The Burgoo wasn't always held on a Friday and Saturday. About twenty-years ago, the Burgoo Committee decided to move the event from Wednesday and Thursday to a Friday and Saturday. Naturally, this wasn't without some controversy because, after all, it is risky to change anything about an event so steeped in tradition.
But by moving the second day of the Burgoo to a Saturday, the Committee argued, it might encourage more people to attend the second day because it would be on a weekend and there could be more events for the kids. The kids' games were expanded to include other events besides just the foot races and the parade, and an antique tractor show and tractor pull were added. In some years, there were other special events, such as cow-chip bingo or a 5-k run. (I once made the foolish challenge to my brother in Colorado that if he came home to run in the Burgoo 5-k, then I would run it, too. He didn't require much preparation since he has been running several miles every day since he was in sixth grade, but I thought I was safe because he is ten years older and lived so far away. I prepared by eating more chocolate chip cookies, so when he showed up at the Burgoo that year, I ate crow instead and ended up crossing the finish line dead last while he won the race.)
Putting the second day of the Burgoo on a Saturday probably has allowed more former residents to make it back home for the festival. There was an especially large crowd in 1989, when the town celebrated the 150th anniversary of its beginning. For the entertainment that year, the community organized and produced a play to dramatize the history of its founding, and Albert Wessler, one of the few remaining German-speaking residents, played a leading role in depicting the town's earliest inhabitants.
Throughout the years, the Burgoo has hosted all forms of musical entertainment, from local talent to well known names out of Nashville. This year's acts, Highway 101 and Hank Thompson, are names any county music fan would recognize, and in the past, the performers have included such personalities as as John Conlee, Jeanie C. Riley, Dave and Sugar, and Hank Williams III.
Sometimes the entertainment comes in unexpected forms, though, like the time when the act which had been booked never showed up and two of the town's citizens took to the stage instead. As Gerald Beard tells it, back in those days, the town usually booked the entertainment without going through a booking agency, and he would always worry whether or not the performer would actually show up. One year, his worst fears came true, and the professional never made it to town. Gerald realized he had a problem on his hand when show time came and still no one had appeared. He called on his brother Myron for help.
"Myron and I had done this little skit for the Arenzville Woman's Club where we dressed up in drag and sang some comical routine," he said. "And when it became clear that the entertainer I had booked wasn't going to show, Myron said, 'well, let's do it.'" So the two of them went and got their costumes and stepped out on stage in front of the Burgoo crowd.
Performing for the Burgoo is probably worse than playing to a county fair audience because most people are more intent on visiting with their friends or getting a bowl of soup than watching the act on the stage. People are generally milling about the whole time the performer is trying to engage the crowd, and entire groups of people might get up and leave in the middle of a performance. It must be awfully hard on the ego of someone who is more accustomed to an attentive audience.
However, the Gerald and Myron Show was an instant hit. "Not only did the crowd think it was hilarious," Gerald said, "but we got invited to perform at local festivals in four other towns around here, and an agent from St. Louis heard about us and wanted to sign us up!"
I asked Gerald if he could recall the worst disasters that had happened at the Burgoo. "Besides that one?" he asked with a laugh. And he went on to recall a few events that added some trying times to the celebration. Just last year, for instance, there was a moment of excitement when the trailer serving Bruiser's Curly Fries caught fire, and flames shot through the opening by the exhaust fan. The Arenzville firemen were on the scene immediately, and the fire was quickly extinguished.
"Fortunately, no one has ever been seriously hurt in any of the mishaps," he said, as he described the time the electricity went off one evening in the middle of the night's musical performance. The entire block was cast into darkness. "I mean, there was not a light anywhere in the park! The whole place was pitch black." It took a few minutes to find the problem and fix it, and then things resumed as before.
In 1989, the theatrical performance of the town's history had to be suspended for a fire at the Burrus Seed Farm facility outside town. Most of the actors in the production were also volunteer firemen, so the play was stopped and the fire trucks roared out of town. When the fire was out, everyone returned to the park and the show was continued.
But the worst disaster, according to Gerald, "was the year we had forty gallons of burgoo left over." Most of it was frozen and sold later at the Side Door Grocery, but it was an awful hassle to find containers to transport it all so the clean-up crew could put the kettles away.
For a town that claims to make the World's Best Burgoo, having that much soup left over at the end of a day would rank among one low points in the history of the event. But fortunately, there have been many more years -- like this year -- when the demand for the soup has emptied the kettles according to plan.