The dozen Arbor Grove Methodist Men who cooked chicken on Saturday knew exactly where to get one of the famous sauces that have made Wilkes County chickenques famous.
Bennie Eller, a lifelong member of the small 100 member congregation in western Wilkes, said the sauce comes from Max Bumgarner, who prepares it from a recipe created by his father, Clate Bumgarner, of Millers Creek.
Bumgarner won’t reveal the contents of the sauce, kept secret since the 1950s, when weekly chickenques helped the Millers Creek Fire Department raise the $10,000 needed for a 1957 Chevy fire truck.
“Dad would make his sauce for a chickenque, and then they would use someone else’s sauce for the next chickenque,” said Bumgarner in a phone call interview on Sunday night.
Bumgarner would also prepare barbecued chicken with his sauce for NASCAR races, especially when cars sponsored by Holly Farms Poultry were participating. The headquarters for Holly Farms, now Tyson Foods, was once Wilkes County.
“Dad would prepare the barbecued chicken all over, even Daytonna Beach, Fla.,” said Bumgarner, a former Holly Farms employee, along with his father.
He laughs when asked how people get the recipe. “I keep it in a box in our yard and people come by for a jar. They put the money, usually $14 for a gallon, in the box,” said Bumgarner.
“We go by the honor system,” said Bumgarner.
The men cooking the chicken arrived at the barbecue pit behind the small brick church around 5 a.m. Saturday, said Eller.
Helping Eller were Harold Eller, Robert Miller, David Johnson, Steve Faw, Donnie Pierce, Curtis Johnson, Rodney Eller, Charles Eller and Blaine Oliver.
The ladies of the church, including Esther Shepherd Eller and Betty Sue Lyall, prepared the other food for the $7 boxes.
Each box includes slaw, cake, baked beans and a roll.
“The only thing not homemade are the rolls and beans,” said Mrs. Eller. “The ladies of the church had to make 19 cakes for our chickenque this week.”
She said that while the baked beans are from cans, they do put extra brown sugar and onions in them.
A Thursday, Nov. 13, 1986 story in The Journal-Patriot, entitled “In Wilkes County, chickenques are No. 1,” said the first chickenque or barbecued chicken was in 1952.
The story also cited the ingredients of Bumgarner’s sauce.
The main base of his sauce, as with other chickenque sauces, is vinegar. Salt and pepper and other spices are added. The other spices are the key and they are what Bumgarner won’t divulge, according to the 1986 story.
In an informal vote on the best chickenques in Wilkes in 1987, the Millers Creek Fire Department, which used Bumgarner’s recipe, were the hands down favorite.
Not much has changed since 1987, with over 280 boxes of chicken cooked with Bumgarner’s sauce, selling on Saturday at the Arbor.
Mrs. Eller said they raised over $1,000 which will be used to pay off the church’s $700,000 new Sunday school building built several years ago. The building is located behind the church.
Mrs. Eller is also a lifetime member of the church. The Ellers were the first ones to be married in the new bricked Arbor Grove facility on Aug. 9, 1959, said Mrs. Eller.
Prior to the bricked facility, the church was located in a frame structure built in 1904, according to “The Heritage of Wilkes County, 1982,” published by the Wilkes Genealogical Society.
“The building was built with a seating capacity of 200. Four classrooms were added to the sanctuary during 1946-47. The last service was held in the frame building on June 21, 1959.
It moved into its current structure in 1959 with the dedication of the new brick building on June 28, 1959.
“The church was started about 1870 by Ann Howard Grant Hayes, wife of Joseph Washington Hayes, according to “The Heritage of Wilkes County.”
The first church was built on land owned by J. W. Hayes and was known as Hays’ Arbor. It was located about one-half mile from the present church. It was built of upright poles covered with brush. Seats were made of rough, hewn logs. Scaffolds covered with dirt furnished a safe place for pine torches to light the arbor for night services.
The next place of worship was a shed build nearby, according to “The Heritage of Wilkes County.” About 1885, the shed was torn away and a log building was erected.
The deed was dated December 30, 1885 and stated that John E. Pierce, Henry Bumgarner and G.F. Bumgarner, trustees, “should build or cause to be built a house or place of worship for the use of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the U.S.A., according to the rules and discipline, to have and to hold to them the said trustees and their successors in office forever a place to worship for the minister and members of said church. Said property not to be sold or rented or used for any other purpose,” according to “The Heritage of Wilkes County.”
Saturday’s chickenque was one of many held this weekend in Wilkes and with the change in time there will be plenty more.