The Saga of the First Barbecue at Redway’s Fire Department

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Getting the coals ready at for the Redway Volunteer Fire Department’s BBQ. [Photo provided by Ernie Branscomb]

Next Saturday is the Redway Fire Department’s BBQ.  If you haven’t been yet, you’re missing some tasty food and some of the flavor of living in a small town. Below Ernie Branscomb relates the tale of how this all came to be. (And here’s the details of where and when.)

On Memorial Day week-end 1971, forty five years ago, the Redway Volunteer Fire Department had their first Barbeque. Ben Doane, a local sheriff’s deputy, at the time was also a Redway volunteer firefighter. Ben was from Willow Creek where he witnessed them have a successful fund-raising barbeque. He suggested that the Redway Fire Department have a similar barbeque. He gave the firefighters complete specifications.

Ben’s plan was to dig a twelve foot long trench, four feet wide and four feet deep. The walls of the pit were to slope gently outward because the bottom of the pit, and the sides, were lined with six inch rocks to hold the heat, leaving a six inch space at the top for the cross-bars that holds the tin and a six inch layer of silt to smother the fire and bake the meat. He said that first they had to build a large fire with dry madrone, burn it down for hours until it was left with scorching hot rocks and a bed of blue hot coals. They were to first wrap the meat in butcher paper and wet burlap then place the wrapped meat directly on the coals, then quickly cover.

Firefighters being very, very smart as a very, very general rule, had a better idea. Against Ben Doane’s very, very loud objections, they proposed that they build two large steel box-ovens. It was their idea that the meat would be easier to handle, and they just couldn’t warm up to the idea of placing the meat directly on the coals, because it would surely burn, and they just didn’t want to ruin four hundred pounds of meat, so they dug their pits, pretty much as originally designed, but they welded together some very elaborate oven-boxes, complete with hinges and latches. After all, they were going to have to last a very, very long time, the firefighters intended for this to be an annual fund raising Barbeque event!

They placed the roasts onto racks in their elaborate ovens. They lowered the ovens gently into the fire pits, They talked about maybe having the ovens chrome plated to make them look nicer and cleaner. Firefighters all like clean, chrome, shiny, and red. Some of us even have those words embroidered on our pajamas.

As things often, (always?) go, the boxes didn’t get enough heat from the coals, the meat came out very, very rare, and pork is not appreciated in the very, very rare form. In a panic, the firefighters recruited all of the neighborhood ovens to finish cooking the roasts, mine being one of the neighbors ovens. So, I was involved in the very, very first barbeque.

The next year, Ben gave the firefighters a list of the people in Willow Creek, who have done this barbeque before. After calling them all of them on the phone, they were able to convince the firefighters that “yes indeed, just wrap the meat in butcher paper, tie it in wet burlap and place it directly on the coals. Ben Doane said that he would consent to do the barbeque again as long as every single firefighter do every single thing that he told them to do. It was a humbling experience for the otherwise smart firefighters. We sometimes ponder what might have happened to the steel box ovens.

By the second year of the barbeque I was a “probie”. A probie is a term used by firefighters to identify a probationary firefighter, or rookie. I had joined the fire department by then, but you don’t get accepted as a rank-and-file fire department member until you complete your training and get voted in by the regular members. At that time a firefighter gets issued a regular set of fire protective gear, boots, gloves, pants and coat. The other advantage is that you got named on the insurance as a regular firefighter. Before that, the rookies were covered as “John Does”. The fire department covered Five Does.

It was a real “Plum” to become a regular firefighter back then, and, there was a waiting list. We had twenty regular firefighters and five, or so, rookies as they were culled-out or accepted. My badge number is “22”. I became rank-and-file in 1973. But, I have been at, and worked on, every Redway Fire Department Barbeque.

Nowadays, we have improved our fire pits, they are fire-brick lined and they have fitted steel lids, but we put the meat directly on the coals. We now cook about 800 pounds of beef and pork. We now wrap the meat in yards of foil, then in wet burlap. We lost some of the smokey flavor with the foil wrap, but we gained tremendously in juiciness. When we unwrap the roasts, they are surrounded in juice. The meat is tender and well seasoned in our “Top-Secret” dry rubs and sauces.

We start working on the barbeque Wednesday, 5:00 PM at the Redway Fire Department, at 155 Empire Avenue in Redway. (behind Shop Smart) Wednesday we make all the rubs and sauces, gather the sand that we use to cover the pits, and make the hall ready. It a “punch-list” day. The real fun starts on Thursday at 6:00 PM we clear out the hall, set up tables, then we season and wrap the meat for placement into the pit’s the following Friday night. We have Carnitas with spices and sauce. We have “refreshments”, play a little music, and generally have a good time getting things prepared. Local people come and go to participate in the fun. It’s always an open house, except for Friday evening pot luck, which is members only, after that it’s open house again, after all it’s YOUR fire department. Then the meat marinades over-night.

At 5:00- 6:00 PM Friday we kindle the fire pits. We keep the fire going with nothing but ash-free Madrone wood. Do you know that the north coast of California is one of the only places in the world that Madrone grows? We are soooo lucky. Back to the barbeque. We have a pot luck dinner at 7:00 PM. We mostly tend the fire and talk about “The Big Ones” (fires of the past) The kids play music and we have lots of fun tending the fire. It’s like camping, only with a much bigger fire, and we have chairs around the fire pits, indoor plumbing, a T.V…. Okay It’s not like camping but there is a BIG fire and a lot of fun. Folks from other fire departments come and go, and members of the community come and go for the fun of it. The kids go nuts with their games and fun is had by all.1236

At somewhere between 11:00 PM and 1:00AM, we place the meat in the pits and cover the lids with sand. We all go home, except for a few well placed guards.
At 10:00 AM Saturday, we “crack the pits” by shoveling the sand off a lid and placing a shovel under it, that slows the cooking and readies the meat for serving. At High-Noon Saturday we sound the hall siren and serve food until 7:00 pm.

We serve juicy deep pit barbeque beef and pork, baked beens, salad, garlic bread, and your choice of milk, coffee, or water. We sell beer, regular and premium, or a premium dark beer, or wine. We sell sodas, and we also have a wide variety of desserts for sale.

The band will be Twango Macallan. The head Twango told me that the band will include many of the popular local musicians.

We will have fun, and, have great food. See you there! This is a do-not-miss community event. I could go on, but then I already did…

155 Empire Ave, directly behind Shop Smart, in Redway.

Ernie Branscomb,

Redway Fire Dept. (retired)

And don’t forget another good reason to go…Your money will help the fire crews fight this:

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Flames chew through a structure in 2013. [Photo from Redway Fire’s Facebook page.]

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13 comments

  • Sounds so fun!my father in law was a firemen for the city,uncle for the county.the stories I heard wow.id love to donate.would I send it to the address above?thanks.and good luck!!

  • Ernie Branscomb

    G-ma, no, Redway Fire gets their mail at the post office. Maybe someone reading knows the mailing address, but we would much rather you come to the barbeque. It is a great party for the community. Firefighter don’t mind the work for their fundraiser.

  • Thanks ernie.only have one car and my husband works everyday he can.but I hope this year is better than ever!!!

  • RVFD, PO BOX 635, REDWAY 95560

  • Ernie branscomb for mayor

  • Ben Doane may have learned about pit barbeques from the Grange bbq that were held at Hawkins Bar back in the 70s and early 80s…
    I also remember going to a bbq on the coast…a friend worked for one of the lumber companies (Simpson?) and there was one they went to…as friends, we could buy tickets. Pit bbq also.
    The Grange stopped doing theirs; I think the members got older and had less support.
    I do remember Ben Doane, he served in the KT area and a very fine officer and contributing
    member of the community. In the 11 years I lived in the area I can only remember two HCSD officers who you’d respect and admire: Ben Doane and ‘Red’ Marler.

  • Great story! Thanks!

    • Barbara L Fisher

      This is ironic, when I was married to Ernie Totten back in the 50’s and 60’s, we lived in Santa Maria for a couple of years. This was when we were first introduced to this type of barbeque. They were famous for this. When we moved back to Redway, Ernie built a barbeque similar to the one in Santa Maria. but, much smaller. We had this on our back patio. We had cooked many of barbeque tri tips, and had friends over for meals frequently. Great memories. Mel Crawford and Barbara. and Myrna and Neil Kemp were very close friends and came over for frequent barbeques…..so much fun with Patsy and Dick Voice, Myrna and Neil Kemp and other close friends…..interesting story…

  • Russell Burgess

    Does the Mattloe Grange still have their 4th of July BBQ? As I remember it, their pits were of CMU block above ground but turned out an outstanding hunk of beef. Also if I remember right, they served meat and beans, you brought your own plates, utensils, drinks and sides. An outstanding small community event attended by people from all over the PNW.

  • Ernie Branscomb

    Barbara Fisher,
    It is a strong possibility that Ernie Totton had a lot to do with the first barbecues. He was in the Redway fire Dept. at that time. I just remember the firemen consulting the Willow Creek people at Doanes adament insistance.
    By the way, hello Barbara.

  • I always pick up a couple of dinners to go on my way home from work. Delicious. I usually get both beef and pork. Big portions and they make a mean bean. The BBQ sauce is excellent. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. A great meal for a good cause at a decent price. What more can you ask for? So forget cooking at home and stop by you’ll be glad you did.

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