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Fire in the Bean Hole: ‘That’s Good Food’

  • South Royalton firefighter Mark Wood, wearing a suit made for fighting aircraft fires, stands in the over 400-degree heat of the granite-lined bean hole, shoveling out coals to make room for six pots of baked beans on the South Royalton, Vt., green Friday, July 28, 2017. The South Royalton Fire Department has been using the hole to bake beans for their Old Home Days celebration for over 50 years. "We've only ever had two disasters with the beans," said former South Royalton Fire Chief Paul Whitney. Once a heavy rain put the fire out and charcoal briquettes had to be used to finish the cooking, and another time the person in charge of making the sauce mistakenly added a large quantity of salt instead of sugar, making the beans inedible. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • South Royalton firefighters Jeff Knudsen, left, and David Whitney, second from left, talk with Floyd Van Alstyne at his East Barnard, Vt., sawmill after Floyd's son Clay Van Alstyne, right, lifted a load of scrap wood into their truck Thursday, July 27, 2017. Van Alstyne donates the wood for the Old Home Days bean hole fire each year. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jeff Knudsen lets the last drops of a gallon of maple syrup drip into the pot while making the sauce for the Old Home Days baked beans in the Vermont Law School kitchen in South Royalton, Vt., Friday, July 28, 2017. "It's the same recipe we've used for about 40 years," said Knudsen. "It's pretty close to the one you'd see in Betty Crocker." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Gomery Boule, 18, of South Royalton, watches the bean hole fire burning on the South Royalton green during Old Home Days Friday, July 28, 2017. The fire burns for about four hours to make the hot coals for baking the beans. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • South Royalton firefighter Mark Wood cools off after digging coals out of the bean hole on the South Royalton green Friday, July 3, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • As customers line up in anticipation on the South Royalton green, Fire Chief Paul Brock and his son, firefighter Hunter Brock, right, dig up the six pots of baked beans, Saturday, July 29, 2017. Covered in hot coals, the beans bake at the bottom of the hole overnight until being dug up and served at noon to Old Home Days patrons. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • "Put a little extra into mine won't you?" asks Joni Latuch-Lyman, of Sharon, back right, as she comes to the front of the line behind Jim Spaulding, of Tunbridge, Saturday, July 29, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



STORY BY LIZ SAUCHELLI
Saturday, August 05, 2017

South Royalton — At first glance, the 2-foot by 7-foot rectangle in the ground on the South Royalton green looks like a smoking grave.

It isn’t, of course. It’s the fire pit at the center of a tradition at the Royalton Old Home Days celebration that started in the 1960s. Known as a bean hole, the pit held a fire that was intentionally set by the South Royalton Fire Department on the last Friday night in July to cook baked beans, which would be served on the following Saturday as part of a fundraiser for the department.

Mark Wood was one of the Royalton firefighters attending to the fire. While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the tradition came about, there’s a general agreement that it is “based around the Royalton Indian raids,” Wood said. The British-led Indian raid took place on Oct. 16, 1780, and burned the towns of Royalton, Sharon and Tunbridge.

After the fire burned for a few hours, cast-iron pots of baked beans were put into the ground by firefighters wearing special heat-resistant suits, to be dug up before noon the next day.

“Once they’re buried we leave them right there,” Wood said, adding that no one disturbs the beans once they’re in the ground. “They know that’s good food and they don’t want to mess with it.”

The beans always draw a crowd. “As soon as people see people start serving,” Wood said, “there’s a big line.”

There were no amusement rides at South Royalton Old Home Days this year. The vendor the fire department had lined up canceled for a more lucrative opportunity elsewhere. As a result, the fire department reached out to area organizations to organize activities. The Girl Scouts set up games. A softball team had a dunk tank. Children involved with the 4-H program brought animals to show. Area musicians played a variety of music.

“They didn’t want to lose the tradition,” Wood said. “They wanted to keep it going as much as possible.”

And a big part of that tradition is the baked beans.

Firefighter Jeff Knudsen began the process on Friday in a kitchen at Vermont Law School. While he declined to share the recipe, he said it involved 32 pounds of soldier beans. Nearby sat a rather large jug of Vermont maple syrup.

The beans simmered in six cast-iron pots on the stove, waiting to be put in the fire, “and then they’ll be in the ground for about 12-13 hours,” Knudsen said. “Once you put them in the ground, it’s up to fate.”

Knudsen said he knew of only two times when the process was disrupted: once when someone used salt instead of sugar, and another year when rain cooled the fire (the beans were kept in the ground longer and served with dinner instead). 

When asked his favorite part of the event, Knudsen’s answer was instant: “The people,” he said. “It’s just getting together … and doing something for the town.”

On this Saturday the green was bustling with activity. The dunk tank was active and volunteers allowed children to get closer for a better chance to sink a rotating cast of dunk tank sitters.

Neighbors greeted each other and the South Royalton Town Band played lively music.

At around a quarter to noon, one of the firefighters announced “it’s time,” and a couple of others grabbed shovels to begin digging. The deeper they got, the more smoke billowed out and the scent of the baked beans grew stronger. Noticing this (or perhaps just smelling it) people began to form a line that soon stretched to a few dozen.

One by one, the cast-iron pots were brought to the volunteers, who had set up an assembly line to serve them — in a pint or on a plate with bread and hot dogs.

Martha Fiske, of Sharon, was first in line.

“South Royalton is my second home,” she said. While she gets the beans every year, this was the first time she was first in line. “Even though I make baked beans myself at home, I love these baked beans.”

One of Fiske’s favorite activities at Old Home Days is the parade, particularly the firetrucks. But, in a refrain echoed by other attendees, the celebration for her was about the people. “It’s really nice to see some … old friends and make new ones.”

Within an hour, the baked beans were gone.

“They were delicious,” said Jane Eaton, of Minneapolis. “I’ve never had beans that have been in the earth all day. I might have to dig a hole in my backyard.”

The green may have felt a little empty because of the missing rides, but the scene had a pleasant, old-time feel. It was easy to imagine how, while the people and activities may have changed since the 1960s, the community spirit stayed the same.

And the baked beans? Objectively, they were delicious.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221. James M. Patterson can be reached at jpatterson@vnews.com or 603-727-3230.