Fifty Years of Free Pit BBQ at the Custer County Fair

BROKEN BOW—What could be better than free food? How about 50 years of mouth-watering BBQ served for free to the Custer County community. The annual free pit BBQ at the Custer County Fairgrounds has been a staple of the county fair and this year, the Tuffy Winberg Memorial Free Pit BBQ continued as normal—or almost normal.

On Monday, July 27 approximately 2,500 meals consisting of sandwiches, BBQ sauce packets, chips, beans, pickles, ice cream bars, and drinks were served via drive-thru prior to the Custer County Classic Bull Riding event.

Event organizers Matt Thomas and Jami Anderson said they wanted to celebrate the BBQ’s 50th year but were unsure of how to do it amid COVID-19 Directed Health Measures. They submitted a plan to the Loup Basin Public Health Department and were granted permission to hold a drive-thru event at the fairgrounds in Broken Bow.

Anderson said the annual supper is made possible all through community donations and nearly 150 volunteers.

“It takes a community to put this on! It really does. And I’m so thankful–I know Matt is too—about all the people that give selflessly of their time. I think last year I had people calling me right up to the day before saying ‘do you need help?’ which is completely awesome and shows just what a great community we have,” Anderson said.

Matt Thomas has helped with the pit BBQ for about 29 years. The process to cook the 12-pound beef sirloin roasts takes all night before and most of the day leading up to the event.

Two holes are dug in the ground that are five feet deep, four feet wide, and nine feet long. Wood burns all night while the meat is prepared by whoever gets the meat bid, always a local supplier, and this year it was Grocery Kart.

“After we burn the wood all night, we get sand in the morning and the coals are all covered with sand. And then the meat is placed inside on the sand, then the pits are covered, and sand on top of the pits. It basically makes an airtight in-the-ground-oven and they’ll cook pretty much from 8 o’clock in the morning till about 2 o’clock in the afternoon,” Matt Thomas told KCNI/KBBN.

In years past, people walk through food stations to get their meals by the Shooting Sports Building. This year, meals were prepackaged and cars began lining up at the fairgrounds prior to 5:30 p.m. to receive their to-go meals.

Some vehicles waited as long as 30 minutes to get through the line but were able to enjoy music requests on KCNI, receive coupons from local businesses, and kids were given gift bags full of candy and other goodies from Nebraska State Bank, Bruning Bank, and Custer Federal State Bank.

Volunteers included Nebraska Lieutenant Governor Mike Foley who said it was his first time at the free pit BBQ and enjoyed the food which he said was “absolutely delicious.”

Local individuals, families, and businesses help out with the annual event and many of Nebraska’s congressman, senators, and state representatives have attended in the past, including Governor Pete Ricketts.

Jami Anderson appreciates all of the teamwork it takes to put on such a massive event including the Custer County Ag Society, Custer County Foundation, and the Broken Bow Chamber of Commerce.

“We could not do this without the cooperation of the fair board, they’re so helpful, and the Custer County Foundation. We funnel all these funds through that so it is still tax deductible for everyone and without those two people it wouldn’t happen. And the chamber does a lot to help us promote it as well,” Anderson said.

Matt Thomas said organizers had hoped to make the 50th anniversary even bigger this year but given the circumstances of the coronavirus, he said they were just happy to put it on and remind Custer County residents that life can still be normal. Although this year, volunteers were wearing masks and having their temperatures checked.

Larry “Tuffy” Winberg

As for the namesake of the event, Larry “Tuffy” Winberg was involved in the BBQ from the beginning and became a pillar in the Custer County community. He grew up in Dunning, served in the Coast Guard, and then moved with his wife, June, to Broken Bow in 1970. Tuffy provided the “fastest haircut in the west,” according to Matt Thomas, at Larry’s Barbershop. Tuffy was also involved with the Chamber of Commerce and his kids Tricia Trumbley and Travis Winberg said their dad always loved to make people happy.

“It really does mean a lot to us. One thing that was really important to both my mom and dad was making other people happy and there’s not much better way to make people happy than to feed them,” Travis Winberg, 53, said.

Tricia and Travis attend the BBQ each year and even though they no longer live in the area, they consider Broken Bow their hometown. Tricia told KCNI/KBBN it warms her heart to see people sharing stories of her parents and considers it a blessing to see where the event is today.

“It means a lot to us. My dad and my mom both were pillars in this community and it’s an honor to us that they now have renamed it after my dad. Every summer of my life—I turned 50 this year—and every summer of my life this was where he was at and he loved it. He loved the comradery with his friends and the community coming together and it’s an amazing place to come back to,” Tricia Winberg Trumbley told KCNI/KBBN.

Tuffy passed away at age 75 on July 1, 2017. Organizers of the BBQ renamed the event to the Tuffy Winberg Memorial Free Pit BBQ that same year. Many volunteers have been involved for several years dedicating their time and talents every summer. Some of the longest running volunteers include Louis Stithem, Butch Brunken, Pat Dody, Scott Briggs, Gene Chapin, Larry Yantzie, and Ron Kratzer.