Delta County 4-H’ers will host their 60th annual beef roast on March 14, but one family remembers when the beef roast was a chicken roast, and the cost of admission to the dinner and square dance was a pie.
The year was 1950 and Walt Bonine, the leader of a club in Eckert, decided to host a chicken roast.
His son Earl remembers that friends of his father’s, who lived near Olathe, held an end-of-the-year school picnic and chicken roast every year, and Walt liked the idea, with one difference. As a means to raise money for the 4-H Council, Walt was going to charge $2.50 per person for a chicken dinner.
Before the chicken roast, 4-H leaders like Walt were asked to seek donations from area businesses to help send 4-H’ers on trips to state fairs and congress meetings, a task Walt disliked doing, Earl said. So the idea of a county-wide chicken roast fund raiser was born.
“Dad picked up on the idea that he could do this roast and charge for it, and pay for those trips,” Earl said.
Walt, the leader of the Eckert 4-H Club, invited the Cory club to co-host the chicken roast. Walt sought donations of vegetables from the old canning factory in Delta, and donations of milk from the old Meadow Gold plant to offset the cost of the meal. 4-H’ers who wanted to eat were asked to donate a chicken or a pie to the event.
The ﬁrst year, the chicken roast was held in Walt’s orchard. “Dad just cooked chickens in the backyard,” said his daughter Velma. Walt’s son Ron remembers that his father dug a 200-foot long, two-foot deep trench with his tractor in a ﬁeld behind their Eckert home in which to cook the chickens. Corncobs were used as kindling and the trench was ﬁlled with apple wood, gleaned from area orchardists who gave Walt the ﬁre starter after they’d pruned their trees. Walt sent his four children — Earl Bonine, Velma Bonine Volgemore, Ron Bonine and Mavis Bonine Sturm (who were then about 17, 15, 14 and 11) — and their friends out collecting the apple wood for the ﬁre.
Walt started the ﬁre the night before the chicken roast and Ron was responsible for staying awake all night and tending to the ﬁre — a task he was able to complete without once falling asleep. The chickens were placed on the ﬁre early that morning. “Then we just let them simmer all day, and then we had a chicken roast,” Ron said. Walt, with the help from his family, friends and fellow 4-H leaders, served about 300 people that ﬁrst year.
Walt took the helm again the following year for another chicken roast, with the help of Wayne Shrader, who was a 4-H ofﬁcial, and Carl Powell, who was the county agent.
The second year the event was moved to the Eckert Oddfellows Lodge and about 500 people were served. “That year it mushroomed,” Earl said. They expected so many diners at the chicken roast that, instead of relying on donated food, Walt and the other 4-H leaders had to purchase the food for the event.
Velma has an article that was published in the Denver Post in 1953 that tells the secret of Walt’s chicken recipe, which had become famous on the Western Slope in the three years since he’d started the roast. She, Mavis and Ron each remember helping their parents with the preparation of the chickens. The chickens were basted with shortening and stuffed. Then they were wrapped in wet cheesecloth and then paper. The wrapped chicken was wetted down, and then placed on hot coals.
“As I remember, it tasted pretty good,” Velma said.
While the chickens were cooking, Velma, Mavis, their mother Edna, and about 30 other 4-H leaders and parents were busy cooking the remainder of the meal. Velma remembers chopping tons of cabbage for coleslaw. “We’d start in the morning and work all day long,” she said.
“We were cooking our heads off down in that kitchen!” her sister Mavis said. The two helped prepare the coleslaw, green beans and mashed potatoes and gravy for the meal, a menu which is strikingly familiar to the menu served at today’s beef roast.
The 1953 Denver Post article reported that over 700 dinners had been served that year and the “chow line” stretched into the street. Earl remembers 4-H’ers began serving the meal at 11 a.m., and didn’t get everyone fed until about 6 o’clock that night. After the dinner, a ﬁddler, banjo player and pianist played for a square dance.
Ron and Earl agree that their father started the chicken roast to raise funds for the 4-H Council, though Velma recalls that the roast didn’t really start making money for several years. “It took off from there, and it’s been a fund raiser ever since,” Ron said. The beef roast is the only county-wide 4-H fund raiser, and monies earned at the roast go toward contests, out-of-county trips, helping fund the annual achievement program, and for scholarships to members and leaders.
According to records at the Delta County Extension Ofﬁce, in 1955 the chicken roast became a turkey roast. Velma remembers the ﬁrst time they roasted turkeys they underestimated the cook time and every single turkey was raw at serving time. In 1975 the county began serving bee and in 2000 it became the beef and lamb roast. Due to the high cost, lamb hasn’t been served at the event for about ﬁve years.
The roast was served at one location until 1971, when the county began serving the meal in Delta and Paonia. In 1992 the location changed from Paonia to Hotchkiss and the meal has been served in Delta and Hotchkiss ever since.
In 2003, 2,238 people were served. The next-highest year was 1970, when 2,220 people were served. Last year there were 1,956 served.
Some of those served over the years were undoubtedly Walt’s offspring. Velma and her husband Darrell, who incidentally met one another through 4-H, frequently attend the annual beef roast. Several of Ron’s grandchildren, when they were younger, were actively involved in 4-H, and he found himself buying beef roast tickets from whichever grandchild could get to him ﬁrst.
The 60th annual Delta County
4-H Beef Roast will be held Sunday, March 14, from noon to 3 p.m., at the Delta Middle School cafeteria and the Hotchkiss High School cafeteria. The menu includes roast baron of beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, coleslaw, vegetable medley, cheesecake and a beverage. Tickets are available from area 4-H members, or at the extension ofﬁce at 525 Dodge St., Delta. Adult dinners are $8 and children under 12 eat for $4. For more information on the beef roast, call the Delta County Extension Ofﬁce at 874-2195.
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