Owensboro-Daviess County BBQ & Festival History

By Keith Lawrence, April 2016

(Keith was asked by the International Bar-B-Q Festival Board to create notes for the questions most asked about the Festival and the BBQ culture of Daviess County.)

Barbecue and burgoo are ingrained in the fabric of Daviess County.

Politics, religion and civic affairs have relied on both since frontier days.

And some families have supplied barbecue cooks for public events for more than 125 years, the tradition passed down from father to son

Nobody knows when the first barbecue fires were lit in what’s now Daviess County

But the first mention of barbecue here comes from Wendell H. Rone’s “A History of the Daviess-McLean Baptist Association,” which says that Elder Reuben Cottrell, a pioneer Baptist evangelist, was invited to speak at the Fourth of July barbecue here in 1834.

On Oct. 3, 1844, local Whigs held a barbecue rally in support of their nominees for president and vice president — Henry Clay and Theodore Frelinghuysen.

When Daviess Countians needed money to build a bridge, they held a barbecue fundraiser.

When Confederate veterans wanted a statue on the courthouse lawn, they held a barbecue.

And people came from miles around.

Parish picnics at Catholic churches date back to at least 1877, when St. Martin Parish in Rome announced a barbecue picnic fundraiser.

Burgoo is said to have originated in Wales and worked its way across the frontier to Kentucky.

But Kentuckians have long claimed credit for the dish.

At 1887 article in a local newspaper said burgoo was “a barbecue where birds, chickens, squirrels, beef, pork and dog are thrown in a pot.”

But actually, the meat is most often chicken, mutton and/or beef mixed with tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes, corn, onion and occasionally, peas,• lima beans and other vegetables.

Old newspaper articles talk about 1,000-gallon pots, but today, they’re most likely to be 70- to 80-gallon kettles.

Through the years, mutton became the meat of choice here, replacing beef, pork, venison and bear from the county’s frontier days.

Why mutton?

The community’s appetite for mutton apparently began because sheep were plentiful in the area in the 19th century.

State records for 1867 list 1.18 million sheep.

There were only 53,000 listed on Jan. 1, 2016.

The number of sheep in Daviess County in 1867 was not listed.

But 202 were killed by dogs that year, which indicates that there were a lot of sheep here.

It wasn’t until 1890, though, that the county had a professional barbecue chef.

Harry S. Green, a black man born in 1855, began selling barbecue from a pit in his yard at Ninth and Hall streets, starting in 1890.

The headline on his obituary in the Oct. 8, 1922, Owensboro Messenger says, “Famous barbecue chef had state-wide reputation.”

The story called Green an “artist” and said, “He was for years the foremost barbecuer of the county and was conceded to be without a superior in the state.”

But Green never had a restaurant.

Owensboro’s oldest barbecue joint –• Old Hickory Pit Bar-B-Q — dates back to 1918.

Charlie Foreman, a blacksmith, opened a carryout barbecue business at Washington and Frederica Street that year.

It continued to be carryout only until 1960, when Frederica was widened and the original building razed.

The Foreman family opened a sit-down restaurant at 338 Washington Ave. that year.

Historians say that in 1934 Lawrence Bader Jr.’s Akin Inn, originally at Second Street and Woodford Avenue, became the first true barbecue restaurant in town.

Stories from that era say that Bader began importing sheep from out west because it shrank less on the grill than local sheep.

He reportedly sold 50 sheep a week in his heyday.

Bader is also credited with inventing the chopped mutton sandwich.

In February 1963, Hugh “Pappy” and Catherine Bosley bought the Moonlite, a 14-year-old barbecue joint with 30 seats, including stools at the counter.

Today, it’s a 350-seat restaurant with a national reputation.

A survey of local barbecue restaurants a few years ago show they cook more than 1 million pounds of mutton and another 1 million pounds of pork every year.

By the late 1970s, the 13 Catholic parishes in the area were preparing 80,000 pounds of mutton, 8,000 chickens and 3,100 pounds of pork each summer.

The city’s four commercial barbecue restaurants said they were selling a combined 40,000 pounds of barbecue a week as well as 100 gallons of burgoo a day in 1977.

So, in December 1978, the Owensboro-Daviess County Chamber of Commerce announced plans to create an “International Burgoo Festival” in April 1979.

The word “burgoo” was replaced by “BAR-B-Q” sometime in the next two months.

That first festival drew 10 cooking teams and an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people who devoured 10,000 pounds of mutton, 2,000 chickens and 500 gallons of burgoo in three-and-a-half hours, despite a low temperature of 37 degrees and a high of 57 degrees that day.