By the ton

By the ton
It's not by chance that barbecue will be playing a big part in the upcoming Spirit of Vermillion celebration over the Labor Day weekend.

Slowly grilled pork, beef and chicken, it turns out, is a major part of Vermillion's history.

A steaming hot serving of barbecued ribs, according to the Vermillion Jaycees' thinking, is one of the best ways to celebrate the travels of Lewis & Clark's Corps of Discovery on the Missouri River just a stone's throw away from the Vermillion.

At the same time, it's also a way to bring back a bit of the community's gloried past, in the days before every household had their own portable gas or charcoal grill.

It was in those "old" days, going as far back as 50 years or more, that Heck Harnois began satisfying the appetitites of loyal store customers by grilling hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds of meat at a time.

Heck owned a gas station appropriately named Heck's. Today, it's known as Bunyan's.

"It was a good place to go; it was especially popular with college students," said Marilyn Harnois, Heck's daughter-in-law. "One of the things that Heck would like to do is offer his good customers something special from time to time. That is how he got into doing his rib feeds."

The first feeds were held at Leo Wherry's Grove, which is in the vicinity of the Clay County Park. It was the site of the annual feed of the Norway Ribeaters, made up of Eli Hanson, Kenny Erickson, Mort Sorenson, and Herb Bliss.

Leo gave Heck permission to hold his barbecue feed there because he knew Heck's station wouldn't have enough room.

"We have a record book that shows the first barbecue was held in May of 1954," Marilyn said. "My husband thinks there may have been barbecues held before that, but according to our records, it says the first barbecue was in '54."

The records show Heck paid 49 cents per pound for 250 pounds of ribs.

The record book also is filled with three pages of signatures of all of the people who attended the barbecue.

Marilyn estimates Heck probably figured he needed to fix a half-pound of meat for every person he invited. That means a crowd of up to 500 people may have dined at the first barbecue.

Very little else was served to distract diners from the tasty, slow-cooked meat which was, after all, the main focus of the meal.

"They served cheese," Marilyn said. "They didn't do barbecued beans when they first started. They mainly ate ribs, with cheese and bread."

The Boneyard

Eventually, the barbecues moved to an area near where Dawson's Bridge is located now. It was appropriately called The Boneyard.

Marilyn's brother, Larry Mart, who today owns Mart Auto Body, worked at Heck's and eventually became a master at barbecuing himself.

"I believe Larry picked up the barbecuing from Heck because Larry was working at Heck's when he first came to Vermillion, and then he was working part time for Heck and part time at Brunick's Body Shop," Marilyn said, "and that's how Larry ended up buying the body shop."

Vermillion Jaycee President Jody Harnois, grandson of Heck, said the barbecues featured a unique element – corncobs.

"They used to cook the ribs over corncobs, and that's the cool thing about this," he said. "That whole process … it's something that's very distinctive to this area.

"You go down to Texas and they've got mesquite. You go south and they've got hickory," Jody said. "When the settlers came out here, there wasn't much out here to burn but corn cobs. They used corn cobs as charcoal, essentially, and now it's a regional thing and it's something that's very indicative to this area."

Men would dig long rectangular-shaped pits, fill them with smoldering corn cobs, and cover the hot ashes with a home-made grate that held the meat.

Sometimes, an old set of bed springs, surrounded by corrugated tin on the sides and top, would do.

"The cobs were an inexpensive form of heat, and it gave them a slow, but intense heat," Marilyn said. "My husband John says that's the only way to go – with that the long, slow heat, the ribs just fall off the bone."

Secret sauce

Marilyn describes Heck as a "creative cook" who liked to experiment in the kitchen. He eventually developed his own barbecue sauce.

"It's definitely his recipe, and he passed it on to me before he passed away," Marilyn said. "I make it by special call. I do have people who ask for it."

The torch has been passed in the five decades since Heck hosted that first barbecue. Many people in the Vermillion community have kept that flame lit, and the corn cob coals hot.

"Certainly Larry Mart did a lot of barbecues around the country, and Paul Bliss picked up on that, too," Marilyn said. "So did Mike and Tom Chaney."

Two events that Vermillion people could count on in the early days of barbecuing were Heck's feeds. He held one each spring and each fall.

"I guess that's why, yet today, there's two barbecues that turn me on," Marilyn said. "The best are the first one in the spring, and the last one in the fall.

"But now you have such convenience with our grills, you can have a barbecue at anytime," she said.

When Heck decided to hang up his barbecue apron, Larry took over.

"I cooked many, many ribs," he said. "I cooked for the Democratic Party up at Madison, I cooked for a party up at Mitchell, and I once cooked 4,000 pounds of ribs for the student union here. I cooked all over the country at different places."

Larry said Heck taught him how important the heat source is in the barbecue process.

"The big thing is what we cooked with, which is corn cobs," he said. "It's better than charcoal.

"And the main thing is to give people what they want," Larry added. "We used to cook for all of the fraternities here in town, and we got so many customers that I had to make a decision of if I was going to run a body shop as my main business or if I was going to go out and cook ribs. I decided my back couldn't take it much longer so I decided to stay in the body shop and marine business."

Larry only has to make a quick mental calculation to indicate how popular barbecuing is to the Vermillion community.

"You can't believe the amount of ribs I've run through in my life," he said. "It's tons of ribs, not pounds."

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