Last Saturday the folks who drop whatever they’re doing to put out our fires and rescue us from car wrecks also cooked us dinner. “It’s a way to say thank you to the community,” said Fire Chief Walter Gutzmann, who has served on the Volunteer Fire Department continuously since 1969, a just a few years longer than the VFD’s annual chicken BBQ, which is a 40- year affair.
The Craftsbury VFD is a crew of 25 unpaid firefighters who attend four meetings a month, plus extra trainings, and all carry pagers, ready to stop the tractor, turn the truck around or get out of bed when the repeater atop Craftsbury Academy signals to the station in the village, broadcasting Craftsbury’s tone, a radio frequency of 154.025. When it does sound, which it has 36 times this year so far, (a quiet spring), it tones from radios kept on the belts and bedsides of 25 men and women. In our area, which lacks its own police department, the VFD might be dispatched to help transport an ailing elderly lady down a steep flight of stairs or search for a lost child, in addition to putting out fires—be they grass fires, vehicle fires or structure fires. Last Saturday however, the department actually set a fire around 9:30 am, in a long narrow steel- sided pit in order to grill 400 half chickens which they slathered with a special secret sauce (folks, Mr. Gutzmann’s not telling, so don’t even ask) using an industrial strength pressurized sprayer.
Meanwhile Mr. Gutzmann’s wife, Sandy, with the assistance of some of the crew, had already made strawberry shortcakes, coleslaw and potato salad, again, secret stuff. All Mr. Gutzmann would say is that to feed the town, “You don’t use a recipe calling for ‘half cups.’”
On 4pm Saturday the front door of the Mason’s Hall swung open and the feast was officially served. Two of the department’s men, Ethan and Jeremiah sold tickets, in the foyer ($10 got you a full dinner), whereby you proceeded straight ahead into the dining room and turned over your ticket to town selectman, Bruce Urie and received a carry out container filled with helpings of every delicious thing.
By 5:30pm the last chicken supper was carried over the threshold and the 2013 BBQ, which was supposed to last till 6pm, was sold out.
Mr. Gutzmann, now semi-retired from a long career of teaching science at Craftbury Academy, and thus chief to many of his former students, says that the Chicken BBQ community supper is the second most profitable of three fundraisers. The foremost is the lucrative job of directing parking for Antiques and Uniques, an upscale tent sale held annually on the town Common, and the least-most being the job of selling hamburgers at the VFD stand at Old Home Day in August.
Although each year the town approves funds for the VFD, which pays for pumper trucks and other big equipment, these additional fundraisers help out with extra trainings, such as the one they attended recently on large animal rescue. Money raised from last year’s chicken dinners/ parking/burgers covered the cost of sending a few department members over to a horse farm to learn how to use specialized equipment for rescuing domestic animals, and since then, they’ve already used the skills and equipment at a lama farm.
“It’s a very big commitment,” Mr. Gutzmann says of the job which sprawls all over and pays nothing. On top of that, rural fire departments are increasingly becoming “bedroom communities” where folks commute to work 25 to 30 miles each way. That creates a 6am -6pm a labor shortage. Mr. Gutzmann says, “We’ve been blessed over the years. Historically, Craftsbury has been a family farm community, and has a reputation for having anywhere from 12-16 of its members respond during a daytime call.” But another challenge is the increasing demands on families. Because of these dueling commitments, the department, which is itself a kind of big extended family, is down to just one First Responder, but is offering a course starting this month, to potentially refill the ranks.
And the last thing Mr. Gutzmann told me was that although the number of fires has dropped over the years because they are doing a better job educating, the number of car accidents has gone up, “and if it’s local people, especially young people and you know them…we have trainings for how to cope with those situations.”
And now that I understand how those trainings are paid for, the scrumptious dinner with the spicy, juicy chicken I salivate just thinking about, tastes both better and also, bittersweet.