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Chicken chowder is a savory tradition of Bergholz Fire Department

BERGHOLZ – The logo of the Bergholz Volunteer Fire Department is a flashy old-time steam engine, emitting a puffy cloud of white vapor as it is pulled by three galloping horses. But it might as well be a huge, steaming kettle of chicken chowder.

Several local fire departments make their own chicken chowder for sales or for their annual field days. The Clarence Center Fire Department's Labor Day fair draws visitors from all around who look forward to digging into bowls of the rich, meaty chowder.

In Niagara County, St. Johnsburg Fire Co. and Gratwick Hose Co., both in North Tonawanda, are also well-known for their chowder, which they prepare and sell to the public in the winter months.

But no fire department has kept the chowder tradition going for as long, or as regularly, as Bergholz, where chowder is sold on the second Saturday of every month, year-round, starting at 11 a.m. in the fire station, 2470 Niagara Road.

"Bergholz is a close-knit community," said Curt Heuer, who has family roots in Bergholz and has written about the chowder on his blog, "Another Stir of the Spoon." With families that have lived there for generations, "They maintained the strong sense of community, and food is a strong marker for community," he said. "Chicken chowder is associated with Western New York and the fire department tradition."

The Bergholz Fire Department is well-known for its monthly chicken chowder sales. Signs like this one have attracted hungry chowder fans for decades.

The connection between firefighters and food is well-known. Cooking for each other and eating meals together is an established part of firehouse culture, and has been made into an art by some skilled cooks.

While firefighters have also developed a reputation for turning out chili, stew and other easily made, hearty dishes, Western New York departments are known for chowder, a rich stew that usually contains potatoes, corn, and fish, clams, chicken or beef.

It seems that more than a century ago, firehouse chowder was popular in other parts of the state. On May 31, 1888, the Yonkers Statesman newspaper reported on the inspection of the Lady Washington Hose Co., which was founded in 1853. The article said, "A firemen's chowder follows a firemen's inspection as naturally as night follows day, and there was no exception on this occasion. The chowder was cooked on the premises by James McVicar, and was declared to be first-class."

By 1974, Bergholz chowder was famous enough to be the subject of a Niagara Gazette story, written by Ruth Fees. Fees described firefighters and helpers using vast quantities of chicken, beef, potatoes and onions, along with other vegetables, to make the chowder for the company's field days, which started in 1920.

The chowder was simmered in nine "cast-iron kettles weighing 300 pounds apiece," she wrote. Each kettle held 79 gallons, and the people who lined up for as long as three hours to buy takeout chowder carried every imaginable kind of container, including turkey roasting pans.

In late September of 2010, about a month after the death of his father, Harold, Heuer, who lives in Wisconsin, wrote a post about Bergholz chowder. Among his father's records, Heuer had found a folder marked "Chowder," that contained recipes. In the history of the blog, which Heuer and his wife, Jeanne, started in 2010, that post and two others he later wrote about the chowder remain the most popular "by far," he said. Those three posts have been read more than 10,000 times. "We got tons of reaction, and continue to this day to get hits on those posts almost daily," he said. "Sometimes we get 20 or 30 hits on them in a day."

"It seems to be seasonal," said Heuer. "Every fall, we get inundated with hits on those posts." Some commenters thank him for his father's recipe, which Heuer provides in two sizes, one to make 11 gallons, and a reduced recipe that makes enough chowder to fill a large pot on the stove. A purist, Heuer said, "the real chowder should be made outdoors."

Other commenters, also yearning for a taste of home, ask plaintively for the recipes for Wendleville or Gratwick chowder. "It was one of those seminal flavors, you grew up eating it," said Heuer.

There is a local rivalry over the chowders, said Bergholz Chief Mark Stevens. "I have had other people's chowder, and it's not bad, but they are different, and people either love them or hate them," he said. "Luckily many people love ours."

Although the local dishes are called "chicken chowder," they also contain a substantial amount of beef, and the broth gets its richness from simmered beef bones. Potatoes, corn and onions are a given, with other vegetables, such as green beans, lima beans, green peppers, peas and carrots, being optional, although each department adheres strictly to its own established recipe.

St. Johnsburg Fire Co. makes and sells chowder on the first Saturday of every month from October through June, except January. Gratwick Hose Co. sells chowder on the second Saturday of each month from January through May.

Rich Donner, chief of the St. Johnsburg Fire Co., said the department used to sell more than 320 gallons in a two-hour session. "People would bring their own containers and drop them off" to hold their places in what could be very long lines, he said. St. Johnsburg still sells more than 240 gallons on chowder days, he said.

There are changes in the traditional recipes, but they are not universally accepted. The Bergholz chowder used to contain clam broth. "But so many people can't have shellfish these days, so we cut that out close to 20 years ago," said Art Kroening, who has made chowder for some 40 of the 46 years he has belonged to the department. A past chief and past president, Kroening is now the department's Chowder Master.

"They were making chowder before I joined, with the same recipe, except over the years they added green beans," he said. Still, some people prefer the original recipe. "I cook for the American Legion on Memorial Day, and they want the original recipe, they don't want green beans in it," said Kroening. "So I leave the green beans out of it!"

The recipe used to call for dried lima beans, but that required a few extra steps of picking through, rinsing and soaking the lima beans before cooking them. These days, the cooks use canned lima beans, which has drawn no objections. The chowder is also rich with potatoes, corn, peas, carrots, green beans, onions, celery and green peppers.

At St. Johnsburg, there are no green peppers in the recipe, said Donner. "Never," he emphasized.

Although Kroening loves to talk chowder, he draws the line at how the Bergholz version is seasoned. "We can't give out the spices, that's a secret!" he said.

Although many chowders are made with milk or cream (think New England clam chowder) or with tomatoes (think Manhattan clam chowder) the local firehouse chicken chowder is made with neither.

In Bergholz, "The meat is beef and chicken," said Kroening. "It's always been called chicken chowder, because about twice as much chicken goes in as beef. The chicken is diced, nothing ground. You have to have beef bones to make good broth, and then beef shoulder, all sliced up and cooked."

From left, Dave Schimschack, Keith Potter, Ralph Mauro and Bergholz Chief Mark Stevens gather to chop chicken and beef for chowder in the truck bay at the Bergholz Fire Department. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

On the Thursday before the Saturday chowder sale, "I get everything going during the day," said Kroening. "And after work, there are usually 15 to 18 people cutting up." Some who turn out to do this work at long tables in the truck bay are members of the ladies auxiliary, who also make desserts for the bake sale that accompanies the chowder sale.

Gathering to hand-dice the chicken and beef "is a bonding experience," said Stevens, a third-generation Bergholz firefighter, who worked alongside his father in last month's chowder preparation session. "Plus I think taking the extra time and chopping it gives the chowder better flavor."

After all the meat is diced, said Kroening, "it's iced or refrigerated, and the next morning all the fat and grease forms a hard crust on top and that's all taken off, so what's left is just the broth. It's the healthiest chowder you can get."

The day of the sale, about a dozen workers show up at the firehouse starting at 5:30 a.m. Workers place the 70-gallon kettles into their metal, gas-heated stands and fill them with the broth.

From his childhood, Heuer recalls the cast-iron kettles that were heated on wood fires, and the scents of wood smoke and chowder mixing in the air.

Through long experience, the department cooks the exact amount needed. From September through April, they make three 70-gallon kettles, for a total of 210 gallons. In May and June, "we cut back half a kettle," said Kroening. In July and August, they make two kettles of 140 gallons. "Some people just don't eat chowder in the summertime," he said.

The kettles simmer, mixing the flavors and thickening the broth. At 11 o'clock, workers use huge ladles to dip the first of the chowder into waiting bowls and take-home containers. Most buy their chowder to go, but some pull up a chair and dig in. The chowder is $4 a quart, $1.50 a bowl. The volunteers also sell half-gallon or gallon containers that can be used to take chowder home.

The monthly Bergholz chowder tradition has its roots in the department's field day, which was held on July 4. "That was our big fundraiser," said Kroening. "We used to make nine kettles."

At some point, the department expanded the chowder offering to every month. "We used to stop it during the summer months, June, July and August, but then we decided to keep making it," said Kroening. "We're down to two kettles, and sometimes they talk about stopping it for the summer, but we've just kept it going."

Bob Jasper, right, pours ice into bins full of cut potatoes as Art Kroening, left, brings out bins of chopped onions for the chowder. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Jennifer Wittkowsky, who has been president of the Ladies Auxiliary at Bergholz for five years, grew up in a different fire district eating a different chowder. She now prefers Bergholz's version, she said.

Although the volunteers face challenges in freeing up the time to make and sell the chowder, "We're very lucky with the group we have," said Wittkowsky, whose husband has been a volunteer firefighter for about five years. "It's really like a family here."

The money raised helps pay for the expenses of the department and the firehouse, said Kroening. "Right now, we are remodeling our lounge, so that money can go for that," he said.

The chowder-sellers said that while most of the buyers are regulars, their happiest customers may be people who have moved away and can have chowder during a visit home. Wittkowsky has a sister-in-law who lives in the Finger Lakes area, where there is no tradition of firehouse chicken chowder. "She'll ask me, when she plans to visit, 'Are you having a chowder?' " Wittkowsky said.

Like many other local departments, Bergholz, which answered 901 calls last year, is looking for more members. As part of the statewide Recruit NY effort, Bergholz will hold its annual open house and recruitment event on April 29. The open house, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 29 at the fire department, 2470 Niagara Road, Bergholz, will include tours of the firehouse, as well as opportunities to meet staffers of Tri-Community Ambulance Service, MercyFlight and members of the Air Force and Niagara County Sheriff's Office, who will operate their driving simulator and provide child safety seat checks until 1 p.m. A limited amount of chowder will be sold.

At St. Johnsburg, which is at 7165 Ward Road, North Tonawanda, the open house hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 29 and 30. Some chowder will also be sold at this event.

email: aneville@buffnews.com

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