Pioneer Day and “The Bean Feed in the Park”
By Chuck Desmond, excerpted from the 125th Anniversary Cookbook
In 1930, forty-one years after our city’s incorporation, The Great Depression began to cripple America. It was felt severely in the very small community simply called “Paso”. Everyone struggled, but in 1931 the downtown merchants set in motion a tradition that has become renown for the month of October—Pioneer Day. Pioneer Day, always on the Saturday preceding Columbus Day, is well chronicled and Paso’s most famous recipe is an outgrowth of Pioneer Day.
While there are many things that we Roblans claim as our own, nothing food-wise stands at the top of the list more prominently than our Bean Feed. Tracing its history has been next to impossible. Plenty of memories were taxed to get close to the facts. The meal evolved year after year and almost nothing we could find was officially recorded. The following information is “pretty certain”:
With the intent to have the rural residents meet and intermingle with the urban residents, the downtown businesses closed and everyone was invited to gather in the city park for a free meal which led to the phrase, “Leave your pocketbook at home!” From then until now, not a single year was missed, no matter the weather or the state of the world’s condition. The city park venue has remained a constant since year two. In the first year, Elmer Bollinger, the postmaster for awhile, organized the event at a softball field where City Hall and the Library are now. The meal was beef stew. Who the actual first “stirrer and cooker” were remains a mystery. Primarily, volunteer firemen did all the work.
In year two, the event was a barbecue organized and perhaps sponsored by Bert Davis who owned the Goodyear Tire Shop. The cooking had moved officially to the park next to the Carnegie Library and then later moved to the 12th Street side of the park.
In the third year, the meal changed again. It was “mostly beans with some meat” due to rising food prices caused by The Depression. Vernon Sturgeon supplied small cartons of milk for the children and bread came from all over. Families would bring their own food for the main course as people spent a full day in the park. The Paso Robles Lions Service Club has ensured the success of the event since 1939, which was the first year of the Lions organization in Paso.
In early years, signs representing specific districts of rural areas of the community were nailed to the trees. The same signs and locations were used each year. That tradition stopped for a long time but in 2013 the original signs will again be used!
Terry Black, a resident since 1949 and then-owner of the Goodyear Tire Shop, ran the event from about 1963. In 1973, he appointed Larry Eastwood, a Lion and new owner of Vic’s Cafe on 13th Street, “to be the new Beans in the Park Specialist“. Since ’73, Larry and about 15 Lions, plus folks who merely wanted to serve or stir, took the yeoman’s duty of preparing the meal that could feed many thousands of people. There were dozens of cooking pots (cauldrons) ranging from 50 to 100 gallons. Memories recall that the larger ones came from local politicians who got them from the California State National Guard in Sacramento which in turn had acquired them from whaling ships. The other pots “just showed up along the way.” Originally they were wood-fired but with the help of the city crews and the Lions, they were converted to propane heat. This version of acquiring the pots is the most consistent but not guaranteed to be correct. Some of them could have even come from Camp Roberts later on. Just in case you might be planning for your own large gathering, these pots are never loaned out!
On Thursday night, the pots are taken from storage, washed and set up. Friday, the pots and propane burners are put in place and tested, Saturday at 6am, the cooking begins, and on Monday, the pots are thoroughly washed and waxed to have them ready for next year. The parade starts at 10am but folks line up for beans as early as 9am for a meal that isn’t even finished cooking until 11:30 or so. Nothing is served until the parade is finished.
Here is The Recipe: 1200 pounds of the triple-cleaned beans “King City Pinks”, 350 pounds of onions, 100 pounds of green peppers, 50 pounds of salt, 500 pounds of ground beef, 100’s of gallons of water, and 24 pounds of a spice blend that is a highly guarded secret. It’s reported that the main ultra-secret ingredient in the spice blend is acorns from the park’s oak trees. You decide! The 6,000 rolls are delivered from Los Angeles. Custom carved stirring paddles were donated by Weyrich Lumber many years ago. There have been only a few times in the past 84 years when the beans have run out.
Don’t you wonder how this story might evolve by the year 2139?
About the Author:
Chuck Desmond moved from Saratoga (the San Jose area) to Paso Robles in 1999. Changing his lifestyle, Chuck who ran hi-tech worldwide sales and service organizations, immersed himself into volunteer activities. First as a Hospice volunteer for 7 years and a Meals on Wheels driver for 4 years. Mr. Desmond has been involved with Pioneer Museum since 2007 and currently is in is 4th term as the President of the Board of Directors. He is also a free-lance writer, most notably as a regular contributor to Paso Robles Magazine. Chuck is a committee member of Paso Robles Quasquicentennial Celebration for the 2014 year.