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Plenty to gobble: Aneta festival serves more than 2,000 at turkey barbecue

ANETA, N.D. -- The friends and relatives are in town. The parade is lined up. The coffee is hot. And the turkey is golden-brown. It's the third Saturday in June, but it feels more like the fourth Thursday in November -- though a bit warmer and wi...

Smoke rises from a cinder block pit filled with hot coals as turkeys rotate on motorized spits. (Nick Nelson/Grand Forks Herald)

ANETA, N.D. - The friends and relatives are in town. The parade is lined up. The coffee is hot. And the turkey is golden-brown.

It's the third Saturday in June, but it feels more like the fourth Thursday in November - though a bit warmer and without the pumpkin pie - in this rural Nelson County community.

It's the 58th annual Aneta Turkey Barbecue & Summer Festival, and the town's 207-count population has exploded by at least 2,000.

"It's so much fun to see the traffic backed up in Aneta," says longtime volunteer Deb Johnson, wearing a purple T-shirt proclaiming the "world's largest turkey bbq."

"We don't know of any larger. There may be," she admits. "But we don't know of any. When all the turkeys and the charcoal come in, it just blows your mind. It's amazing."


With lines six people wide extending to the edge of the city park and then single file back to the highway, no one here likely will argue the point.

The annual barbecue that began with just a few turkeys and a picnic to thank the workers who boosted business while also building the town's towering concrete elevator in 1960 now has grown into a 312-turkey feast.

"The best part of it is all the people who come back," Johnson said. "You can't hardly get through the park because you keep running into people you haven't seen forever. It's like one big family. Everybody's out."

Down to science

And when you're feeding a crowd that size, there's no such thing as too many cooks in the kitchen.

The kitchen itself - a 172-foot pit made of large cinder blocks three and four high - takes several people and a forklift to put together.

Aluminum foil lines the ground to keep the moisture out, and up to 2 tons of Kingsford charcoal briquettes are dumped on top throughout the day.

The whole process is a feat in logistics, and the master behind most of the mechanics is Charlie Gehrke.


He built the 8-foot, double-barrel, stainless steel spits that run the length of the barbecue pit. Four prongs on each side of the 12- to 15-pound turkeys keep them in place as they spin in perfect unison.

"That drive system came out of some pinball machines," Gehrke explains. "If one of the motors quits, we take the chain apart, drop a pin and one motor runs everything."

The system hasn't failed once since it first was put into operation in 1971.

Rain or shine, the feast goes on.

"The 75th anniversary of the town was the only time we were rained out," Gehrke said. "It rained so hard, it put the fires out. Hail was floating on the sidewalks."

Even so, the turkeys finished cooking on some propane burners, and everyone ate in the school. Since then, poles were added along the pit so emergency tarps can be thrown on in case of rain.

A retired farmer, longtime crop sprayer and inventive spirit, Gehrke also built a superpumper to inject the turkeys with a secret sauce. He also retrofitted a 40-gallon water heater to make coffee by the 5-gallon pail.

"It's not instant coffee either. How strong do you want it?" he said with a laugh. "The heater has been modified to boil the water right out of the spigot, and we never run out. We could have coffee all week."


And though he tried to keep it a secret, Gehrke also was responsible for the festival mascot - a giant turkey made of ball bearings, metal plates and at least 3,000 metal washers. He delivered the motion detector-gobbler to the front of the bank in the dark of night.

"The lady across the street said it was more fun to watch than TV because all the dogs would run away and pull the people with them," he said.

Watchful eyes

Back at the barbecue pit Saturday, fourth-generation volunteer Robbie Lukens patrolled his half of the line as he hauled in more charcoal and directed others when to dump an extra dose.

He and a crew of four others started work at 7 a.m. to pull the necks and giblets out of the turkeys. Next, a 10-person crew assembled the birds on the stainless steel rods.

"For a lot of families, this is like Christmas in the middle of the summer," Lukens said. "We all get together, we all have a job, and we all help out. All the families together, and for generations back, put it on."

Jim Huso said he was well past 50 years old when he graduated from the giblet stage. He now is part of the coveted turkey slicing team.

"We run six electric knives at a time, and we have spares," he said. "It's still hard work, but it's not like putting the turkeys on the rods."


That "grunt work" is saved for younger men such as Wyatt Huso and UND tight end Hunter Pinke. They were part of the team that put the birds on the rods and the rods on the bricks. At 140 pounds a rod, that's a lot of heavy lifting.

"I never sign up for it, but somehow I always end up doing it," Pinke said.

Same time, place

The barbecue is held at the same time every year, making it easy for people to remember. And they come from all over the country.

Tom Perdue is originally from Arkansas but now lives in Grand Forks.

"Isn't that just a mechanical marvel," he said as he gaped at one end of the barbecue pit. "And the smell isn't too bad either."

"I thought it was one of those small-town things, and if you weren't from Aneta, you weren't really invited," he said. "But we started coming about 10 years ago, and now I wouldn't miss it. That's a fact."

"It's a lot of fun. You get to renew acquaintances and meet a lot of new people," said David Olson, who now lives in Osakis, Minn.


And Brent Lee, Boise, Idaho, said this was the first time he's been back for the barbecue in 18 years.

"It's a fun time to see the people you grew up with, and it brings back all the good times from your youth," he said. "If you have family here, the norm is you plan your family trip around the barbecue."

Besides the turkey feast, the three-day event includes many other family activities such as the parade, a tractor pull, a crafts and vendor fair, and an all-faith service in the park.

"It's the one big activity of the year for Aneta," said Gehrke's wife, Helen. "It's wonderful seeing all the people who come back."

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