By Janie Southard
DURBIN -- A few dozen hardy souls braved fire and steam Monday to keep 450 pounds of beans and 120 pounds of ham and bacon on the boil in nine cast iron kettles at the 107th annual Durbin Bean Bake.
"People come up and volunteer to stir and get their pictures taken. But we sure appreciate the help," said Larry Fennig, who heads up the actual cooking of the bean soup.
It's a job he inherited from his dad, the late Philip Fennig, who was in charge for 25 years. Philip Fennig grew up about a mile from the grove of trees near Erastus-Durbin Road where the big bean party has been held to honor all veterans for more than a century.
The whole thing began when Andrew Jackson Snavely decided in 1897 to have a reunion of his fellow Civil War veterans. A camp cook during that war, Snavely decided the menu would be beans, hardtack and sowbelly.
"That first one was held in Celina, and it was a failure," said Larry Fennig, who has researched the history and keeps a bean bake scrapbook. "But his friend George Durbin who had a little store out here talked him into having it in John Rhodes' grove at Durbin, where we are now. So the first actual bean bake was held in 1898 on Labor Day," he continued, as he scooped some foam off the top of boiling water in one of the kettles.
The kettles are cast iron in two sizes, 20 and 30 gallons. Some of them are 75-plus years old and fit into metal jackets attached to a vent that looks like a little chimney. The front of the jacket has a fire door that opens for the wood fire under the kettle.
"The only place I know of to get these kettles nowadays is in Holmes County. The Amish make them, and they cost about $600," Larry Fennig said. "But you can see we don't replace them very often."
Like Fennig, who had three generations of his family at this year's bean bake, the event is a family affair for about 1,000 people who pass through the old grove at some point during the day. This year's farthest traveler was from Abilene, Texas. The oldest attendee was 99-year-old Mildred Peters, who is the great-grandmother of the youngest attendee, 1-month-old Allison Joann, according to Jim Chittum, who has emceed the 40 or so bean day events.
Francis Fennig, Larry's 83-year-old mother, has attended every bean bake since 1945 except for the year her twins were born in early August. She's made countless pies and noodles and worked at the Cook Shack until this year when she helped out with the bake sale.
"Over the years I've talked to a lot of people as they came through the food line. Many of them I'd talk to year after year and knew them by sight, but we never exchanged names," she said, adding in all those years she only took part in the morning games once.
Chittum said many of the morning events are the same as 100 years ago.
"Slipper kicking, husband calling and wife calling, sack races -- these are real oldies and very popular still. Of course, there's always something that happens, like this year when we didn't have the sacks here and someone had to run home and get them," he chuckled.
The beans and homemade food, like pies and noodles, in the Cook Shack never fail to get out a big crowd. But what keeps them coming back is the old-time flavor of a big family picnic in the trees at the end of summer.
Octogenarian Gregor Kahlig of Fort Recovery was one of the first to lend a hand with one of the stirring paddles, which were handmade locally several years ago. He seemed to really enjoy his work.
It would seem he's been coming to the bean bake all his life, but actually he's only attended for the past six or seven years.
"Well, I always heard this was a lot of fun, but I'd never been here. After that first time, I've been back every year. It's nice to be here in the trees with everybody having a good time. It's like it used to be," Kahlig said as he stirred slowly.