SAVERY — A stranger might stand out at the Savery community’s annual barbecue, but probably won’t remain a stranger for long.
People are quick to adopt those they don’t know at the picnic and welcome them in for a gathering that draws people from up and down the Little Snake River — from Rawlins and Saratoga and Baggs in Wyoming, and from Craig across the border in Colorado and beyond.
With only a few locals in the tiny unincorporated community in Carbon County near Wyoming’s border with Colorado tend to know each other. But all are welcome at the picnic, and Savery has a reputation for throwing one heck of a summer party. To put it in perspective, the nearest “big town” is Baggs a few miles west along Highway 70 with its fewer than 500 residents.
“If your picture’s in a museum, you’re pretty old,” Duane Benson told Cowboy State Daily, laughing and smiling as he finished off a picnic plate piled high with his favorites.
Benson lives in Utah now, but grew up in Baggs. He and his wife Barbara have been coming to Savory’s annual picnic for the last 15 years.
“I know people here,” he said. “Some are my relatives. I went to school in Baggs. When I go in the little schoolhouse, my aunt’s picture is there.”
His picture is there, too, his wife reminds him. It’s in one of the yearbooks, along with a lot of other memories that feel like home. That feeling of home is what keeps the Bensons coming back year after year after year, no matter how far away they might roam.
Growing Up Mayberry
Jill Culver, meanwhile, moved back to her childhood hometown of Baggs nine years ago when she and her husband Phill Giffin retired.
Growing up in the Little Snake River Valley was like a scene from a classic Mayberry episode. Culver remembers picnics with bonfires to keep away mosquitoes, and how the sun shone on the fields her daddy worked in.
“It was normal to us,” she said.
Culver recalled using a fence post to climb up on a neighbor’s horse one afternoon to go and find her father in those sun-kissed fields. She can’t remember the reason she was hunting him, but she fashioned a halter out of some baling twine with her small, suntanned fingers. The neighbor’s horse patiently stood still for as long as it took a small child to accomplish such a daring feat.
“Chiefie was his name,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “And he was a sweetheart.”
So sweet, in fact, that when she fell off of Chiefie in her quest, the horse stopped short. He wasn’t going to step on his tiny charge.
“Mom was a schoolteacher, part of (her career) here,” Culver said.
The family soon moved on to a new school district, but Culver never forgot growing up there. She and her husband, Giffin, come to the picnic “off and on,” she told Cowboy State Daily.
“It’s a chance to see all the neighbors,” she said. “I love seeing everyone and the music is great.”
The old-time stuff in the museum is fun, too.
“Oh, and the food, of course,” she said. “It’s so good.”
A Magical Pot Of Beans
The great food is a community-wide effort.
It’s a meal of smoked lamb, beef, or pork, with fresh corn and potluck dishes like broccoli salad and cheesy squash casseroles — just like someone’s grandma would make.
Bill Duncan leads the cooking crew, and he’s responsible for sourcing the meat from 4H and FFA youths. Ranches local to Little Snake River Valley help purchase the beef for the picnic. This year, the ranches bought five smoked hogs, five smoked lambs and a beef. Many businesses, oil field companies and other people also donate animals for the barbecue.
The bean pot, meanwhile, is a central tradition from the early days of the picnic, which began in the 1970s. Today, the essential pot of beans is managed by Keith Duncan, Bill’s brother and one of the Snake River Museum’s board members.
“There’s no secret recipe,” Keith told Cowboy State Daily. “It’s ever evolving. It depends on what I pull out of the cupboard and what I forgot.”
Keith inherited the rusty old bean pot cooking contraption from Tommy Greives, who is likely the culprit who started the tradition, and who is certainly the one who made it so famous that the cookout cannot be considered a success without it.
The beans have a smoky, salty, made-by-grandpa taste that goes great with just about anything, but most especially, the smoked meat that is the star of the meal.
“It’s got anasazi, bolita, and turtle or black beans,” Keith said. “This year there’s bacon, but no onions, and a few other things.”
Keith gets the bolita beans from Adobe Milling in Dove Creek, Colorado.
“They’re very specific to an area,” he said. “They grow in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. Our grandmother grew up picking them.”
There’s No Dress Code, Even For Princesses
Savery’s ya’ll come picnic annually serves upwards of 500 people or more. To quote an old country song, there ain’t no dress code and no invitation is required. People can just show up for the event and dive right in. The only rule is have a little fun in the sun before summer is done.
Despite the large size of the crowd, there are usually some leftovers, Bill said.
Extra smoked meat is given to food pantries, or, sometimes, it’s used by community groups for fund-raising activities.
“These guys all donate their time,” Bill told Cowboy State Daily, gesturing at the seven smokers and a ring of a dozen or so volunteers, all keeping a watchful eye on their slow-cooking roasts and racks of ribs.
The cooks start smoking the meats early in the morning the day of the picnic, and will tend to them all day long, turning them every so often or basting them if desired.
As the meats cook, the cowboy chefs are all sitting in a makeshift ring of lawn and camp chairs with their drinks of choice, talking about life in the valley or razzing each other as the day grows long in the tooth. Beyond that ring, corn hole tournaments and a dunking booth, as well as the annual soccer match, are all happening at the same time.
Finally, as the shadows lengthen, it’s go-time for these volunteer chefs. Each one huddles over a cutting board to rapidly cut or pull apart and shred various smoked meats for a crowd that’s worked up a hearty appetite.
The cowboy chefs are not so busy, however, that they don’t have time to offer a sample or two, hot off the grill, to this wandering reporter.
The trays of meats are taken over to the potluck, where a line of people curves all the way around the picnic tables, crowding the cornhole tournament just a tiny bit. Free will donations are accepted for the meal, which is split with select charities each year.
After everyone is fed, some of the extra smoked roasts are sold to help pay for the event.
A grant helps pay for a live band at the event each year. This year it was Sam Platts and The Plainsmen. If there are any expenses left after that, there’s a group of businesses in the valley that are ready to split the tab.
Once Upon A Time There Was A Little Picnic
Linda Fleming, who led the prayer at the event, recalls that the first Little Snake River Valley picnics were held in what is today the Cedar Plaza Mobile Home Park in south Baggs. At that time, it was a meadow with a few trees for some shade.
Later, the event moved to the Meadow Lark addition, which was then a meadow with a stream and trees on the east border of Baggs.
“At that event, the two beer distributor companies from Rawlins brought down beer-dispensing trucks and free beer was served,” she said. “There were long lines for barbecue and music.”
The event included relay horse races held through the trees and slough — a thrilling, but dangerous ride for the riders and horses.
“Probably because of the liabilities of being on private property with the free beer and ‘crazy’ horse races and Calcutta betting, the event was moved to the Baggs Town Park,” Fleming said. “No free alcohol, no horse races.”
That lasted a year or two, and then the location was changed to Russell Community Park, the rodeo area east of Dixon.
Finally, about 20 years ago, the event found a more permanent location at the Little Snake River Museum.
“The museum has been the key to the growing and successful community barbecue,” Fleming said. “Not only providing the space, but putting up the tents, acquiring additional port-a-potties, and all the other things behind the scenes for a successful event.”
A Soccer Match To Rule Them All
One of the popular traditions of the day is a soccer match started by rancher Jack Cobb six years ago to celebrate the employees on Little Snake River area ranches. Many of the workers have come in on the H2B Visa program from places like Peru and Mexico.
The competition is actually its own event, but is always held the same day as the annual Savery picnic.
In fact, the match is so intertwined with the event that the idea of not having it is almost unthinkable. So much so, that, even though the picnic’s organizers had been told the match was cancelled, six teamsshowed up to compete anyway.
And compete they did.
After they cut the hayfield themselves, that is.
While it might seem strange to suddenly cut a hayfield for an unexpected soccer match, that’s just one more thing that shows just how welcoming the Savery picnic is. No sooner did the soccer players show up, than someone got a tractor out to prepare the field.
Drying rows of fresh-cut hay ringed the newly created soccer arena where players ran with the wind at their backs throwing themselves after soccer balls without regard for grass stains or skinned knees or elbows.
There’s a lot of pride and bragging rights in winning the tournament, one player told Cowboy State Daily.
Two of the teams this year represented area ranches, while four came from a nearby soccer club in Colorado.
After the tournament, the soccer players were all invited to join the picnic, and pile their plates high with the delicious smoked meat, corn, rolls, and potluck casseroles.
For those who were still hungry, there were homemade cookies and marble cake slices floating around.
Everyone was invited to have one or two. Or three if they’re really hungry. No one would say a cross word about it, guaranteed.
Everyone is in a good mood at the Savery Picnic.
It’s not just the fabulous food. It’s also the fabulous setting at the Little Snake River Museum, which has grown over the years in a circle of green that is ringed by mountains. It’s looks like a magical scene from a fairy tale. And it is magic. It’s a place where the once-upon-a-time history of everyone who has ever lived in the Little Snake River Valley lives on and on.
That’s why no matter how far away its children may roam, they always want to come back home to Savery, where they can celebrate their history at one of the most magical picnics in Wyoming.
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.