Chicken dinner adds to Old Settlers’ allure

Martin Maher of Brimfield designed this rotisserie-style, propane-powered mechanism to cook pork chops for the Brimfield Men’s Club during Old Settlers Days.

For The Weekly Post

BRIMFIELD – Pork chops are a default festival food in central Illinois, and with good reason. Done right, a grilled slab of juicy pork tastes delicious and is fairly easy to turn out in large quantities.

But when Brimfield gathers this weekend for its 132nd annual celebration of Old Settlers Days, a rare festival food entry will dominate dinner discussions on Friday and Saturday night from 5-8 p.m.

As they have for decades, members of the Brimfield Area Men’s Club will cook plenty of pork chops, but they will also fry up nearly 700 pounds of chicken – a time intensive labor of love that Men’s Club members say sets Old Settlers apart from many other small-town events.

“Pork chops are pretty common everywhere you go,” Martin Maher said. “You don’t get chicken suppers at these kind of setups that much.”
Finger-licking good chicken, too.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a negative about the chicken,” said Bernie Shoop, who for 15 years coordinated chicken cooking. “We have had a lot of good comments about how it was.”

Shoop said fried chicken has been a staple of Old Settlers Days for “a long time,” probably dating back to 1975 when the Men’s Club took over management of the festival.

Shoop ran the chicken-cooking operation using two fryers that cook 40 pieces each and a third cooker to handle 60 pieces at once. The third cooker is actually a donut fryer, according to Shoop, and keeps chicken very moist, which explains why it is used for the white meat pieces of chicken.

Shoop said he was talked into helping by Henry Peters and, along the way, has enlisted the help of his friends and family, including his wife, Shirley, and friends Bruce and Wanda Wagner. Now the torch is being passed again, with Josh Helms taking over this weekend.

“In the last two years, we’ve had a bunch of young men start in the Men’s Club and they’ve done a heckuva job,” Shoop said. “We’re kind of letting them take over. At least I am.”

Among the Men’s Club old guard, Maher, 85, is still very involved, as is Ralph Peters, who runs the parade, and Kenny Wertz, who handles the stage, PA and wiring.

It was Maher who built the fancy cooker used by the Men’s Club for pork chops. Maher admits he copied his design.

“A fellow by the name of Martin up in Edelstein built the first cooker. He belonged to the Pork Association and raised a lot of hogs,” Maher said. “When he died, [Raber Packing Co.] got the cooker and I kind of copied off of that, but on a much smaller scale.”

Instead of grilling pork chops, the enclosed cooker runs on LP gas and cooks the chops at 600 degrees on a rotisserie.

“Running at 600 degrees kind of seals the meat over and makes them more juicy,” said Maher, who ordered 1,500 chops for this weekend. “Depending on how thick the pork chops are, after about 11-13 minutes you can take them out.”

Of course, there’s much more to the festival than just meat.

Boden’s carnival rides open today from 6-10 p.m. and will be a staple all weekend. Saturday’s lineup is the busiest, starting with breakfast at the American Legion Hall from 7-10 a.m., the Old Settlers 5K race at 8, the arts and crafts fair and vendors opening at 9 and then a steady string of events all day, including the 1980s themed Old Settlers Parade at 1 p.m.

This year’s lineup of live music features: Thursday – Kelvis, a Brimfield Elvis impersonator, who performs at 7 p.m.; Friday – Country music performer Steve Hargis from 6:30-8 p.m. on the main stage and local favorites the West MacQueen Street Band at 8 p.m. in the beer tent; Saturday – The Breakfast Club, a 1980s cover band, at 8 p.m.