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Dawson Springs annual barbecue acts as beacon of hope for tornado-devastated community

Lily Burris
Seven months after the December tornado outbreak, the Dawson Springs community gathered for the 74th Annual Dawson Springs BBQ. The event is a fundraiser for the local community center.

For 74 years, the small western Kentucky town of Dawson Springs has come together in late July for a community barbecue, bringing people together to raise money for the community and celebrate the summer.

The barbecue was especially important to Dawsonians this year as the town continues to recover from last December’s deadly tornado outbreak, a disaster that destroyed around 70% of the homes in Dawson Springs. For many in the community, making it to this event was going to be a big sign of hope and progress.

Darla Adams, a board member for the Dawson Springs Community Center and an assistant manager at the local Dairy Queen, was excited for the celebrations this past weekend.

“It's like if you're three years old or four years old, and you're all excited about Christmas and Santa Claus. That's this week, that's today all rolled into one,” Adams said. “It's just living in Dawson Springs and doing this is phenomenal. Everybody ought to enjoy it, or everybody ought to come and do it with us. You don't have to be a Dawsonian to do that.”

This event is a fundraiser for the Dawson Springs Community Center, where people have been having family and class reunions, wedding, baby and bridal showers and all types of events for years. In the wake of the tornado, the community center was used as a temporary office for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Community center board members prepped for this event for weeks. They even got together a month before the celebration to make a special barbecue sauce for the day and, the day before the event’s kickoff, thousands of pounds of pork started smoking on the barbecue pits in the Dawson Springs City Park.

Lily Burris
Donnie Mills helped barbecue pork for the 74th Annual Dawson Springs BBQ. He's been helping manage the pits used for cooking since the 1980s.

Donnie Mills started the fires in the pits at 2 a.m. last Thursday, getting the heat level just right for the meat to go on six hours later. Mills, a retiree who relocated to Dawson Springs in the 1980s, has done this for years and enjoys playing a part in the tradition.

“It's just something that the community does, and I just really, really get a lot of pleasure out of working with it,” Mills said.

Before he retired, Mills worked with Kentucky Utilities and helped with disaster recovery efforts in a number of places, but he said the tornado that hit Dawson Springs was just different.

“This year has been a very trying, challenging time. I have worked with utility companies, I’ve worked hurricanes, I’ve worked tornadoes, I've worked ice storms all over the country. I've seen a lot of really bad, challenging stuff,” Mills said. “I've never seen one quite as impactful the way this impacted this community, and I have been on some really bad hurricanes around the coast. I've been involved in some really ice bad storms, and lots of situations where tornadoes have come in and pretty much wiped out towns.”

In previous years, more than 6,000 pounds of ham was smoked, but several of the pits were damaged in December’s storms and only four were ready for use. This time around, more than 3,000 pounds of Boston Butts were smoked for about 24 hours to make into barbecue plates, sandwiches, nachos and pre-packaged pounds that would be sold out of the community center.

Once the meat makes it to the community center, volunteers – like Dawson Springs Independent Schools’ Family Resource Youth Service Center director Jonathon Storms – help shred and separate it.

Storms is native Dawsonian and he treasures memories of “barbecue time,” comparing it to major holidays. Now, after December’s tornadoes and the pandemic impact from previous years, Storms said the community wants to stick together.

“We want to keep things like this, we want to continue to remind each other that we can do just about anything that we put our mind to,” Storms said. “We just feel blessed to be here and to be able to celebrate and be together and just do what we always do. This is a big tradition. We wouldn't miss doing this for the world.”

Lily Burris
Volunteers help separate meat for sale at the 74th Annual Dawson Springs BBQ. The meat is used for sandwiches, nachos and plate, as well as sold by the pound.

Tabatha Adams is the Dawson Springs Rotary Club President and a local business owner. Though she didn’t grow up in Dawson Springs, Adams and her family have been heavily involved in the community since moving there a decade ago. In that time, she’s come to see how the annual barbecue brings the community together.

“This year it's very special for everybody, not only to come together but it's kind of like the town celebration,” Adams said. “Celebrate the town, celebrate the citizens, celebrate the community that survived.”

Adams and the Rotary Club are planning a memorial to those in the community who were lost to the tornado in December for the one-year anniversary of the storm.

The barbecue started with some local businessmen who wanted to raise money to create a community center. Over the years, it’s become something of a homecoming event. There are church homecoming services, class and family reunions.

Dawson Springs native Jake Morris and his wife made the trip this weekend to Dawson Springs from Florida, where they went after they retired about 12 years ago. Morris has been attending the barbecue most of the time it’s been going on, although he said he had to be carried to the first couple he attended. This year, the couple had barbecue for lunch in the community center and went to a family reunion.

“That's wonderful to have a place to come home, and people that live away from here, have a chance [to] come and visit people that you don't see for a year at a time or more,” Morris said. “It's wonderful that they can still have it.”

Dawson Springs Mayor Chris Smiley has been helping with the barbecue for most of the last three decades. He knows how important this event was for the community this time around.

“We just knew we had to have it [to] bring people's morale up,” Smiley said.

Smiley and his wife, Jahn, are also on the Dawson Springs Community Center board. Their kids attended the barbecue growing up and their grandkids come back for it now.

While waiting for the barbecue, Smiley’s also been watching his town recover from the tornadoes. He’s aware there’s still some things to be worked on, like the local housing authority properties that are gone, but thinks things are generally looking up.

“I think it's doing great,” Smiley said. “We've got over 25 houses going back up.”

There are still signs of damage, but the downtown area of Dawson Springs looks almost the same as it would during any other summer barbecue. Some damage can be seen on top of the buildings, but the street fair underneath is unaffected.

Lily Burris
As a part of the Dawson Springs barbecue, there's a street fair to end the night. The 74th Annual Dawson Springs BBQ street fair included live music, inflatables, games, vendors and a raffle.

Vendors, food trucks, live music and games for local kids were set up along the street.

Mark Ford grew up in Dawson Springs but moved to Bowling Green – which was also hit by December’s tornado – after high school. He relishes the opportunity to come back and catch up with old pals. He still has family in Dawson Springs, and some faced a lot of damage to their homes in the tornado outbreak.

“I remember coming down here and I went over to my sister's house and sat down and had an emotional time just by myself, just thankful that she was okay, and the family was okay,” Ford said. “It's emotional looking back and seeing your old baseball field that you grew up playing on, or the pool, not there anymore.”

He’s hoping to see more support for rebuilding in the future as both his hometown and his current place of residence continue to recover from the storms.

People return to town Saturday morning for a few more community events, like the annual 5k race. Donnie Dunbar, who grew up in Dawson Springs but lives in nearby Madisonville, organized the race. He said the traditional route looks drastically different because of tornado damage.

“The actual road itself will be the same, but the scenery has changed – probably one third of the homes on the route that were there last year are not here this year,” Dunbar said. “And it's a construction zone. There's gravel out there on the road and stuff, so it's not a clean route for the fast runners, but it's the same course.”

Lily Burris
As a part of the 74th Annual Dawson Springs BBQ, people line up for the Dawson Springs Barbeque 5K. The route looks different this year after the December tornado outbreak.

There was also a golf scramble at the nearby Pennyrile Forest State Park and a car show downtown.

David Thorp, who coordinates the car show, grew up down the road in the nearby community of Ilsley, which was also impacted by December’s tornado outbreak. He used to cruise in Dawson Springs when he was younger and he’s encouraged by how recovery efforts have gone so far.

“It's awesome to see the amount of work that they've done. The rebuilding of the factory buildings out here that they’re working on, just the general coming together that everybody has tried to do to help bring the town back, that's what it's all about.” Thorp said. “We lost, unfortunately, several people, and you can't ever replace those people, but you can kind of help get the ones that have survived back on an even keel.”

Local retiree Jerry Nicswonger brought his 1965 Plymouth Belvedere to the car show. He thinks Dawson Springs had a bit of a slow takeoff in their recovery process, but he knows that – like good barbecue – recovery takes time.

“They are gradually getting back up and things are going to be, as an ole boy used to tell me, ‘more better gooder,’” Nicswonger said.

This year’s event was filled with hope as rebuilding efforts continue in Dawson Springs. Community Center board member Darla Adams said they were flabbergasted to have pulled the event off.

“I think a lot of people bet against us, and those naysayers, I think a few times we were thinking they probably won on it, but they didn't,” Adams said. “I think we're just in awe of everything that was able to pull off. We're just totally happy and excited.”

Lily Burris is a tornado recovery reporter for WKMS, Murray State's NPR Station. Her nine month reporting project is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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