barbecue and large stone barbecue oven have come to be synonymous.
The story of Mackay’s annual free barbecue relates to times of celebration; actually two celebrated events.  Both had to do with water, the lifeblood of the Lost River valley. The first of these two events occurred in May of 1923.  The Mackay dam and reservoir had been a controversial project since the initial phases of its construction.  After years of resistance  by Mackay residents and numerous changes in dam design and engineering, the Utah Construction Co. would complete and dedicate the dam in 1918.  It would take another 5 years to complete the canal system of the project and finally reach a settlement of water rights with valley irrigators.  Valley residents, elated not to have gone through years of litigation, felt it a reason to celebrate.  The construction company, anxious to smooth the waters and heal a few old wounds, felt the same and on May 18, 1923 Mackay’s business community hosted a big barbecue for the whole town; Mackay’s first! 
The affair was well attended and an atmosphere of joy prevailed.  The feelings of joy were very short-lived however.  As the valley entered the 1930's and suffering years of drought and broken promises by the construction company, residents decided it was time to gain control of their own water destiny.  In 1935, after approval of loan money from the U.S. government and local voter approval of the sale of bonds to purchase the dam and irrigation system, ownership and control of the waters of the Big Lost River finally came into the hands of the people of the Lost River Valley.  This was truly a time for celebration, and, as the Mackay Miner newspaper termed it, “time for a revival of that first barbecue back in “23".  The “real first” of Mackay’s annual free barbecue “Tons of Meat, It’s Mackay’s Treat” was born.
That barbecue of 1935 and subsequent barbecues of the 1930's were lavish affairs with attendance by plenty of local, state, and even national politicians of the day.  It was said that more notables attended the Mackay barbecue than any other function held throughout the entire state; Speeches, bands, and plenty of free food to take care of the usual crowds of 2-3000 people.  In fact the speech making became such a problem that measures were taken to limit their duration by use of the Major Bowles system.  This employed a timekeeper who after 3 minutes sounded a loud gong to let the speaker know his time was up.
 These early barbecues were held in our present day tourist park, but without benefit of some of the amenities that we enjoy today.  This included the large stone oven that didn’t come along until 1938.  
The tons of meat served at the barbeques of 1935, 36, and 37 was roasted in large open pits dug in the ground at the serving site.  According to a number of old-timers, the meat once wrapped and placed on the coals, was covered with sand and allowed to roast.  They attested to its great taste, but stated they often times had to contend with the grit of a little sand.  In 1938 that all changed.
Utilizing depression WPA funds, Mackay officials decided to up-grade the tourist park including construction of a covered grandstand and speakers platform, some ballfields, a kids swimming hole,a rock fire place, rock restrooms, bridge over Kid's Creek to the Tourist Park, and a large stone barbecue oven. 

Rock bridge over Kid's Creek on Capitol built by the WPA in 1940 allowing better access to the Mackay Tourist Park.

  According to an article in the August 25, 1938 issue of the Mackay Miner, construction was started on the huge stone barbecue oven, the largest of its kind to be built within the state.  Two shifts of (6) men each were working hard to have it completed in time for the annual event in mid September.  By Sept. 8th the oven was complete.   It measured 12 feet by 12 feet and nearly 11 feet high with exterior walls of lava rock and a concrete top.  Its dome topped firebox and roasting chamber of fire brick measured 4 ft. wide, 7 ft. high, and 7 ft. deep and was provided with a roll-in (5) tiered meat rack and included a pair of heavy metal hinged doors to seal the cooking chamber.  Its design was based on a definite firing and roasting procedure. This included maintaining a large wood fire in a slide out metal ash pan within the firebox for about 24 hours.  The fire remnants and ash pan were then removed, the loaded meat racks rolled into the very hot roasting chamber, the metal doors of the chamber closed and sealed, and the chimney flue sealed off.  This provided the ideal conditions for slow roasting and in about 10-12 hours the doors were unsealed and the meat readied for cutting and serving.  The inaugural loading for the new oven for that 1938 free barbeque included 3 steers, and 7 lambs and a crowd estimated at nearly 3000-3500 turned out to share in the feast.
 A major renovation of the oven was completed in 2002 thanks to a grant from the Idaho Heritage Trust.  
The original large stone oven proved to be a great success that September of 1938, and at every annual barbecue event to-date.  Except for the World War II years of 1943, 44, and 45, Mackay’s free barbecue affair has highlighted everyone’s calendar of events each September since 1935.  In the 73 years since the oven’s construction it has required many a repair of one kind or another but year after year it has always come through and done the job.  
The Mackay Barbecue Covered Serving and Storage Area at the Mackay Tourist Park was constructed in 2004 and used for the first time in 2005. Ken Day, City Manager, below on September 17, 2004.
 The finished Serving and Storage Area for the Mackay Barbecue at the Mackay Tourist Park.
Mark each each 3rd Saturday in September for Mackay's Barbecue -"Tons of Meat, it’s Mackay’s Treat” barbecue.  Hope to see you there! 

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