Flathead Marines continue barbecue chicken dinner tradition
Arthur Woolley outside the Flathead Marines stand at the Flathead County Fairgrounds on Tuesday, Aug. 9. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)
Arthur Woolley tightens piping for a new propane tank outside the Flathead Marines stand at the Flathead County Fairgrounds on Tuesday, Aug. 9. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)
The Flathead Marines chicken dinner cooks on the barbecue pit. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake file)
Shawn Parrish flips a rack of chicken at the Northwest Montana Fair in 2019. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake file)
| August 16, 2022 12:00 AM
Half a chicken grilled over hot briquets and served with an ear of buttery corn, the barbecue chicken dinner at the Northwest Montana Fair and Rodeo has been a mouth-watering staple for generations. When the Flathead Marines took over the barbecue pit from the Whitefish VFW a few years back, they understood they were accepting a big responsibility.
President of the Flathead Marines Arthur Woolley remembers one of his co-workers telling him that eating the chicken dinner at the fair had been one of the highlights of his summer since childhood. When he learned that Woolley and the Flathead Marines would be in charge of the pit, he didn’t mince words telling him in no uncertain terms not to mess it up.
The barbecue chicken dinner dates back at least to the Kalispell Jaycees, who had the booth before the Whitefish VFW, according to Woolley. The “secret dry rub” made of herbs and spices that the Jaycees used is still part of the magic, along with the tradition of cooking the chicken over charcoal briquets rather than on a gas grill.
Woolley is the designated pit master. He arrives at the fair early every morning to fire up the briquets and doesn’t leave until the evening crowds are fed. A dedicated team of volunteers helps run the booth and man the pit throughout fair week.
“I cook 24 chicken halves on a rack, and I’m usually cooking two to three racks at a time,” he said. “The past three years, we have had people waiting in line. They will ask to pre-pay, but we tell them they have to wait in line. And they do. So we’re obviously doing something right.”
That might be an understatement. Their barbecue chicken dinner has placed in the Best Food at the Fair contest for the past three years, including winning First Place one year.
“The year that we took second place, we lost to D&T BBQ’s cowboy nachos,” Woolley said. “I had to see what this was all about, so I bought two orders and took them back to my crew. They were very good, and I said, ‘I’m OK taking second place to this.’”
The Flathead Marines are one of many nonprofit organizations that operate food booths at the Northwest Montana Fair and Rodeo to generate revenue for community programs and projects. The Flathead Marines use the proceeds from their chicken dinner sales to support Toys for Tots, Montana Wounded Warrior Project, Socks for Heroes, the Vets Center and many other charitable causes.
They also offer assistance to local veterans through their Marine Assistance Fund.
“Any Marine can come to us with emergency needs, and we will consider their request,” Woolley said.
Woolley entered the Marine Corps right after graduating from high school. He served four years and completed tours in Iraq from 1999 to 2003. Not long after he and his wife Cristina moved to the Flathead Valley, he was introduced to the Flathead Marines by a co-worker and fellow Marine. He has served as president of the group for the past five years.
“We are a non-dues organization,” he said. “We are always looking for new members. The only requirement is that you are a Marine or served directly with the Marines, or that you are a family member.”
Currently the group has around 250 members and includes veterans of all ages.
“We recently lost our oldest member, a World War II vet. We have members who served in Korea, Vietnam, Somali, Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.
The group meets on the first Wednesday of the month in the back room of the Kalispell VFW. They usually begin with a meal at 5:30 p.m. and start the official meeting at 6 p.m. Those interested in learning more about the group are invited to visit flatheadmarines.com or contact Woolley at (406) 249-2448 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Or better yet, stop by the Flathead Marines’ booth for supper while you’re at this year’s fair through Aug. 21.