CENTREVILLE — — With a gentle breeze blowing and temperatures in the low 80s, it was mild for a June afternoon on the Eastern Shore, but adjacent to the main attraction at the Queen Anne's County 4-H Park, it was hot as blazes.
John Draper stood next to a 650-pound frying pan, stirring 140 pieces of chicken in 160 gallons of bubbling soybean oil with a pair of giant tongs.
His face was flushed. The hair on his forearms was singed. And as the line of hungry customers grew to 100 people and more on Friday afternoon, he pondered why he'd decided to volunteer at the 65th Delmarva Chicken Festival, which will be the last, as old-time marketing gives way to more modern demands.
"I believe in the mission of raising our produce right here," said Draper, wiping sweat from his brow, "and I certainly don't want that going away."
Draper, a Centreville resident, had arrived at 6 a.m. to fire up the Giant Fry Pan. It is expected to cook up to 4 tons of chicken Friday and Saturday, a measure of the popularity of a festival born in 1948, when a handful of people involved in the production of broiler chickens in the Delmarva region set up a competition to develop a "better meat-type chicken."
Then known as the Chicken of Tomorrow Contest, it later became the Delmarva Chicken Festival, an event that has included poultry queen competitions and chicken-plucking contests every June but two in the years since, all in an effort to spread the word about a regional poultry industry that last year alone produced more than 3.6 billion pounds of broiler chicken.
Few doubt that the free two-day festival has served its purpose over the decades. Held in towns from Salisbury and Denton to Georgetown, Del., and Easton, it has drawn 20,000 to 25,000 visitors each year, according to Bill Satterfield of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., the trade association that has organized and sponsored the event.
The festival has never been a money maker — any proceeds go to the place that holds the fest — but it has served as powerful promotion for the chicken industry, which accounts for one-third of the state's cash-farm income per year, about $805 million in 2012. Across the Eastern Shore, according to Delmarva Poultry, the $2.8 billion-a-year chicken industry employs more than 13,000 people.
"With millions of people coming through, it has done a great job of keeping all things chicken on the brain," said Connie Parvis, a Delmarva Poultry official who has worked every festival for the past 40 years.
But even though the state's appetite for chicken hasn't waned, times do change.
The festivals draw extensively on volunteer support, and it's harder than ever to attract volunteer workers for several days at a time, Satterfield said.
Perhaps more important, in an era in which environmentalists blame chicken farmers for contributing to the pollutants that leach into the Chesapeake Bay, the industry's main concerns now relate to government relations and regulations, Satterfield said.
"It's a matter of knowing where best to direct the resources we have," he said.
Perhaps it was the great weather, perhaps the public's awareness that this festival will mark the end of an era, but the size of Friday's crowd stunned organizers.
Bob Arnold, president of the Queen Anne's County Farm Bureau, which supplied most of the festival's volunteers, said that even though they had 4 tons of breaded fowl, courtesy of Perdue, he was worried that they'd run out before the end of Saturday.
"What's a chicken festival without chicken?" he said with a nervous chuckle.
Since 1950, the festival has starred what has long been known in the region as the world's largest frying pan, a 10-foot-wide contraption with an 8-foot handle made by the Mumford Sheet Metal Co. of Selbyville, Del. The first pan cooked more than 100 tons of fowl in its first 38 years before Mumford produced the current version.
On Friday, as always, a team of volunteers took turns frying up the chicken quarters that guests lined up to eat for lunch ($7 per dinner, including coleslaw made from locally grown cabbage), $12 for a bucket.
It was too torrid for any chef to stay in one place for long.
"You have to know where the hot spots are and keep moving," Draper said.
Not far away, dozens of people gathered in a pavilion to hear Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline tribute artists and a country-rock band, and in the barn next door, guests placed bids on fiberglass chicken sculptures.
Scores more flocked into a barn where children could pick up baby chicks or see them hatch.
In the same building, visitors paused to view displays that illustrated the festival's history, including a program cover from 1975 depicting none other than Col. Harlan Sanders of KFC fame, complete with white suit, string tie and cane, who was the festival master that year.
"He was a true gentleman," said Sylvia Gannon of Easton, who was festival chair that year and picked the chicken magnate up at the airport.
Another showed the winning float from a parade held in 1948, the first year. "We Salute The Chicken of Tomorrow" read a banner on the side of a flatbed truck dressed up to look like — what else? — a giant, forward-looking chicken.
In the image, a 9-year-old boy is seen standing at the back of the float, waving to the crowd.
That boy, Curtis Marker, is now 74, retired after decades of work in the chicken business and living in Dover, Del.
Organizers made sure he was on hand Friday.
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Marker wasn't sure how to feel about the festival's passing. It's disappointing to lose an event that has been part of the fabric of local life, he said, but "times do change, and they've probably got better ideas for how to promote the chicken business."
Either way, he said, his passion for the feathered fowl won't change.
"I tell everybody I was probably hatched," he said, smiling.
In line at the Giant Fry Pan, the feelings also were mixed. Debbie Callahan of Queen Anne's County stood in line for 20 minutes for her deep-fried chicken, and she had no problem with the delay.
Knowing this was the end of an era was another matter. Callahan gave a wistful smile.
"It's hard to let go of tradition," she said.