Widespread acclaim and the smell of 3,300 pounds of fried chicken drew a crowd Sunday to the 51st annual Wilson Volunteer Firefighters Chicken Fry.
“Usually we have a break in the day, but it seemed like the line was long and steady all day,” said Opie Garvin, president of the Wilson Volunteer Firefighter Association, which benefits from the annual picnic.
Garvin didn’t have an exact crowd count, but he wagered that between 2,000 and 3,000 people lined up for greasy goodness served up by volunteer firefighters in the Stilson parking lot.
On average, the chicken fry raises between $25,000 and $35,000 for the firefighters association. The money goes to purchase or fix equipment, train firefighters, and recruit and retain volunteers.
Veteran chicken eaters showed up early to set up tents and blankets in the shady area next to the lot. Included in that group was Garvin’s family. His wife, daughters and several grandchildren spent their afternoon in the shade while Garvin worked at the fryers. The fried feast has been an annual event since 1967, and Garvin has participated since 1986.
“Aw, those are some good-looking gizzards,” he said, stirring the meat with a 3-foot-long cast-iron rod.
Garvin’s daughter, Kilee Amborski, has been coming to the chicken fry since she was born.
“It brings a little bit of everybody together,” she said. “I’ll run into friends from high school and people who I haven’t seen in a while.”
The event is a long-standing tradition for many, she said, pointing to two who were stamping people’s hands as they entered the fry. They’ve attended for as long as she can remember.
“You know what to expect,” Amborski said.
Some families even plan their vacation around the weekend of the chicken fry, said Jackson Hole Fire/EMS Battalion Chief Mike Moyer as he cut a piece of raw chicken.
For others, this year was their first-ever Wilson chicken fry, like Hannah Polletta, who has been living in the Jackson region about seven years.
“It’s worth the wait,” she said, referencing the long line. “But you should bring your own chair.”
Sunday was also the first Wilson fry for Sarah Ranney and Ryan Campbell, but it certainly was not their first fry. The two hail from Georgia, where “‘chicken fry’ is our middle name,” Ranney said.
Both agreed that Sunday’s fry rivaled those back home.
“They just need some hot sauce and ranch, and then we’d be good,” Ranney said.
Campbell, five pieces into a self-imposed 10-piece challenge, said he tried to find out the secret ingredient in the chicken batter, but organizers wouldn’t tell him.
“I think it’s garlic powder,” he said.
Well into the afternoon, the line for chicken stretched past the live band, down along the curve of the road toward the entrance to the parking lot. Behind the fryers, volunteer firefighters kept throwing chicken into vats of oil and potato slices into Dutch ovens.
Even when a car fire on Teton Pass drew a couple of firefighters away, the remaining chefs kept at it.
The work for the chicken fry started Saturday morning. Volunteers spent the day cleaning and building the cinder-block structures that would become charcoal grills the next day.
On Sunday morning the volunteers were up at 5, cutting up chicken and potatoes to prepare for the onslaught. Keeping up the family tradition, Amborski’s 4-year-old son was also up before sunrise to help.
“It’s a lot of work,” said Tim Harland, an 18-year veteran of the chicken fry and a member of volunteer firefighter Station 2 in Wilson. “We do it for the community, but we also do it for apparatus and protective means, so we can keep doing our job and keep the community safe.”
For most of his tenure with the crew, Harland has been on potato duty. “We’re the spud studs,” he said. “Once you’re on potatoes, you want to stay there.”
Despite the steady line, at the end of the day a few cases of chicken remained, Garvin said. The leftover food was donated to the Jackson Cupboard, the community food bank.