In the early 1950s, the Millers Creek community’s need for a fire department and fire truck was the driving force for the growth of chickenques in Wilkes County. North Wilkesboro resident Gerald Lankford, who was a teenager at the time, was witness to chickenques’ very beginning.
Lankford said recently that Wilkes County’s agricultural extension agent C.C. Pratt’s partnership with North Carolina State University (NCSU) helped get them started. Wilkes had a large poultry base and chicken was either fried or baked at this time, Lankford said.
NCSU was looking to assist rural farmers with new programs and better ways to market chicken and came up with the idea of building a large rack on which to cook the chicken, and developed the recipe for the sauce.
Pratt, a recent NCSU graduate, spread the word around the county and heard of a group in Millers Creek that might be interested in trying out the project. The group, who included Clate Bumgarner, Quincy Reavis and Wake Clark, was trying to raise money for a fire department.
Pratt showed them how to build a pit and supplied the rack and sauce. The first weekend, they cooked 200 chicken halves and quickly sold out. They had made a profit, so they decided to do another one in two weeks.
Lankford said, in three years, enough money had been raised to buy a 1955 Chevrolet fire truck, and Charlie Bishop and Bumgarner rode the bus to Ithaca, N.Y. and drove the truck back to Wilkes.
The word quickly spread around the county about the “chickenque” fundraisers, as they started being called, and Pratt taught various civic groups about the cooking process. Also during this time, Bumgarner perfected his “secret sauce,” a derivation from NCSU’s sauce.
In the 1970s, Holly Farms Poultry Industries put together a chicken cooking team, Lankford said, comprised of Bumgarner, Neil Christenbury, Ralph Williams and Red Ashley, which went all over the country demonstrating chickenques. The team’s truck had a built-in cooking rack. The art of cooking barbecued chicken on the grill started spreading around the country.
The team cooked 6,000 chicken halves for an NCSU-UNC football game in the 1970s and had a chickenque for Neil Armstrong’s family in his hometown, in Ohio, after he landed on the moon.
Many civic groups around the county have their own chicken cooking pits, and the Town of North Wilkesboro built their own at Memorial Park, which is used every weekend in the spring, summer and fall.
Lankford, who cooks chicken for the North Wilkesboro Rotary Club, said he estimates the group has netted over $100,000 in the 25 years he’s been cooking. The money raised has gone toward college scholarships for Wilkes County seniors. Rotary club members cook approximately 600 chicken halves during each chickenque.
Mulberry-Fairplains Ruritan Club has been cooking chicken for 51 years. Charter member Dean Francis is still assisting with the chickenques. In their most recent chickenque, Francis said they sold out of their 340 halves by 11 a.m. and made about $1,100. All the money raised goes to community projects. Most recently, proceeds went toward the backpack food program at Mulberry-Fairplains Elementary School.
Moravian Falls Optimist Club’s chickenques have been going on for 27 years. Club member Terry Ferguson said they usually cook 300 chicken halves. Proceeds go to community projects including schools in Wilkes County, Shepherd’s Home in Roaring River and the club’s 300 Christmas boxes.
Before he died, Bumgarner left the recipe for his sauce to his son, Max, who still makes it today. The sauce is sold at Wilkes County Hardware.
Lankford remarked many of the fire trucks in the annual fire truck parade were bought with “chicken money.” Purchasing a plate of barbecued chicken is guilt-free; the money you hand over helps someone else.