Opie Garvin stood over a row of hot cast-iron skillets on Sunday, occasionally giving the meat inside a stir.
“We always cook up a bit of gizzards to keep everyone happy,” said Garvin, the president of the Wilson Volunteer Firefighter Association.
Garvin presided over the gizzards at the 51st annual Wilson Volunteer Firefighters Chicken Fry. Garvin and about a dozen volunteers fried up 3,500 pounds of poultry and just over 1,000 pounds of potatoes in the Stilson parking lot to raise money for the volunteer firefighters. It’s been an annual event since 1967, and Garvin has been participating since 1986.
The tradition started out as a simple get-together, Garvin said. Over time the organizers began to set aside some funds from the event to help the families of the volunteer firefighters in case someone was injured on the job.
Today the money from the chicken fry goes to purchase or fix equipment, offer training to firefighters and recruit new fighters. Most of the volunteers at the chicken fry are current or former volunteer firefighters, but some are active members of the Wilson community who just got involved.
“It’s such a tradition now,” said Kelly Stirn, a volunteer firefighter and 28-year veteran of the chicken fry. “Even if we didn’t make any money from it, we’d still do it.”
These days Stirn is on flour duty: rolling the raw chicken in the flour mixture before it’s fried. Before Stirn joined, a team of women primarily ran the flour station.
“They called them the ‘flour girls,’ ” Stirn said.
Volunteers start by cutting chicken, working the fryers, or cooking the potatoes and then they graduate to manning the beer tent, Garvin said. Like a rite of passage, all the eldest firefighters have made their way to that job.
Tim Harland, an 18-year veteran of the chicken fry and member of the volunteer firefighter Station 2 in Wilson, has been on potato duty almost his whole tenure.
“We’re the spud studs,” he said. “Once you’re on potatoes, you want to stay there.”
Like the chicken batter, the potatoes have their own secret recipe of spices. They are cooked in Dutch ovens and hand stirred dozens of times, Harland said.
The volunteers started Saturday morning, cleaning and building the fry station. Sunday morning they were all up at 5 a.m. preparing the food.
A few glitches kept the line long into the afternoon Sunday. Some chefs responded to a car fire on Teton Pass, diminishing the number of people turning out chicken, and a couple of vats of oil burned, forcing the team to start them over.
But tradition, community and the famous fried chicken kept people waiting without complaint.