Yesteryear: Once upon a time, burros were food for the festival
The Mohave County Board of Supervisors kicked up a dust storm recently with a proposal to issue hunting permits for burros in order to reduce their population. It wasn't a serious idea, we've been told; apparently the "shock value" of potentially shooting animals beloved by Route 66 tourists would prompt the Bureau of Land Management to step up its response to the burro overpopulation issue.
It certainly got attention. Will it do any good? Only time will tell.
As some recalled, though, it wasn't too long ago that burros were regularly killed, back in the beginning days of a festival named in their honor. And they weren't just a namesake - burros were on the menu.
Mohave Miner, April 10, 1958: Wild Burro Barbeque Background
Bullhead City - (April 10) - The people of Bullhead City have a new and novel usage for that famed "desert canary" of gold rush days - the burro.
Last April the tiny sport-fishing village on the banks of the Colorado River staged its 4th annual Wild Burro Barbecue, and more than 7,000 people from 37 states flocked to see - and taste - the results.
Since Bullhead (after the succulent river catfish of the same name) has a bare two dozen businesses and a population of maybe 400, counting stray dogs and visiting relatives, it's easy to see what a commercial adjunct the burro has turned out to be.
Of course, as the name of the event implies, the animal put to use is not the plodding beast of burden of yesteryear, but rather its barbarous offspring, the wild mountain burro.
In many regions of Arizona, these once-domesticated beasts roam the desert hills in herds of 30 or more, raiding sparse rangeland, luring away ranch horses, causing highway accidents and otherwise raising Cain.
Still the citizens of Bullhead City aren't out to eradicate the cantankerous little nomads.
"In fact we're against promiscuous burro hunting," says tavern operator Bob Shaffer, president of the Wild Burro Barbecue Club and perennial major domo of the yearly wingding. "The wild burro is part of the color of Old Arizona, just like the ghost towns and abandoned gold mines, and we'd hate to see them disappear."
To avoid wasteful killing the barbecue club hires two professional hunters, who spend about a month each year bagging the exact number of animals needed for the giant feed.
Last year nearly a ton of burro meat went to feed the hungry throng. Along with it, the club dished out 1,000 pounds of cole slaw, 500 pounds of cowboy beans and an incalculable number of sourdough rolls. The chow line opened at 2 p.m. and rolled on without a letup until 10 that night.
Though old time desert rats have long extolled the gastronomic glories of wild burro meat, Shaffer believes the Bullhead City group is the first to barbecue it. The idea was born during a casual fisherman's bull session back in the winter of 1953.
"Mostly we wanted to see if you could actually barbecue the stuff," recalls Shaffer. "So we bagged three or four burros, boned and chucked it, seasoned it like you would beef barbecue, wrapped it in foil and burlap and cooked it in a covered pit. Why, it was as good as venison - maybe better!"
The first barbecue was purely a community affair, but when it turned out so well, businessmen got behind the event and decided to throw it open to the outlanders.
The first come one come all feed was staged in 1954, and it has been a regular feature on the last Saturday in April every year since.
One undeniable reason for the barbecue's rousing success is the fact that it's all for free. It is financed almost entirely by businesses of Bullhead and nearby Kingman.
But there are few complaints. The boys figure there's bound to be a certain percentage of those coming to eat burro who'll stay on to fish for trout. And in Bullhead, it's river trout and not burro that supplies the year-round bread and butter.
The event stayed free of charge for a few years; one account of the early days says that people used to quip, "Go to the Bullhead Bar-B-Q for a free piece of wild ass!"
It didn't stay free for long, though. Organizers decided to use the growing popularity of the event to raise money for community needs, such as schools, roads and improving the local hospital.
Mohave County Miner, May 26, 1966: At Bullhead City: Burro Bar-B-Q
The annual Wild Burro Barbecue will be held Saturday at Bullhead City. Games, booths, burro rides and races and the barbecue, served from noon until late afternoon, will be the order of the day. All proceeds will go into a river community hospital fund.
... This will mark the third year the barbecue, for many years an annual affair in the river community, will be held for the benefit of the Colorado River Valley Community Hospital Association's fund drive.
A crowd of 20,000 is expected to be in the river area for the barbecue and the Memorial Day weekend, according to Ralph Dunlavy, chairman of the community hospital association.
Last year, Dunlavy said, the barbecue netted the hospital fund about $2,500 and the group hopes to make a similar amount this year. Approximately $14,000 has been raised by the association to date.
... This year more than 1700 pounds of meat will be barbecued in an old fashion pit-type barbecue. The 1700 pounds includes 700 pounds of beef.
The burros for this year's barbecue were slaughtered and processed in accordance with government regulations at the Howard Grounds ranch near Kingman.
A lot has changed since then. The beneficiaries of the fundraiser differ, as do the organizers, and the dates have moved to coincide with Memorial Day Weekend.
And they don't grill burros these days.
Mohave Daily Miner, May 5, 1985: Wild Burro Barbecue: Bullhead City prepares for annual festivities
No, they don't really cook burros. Not anymore.
The annual Wild Burro Barbecue has come a long way since its inception. The 35th barbecue, scheduled for May 25 of this year, will include the cooking of about 2,500 pounds of boneless beef, enough for 3,000 people. The burros will be there, but as honorary guests, not dinner, according to Dan Hargrove of the Bullhead City Rotary Club.
"The first one (barbecue) was free, and they did barbecue burros," Hargrove said. "But since we (Rotary) took over, we've used beef. We don't feel you can honor an animal if you eat him."
... Burros now are protected animals and can legally be captured only by the Bureau of Land Management. And beef is a bit more accepted cuisine, anyway.
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