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Cooking up a tradition

By ANDREA FURLONG

fish
From left, some of the founding fathers of the Williamsburg Fire Department fish fry include, from left, Roger Folkmann, Dean Epperly, Ed Ficken, Kenny Witte and Don Doehrmann. The department will hold its 30th annual fish fry March 26.

Thirty years ago, the Williamsburg Fire Department needed some new equipment for its fire trucks. Since this need came about during Lent and area fish fries seemed to be a successful fundraiser that time of year for other groups, the 28 firefighters decided to jump on the bandwagon and hold their own fish fry. It bombed.

“We didn’t have enough to make money,” recalled Ed Ficken, one of the founding fathers of the Williamsburg Fire Department’s annual fish fry.

A staff of 40 firefighters, their wives and volunteers, fried up 140 pounds of fish that afternoon at the old fire station on Welsh Street, and ended up taking most of it home.

“We served maybe 100 people. Maybe,” agreed Ficken and other founding-fathers Don Doehrmann, Dean Epperly, Roger Folkmann and Kenny Witte, who have all helped at the fish fry since 1980.

When the next spring rolled around and the firefighters talked about fundraising, it was Folkmann who proposed the unpopular suggestion to bring back the fish fry.

“We’d advertised it as the first annual fish fry, so we wanted to have a second annual one to see if we could lose any more money,” he joked.

But, the second fish fry was not a loss. In fact, the firefighters ended up sending Mike Grolmus to fetch more fish at the local grocery store to keep the serving line going.

From the second year on, the firefighters had a hard time keeping up with public demand.

“We ran out every year the first several years,” Doehrmann recalled.

Five years after the first fry, the department served 450 people in a station that would only hold 225 at a time.

“People would have to eat, then get up and leave. They’d be lined up out the door all the way down to the bowling alley,” said firefighter Ron Capper.

Public demand posed some interesting predicaments, like how best to prepare the fish. For the first few fries, fish were prepared in cracker meal and vegetable shortening and cooked on less than a handful of tabletop stoves. As the demand increased by 50 - 200 more pounds of fish a year, the department graduated from a few tabletop stoves to about 10 full sized stoves, which it used for several years.

In addition to fish, the department also served up baked beans and potatoes as sides. With a growing number of people to serve every year, cooking appliances, like stoves and microwaves increased, and the capacity of the old fire station’s electrical outlets was constantly tested.

“We had a lot of problems blowing circuit breakers, because we had too much of a load on the whole building. We were blowing them right and left,” laughed Epperly.

Blowing circuit breakers became just one of those things the fire department had to work around. It was a given. But one thing the fire department never expected to happen was to be called to duty during the fish fry. In 1993, in the middle of the afternoon a series of grass fires broke out over Williamsburg.

“Us older guys were starting to fry fish and the next thing we know we’re the only ones in the fire station,” Ficken laughed.

As the majority of the firefighters went out to extinguish the fires, the line of hungry people grew. Food still needed to be cooked. People were waiting to be served. So, it was the wives and retirees who picked up the slack.

And then, there were the usual electrical problems.

“The year we had the fire we had to microwave potatoes and then they burned two out of three microwaves,” laughed Dean Trimpe.

Despite the majority of the firemen being out most of the afternoon, the department served 950 people that day.

The number of visitors at the fish fry has greatly increased over the years. Last year, the department served more than 1,600 people, or eight people a minute, according to Ron Capper. The department served 1,500 pounds of fish, including carry-outs. They also went through 51 gallons of beans, 55 gallons of coleslaws, 70 gallons of lemonade and 700 pounds of potatoes.

Today, they cook on commercial deep fat fryers, which allow them to fry up to 300 fish at one time. The recipe is the same one used since 1985, but a secret to anyone who isn’t a firefighter.

“I can tell you that they’ve had the same one for about 25 years now, but we can’t release any of that information,” Capper said.

Fish is prepared in assembly lines and these days, when it runs out, it runs out. In the past 29 years, the fish fry has become the department’s second biggest fundraiser, after the fireman’s ball. It’s raised over $50,000 – that’s equivalent to 31 firefighter suits or 15 air packs.

While it does help them fund their equipment, firefighters say it is one of the most fun events the department holds because everyone, both the firefighters and community members, enjoy it.

“Like they say, ‘Nobody cooks fish like the firemen cook fish. It’s in the recipe,’” said fire chief Mark Hulseberg of the department’s slogan. The department has used it since retired firefighter Dave “Red” Coffman crafted it in 1996.

The 30th annual fish fry of the Williamsburg Fire Department will be held from 5 to 8 p.m., Friday, March 26, at the Williamsburg Fire Station. A larger number of tables and seating has allowed the department to serve up to 350 people at one time now. Delivery is available for senior citizens. Carry-out is available at the northeast corner of the station.

“We had a lot of problems blowing circuit breakers, because we had too much of a load on the whole building. We were blowing them right and left,” laughed Epperly.

Blowing circuit breakers became just one of those things the fire department had to work around. It was a given. But one thing the fire department never expected to happen was to be called to duty during the fish fry. In 1993, in the middle of the afternoon a series of grass fires broke out over Williamsburg.

“Us older guys were starting to fry fish and the next thing we know we’re the only ones in the fire station,” Ficken laughed.

As the majority of the firefighters went out to extinguish the fires, the line of hungry people grew. Food still needed to be cooked. People were waiting to be served. So, it was the wives and retirees who picked up the slack.

And then, there were the usual electrical problems.

“The year we had the fire we had to microwave potatoes and then they burned two out of three microwaves,” laughed Dean Trimpe.

Despite the majority of the firemen being out most of the afternoon, the department served 950 people that day.

UPDATED March 16, 2010 1:39 PM

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