Aneta, N.D., is both similar and unique to many of the small towns that dot North Dakota. On Saturday — just as on every Saturday of the third weekend of June for the past 57 years — the rural town of roughly 250 souls some 60 miles southwest of Grand Forks set itself apart with a cookout. Not just any cookout, but the world’s largest turkey barbecue.
Debbie Johnson, an organizer of the event, says this weekend is the sole time of year that Aneta’s quiet streets are lined with traffic. The cookout draws an average of 2,500 people to town to chow down on hundreds of turkeys roasted for hours on long, slow-turning spits hung above a glowing bed of coals about as long as football field. Many at this year’s can remember a time when less than a dozen turkeys were cooked for local townspeople in a central park now marked fittingly with a statue of a turkey. Those days were long gone by this year’s feed.
Over the course of the day, volunteer crews cooked 312 birds for a hungry crowd not dissuaded by the rain. Organizers estimate the barbecue drew about its usual numbers through the intermittent downpours.
This year’s festival was held on the second-rainiest Saturday that anyone could remember, causing people to huddle close beneath awnings and umbrellas. In a part of the country where most people have few degrees of separation, the cookout puts the tight-knitting on full display.
Local high schools plan their reunions around the weekend, banking on the alumni being pulled to town by the scent of crisply roasting turkey. Middle-aged volunteers who have been working the barbecue since childhood plan their vacations to include a grand return to Aneta.
Ruth Lund has helped at the cookout since she was a child. The weekend has only gained importance in her life as she’s grown older. She married her husband just outside Aneta on a third weekend of June and had her reception at the cookout.
Twenty-four years and a move to Maine later, she shares her anniversary with the event and comes back to help with the roast much as she did when she was a girl.
“These are the people I grew up with,” Lund said at the end of a long serving line. “Now I volunteer with them and we put this thing on.”
Most of those who come back year after year to keep the spits turning have deep family connections to the event. Robbie Lukens, a man in his early 30s, was among those tending to the birds beneath a canopy of tarps rigged to protect the walled-in coalbed from the elements. Lukens is the great-grandson of the one of the events founding fathers. His grandfather, Oscar Huso, worked the cookout as a volunteer throughout the entirety of his life. Lukens, who was working through the barbeque with a network of his relatives, said Huso died just last week, not long before the event he loved so dearly. For that, Lukens said this year’s roast took on additional meaning for him. Though the weather presented some challenge to those who descended on Aneta this year, the volunteers maintained their posts and fed the crowds much as they’ve done for more than half a century.
“You can’t do it without a lot of help,” Lukens said, stepping away from the coals for a moment’s break from the heat. “It’s been kind of refined over the 57 years.”