Those in the know know to be there by 11 a.m. Those who plan to meet a dozen of their friends and family in the grass stake out cottonwood-shaded spots even earlier.

The fried chicken isn’t tonged onto plates until noon, but with an estimated 3,000 people filling plates at the Wilson Volunteer Fire Department Association’s Chicken Fry, the early bird gets the wing. Or the thigh.

“That there is a 3-pounder,” Fire Marshall Kathy Clay said, loading a paper plate with the most anticipated piece of the food line: fried chicken. “That should fill you up.”

Technically, a $12 ticket buys an attendee two pieces, but those at the tongs are quick to chuck more chicken to anyone who asks.

“It feels a bit like a feeding frenzy right now,” Clay said. “It feels like I’m in a tank of sharks.”

The fundraiser, which celebrated its 52nd year Sunday, is the biggest bang for the cluck moneymaker for the association, which supports the department. Recently the association covered the costs for battery-operated extrication tools (think Jaws of Life), a necessity for rescue in the mountains, Clay said. Money raised also goes to supporting personnel who face unexpected illness or tragedy, as well as to education and training.

“We are a lot more than firefighters,” Clay said. “We’re paramedics. We’re EMTs. We’re swift-water rescue. You call 911 and we’re coming.”

Organizers declined to estimate the amount made, but a fair estimate would be in the tens of thousands from ticket sales alone. The association receives a lot of additional donations from the cookout, including one in cash from 8-year-old Ella Kathleen Payne, who stuffed her pockets with some bills before heading to her first fry with her family. It’s not uncommon for attendees to stuff an additional $5 (or $500) into the collection jars, organizers said.

The fry starts early for the staff and volunteers, before dawn for food prep. Brenda Sherwin, an EMT with Station 6, estimated 60 people had their hands in this year’s event, from chopping up veggies to dishing out scoops of Dutch oven taters to frying up chicken.

But just four hold the key to the event’s success: a decades-old recipe that has been passed down from one firefighter to the next. Spring Creek resident and regular fryer Martha Payne has been “begging for the recipe” for over a decade, she said, but knows she’s never getting it. Those serving food don’t know it anyway — it’s the ones tucked behind the fry fires, coating and prepping cuts of chicken, who know the recipe.

“People try to get it out of me all the time,” said Capt. Lily Sullivan, one of the “The Flour Girls — And The Guy.” But the recipe is brought out only once a year, for the annual fry.

The three others who know the secret, including “the guy,” Kelly Stirn, remained tight-lipped about the mix, though Stirn did offer up one detail: “There’s a lot of love that goes into it.”

The unchanged chicken — and the hours-long picnic that families and friends set up among the trees at Stilson — is what attendees say keeps them coming back year after year.

Save for a year or two, West Bank residents Vicki Meredith and Lester Taylor have been some of the first in line for nabbing a plate since 1978. Village Road residents Patsy and Dave Raaum, who have been attending for 40 years, know enough to bring their own heavy-duty trays. And Carla Watsabaugh, sister-in-law to former longtime Chief Willy Watsabaugh, has been at every fry since the start.

What makes the event special is “nothing has changed,” she said.

“This has been, for 52 years, an uncompromised event,” she said. “It’s been on rain or shine. And it’s pulled off without a hitch.”

Contact Melissa Cassutt at 732-7076 or valley@jhnewsandguide.com.

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