The annual chicken barbecue dinner at the Lebanon Area Fair is as much a tradition as the fair itself. 

“It was first held in 1972, and it was a small chicken barbecue,” said Richard “Dick” Kreider. “It was small, and it was held in a tent at the pavilion. I believe we served about 300 to 500 meals that day. It was all takeout when it first started.” 

In a way, the fair just wouldn’t be the same without the annual chicken BBQ dinner, which is now in its 51st year. The chicken BBQ is held on Thursday during fair week, and the ham dinner, which Richard said began about 20 years later, is served on Sunday of fair week.  

If you go…

Ham Barbecue Dinner at the Lebanon Area Fair

11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday, July 23

Chicken Barbecue Dinner at the Lebanon Area Fair

2 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 27

Drive-thru pick up or eat in the North Hall

“We put out a good meal, and it’s not your ordinary BBQ because we have seating arrangements in the North Hall,” said Kreider when asked why it is so popular. “It’s not a typical BBQ; it’s a dinner, really.”

Carol Kreider, Richard’s wife, detailed how the BBQ has grown over the years. She said when it first started, the fair only served chicken, no sides. Its popularity has increased from a few hundred dinners being served in those early years to around 3,500 today. About another 3,500 ham dinners are also served. 

“It was on a smaller scale, and we only had chicken,” said Carol. “I remember that we used to heat baked beans in a roaster, and we had to clean the cantaloupe, and that was all under a tent. We didn’t have the facilities (the expo center) that we have today.”

Both dinners are a fundraiser for Lebanon County’s 4-H programs, according to Dan Siegel, Lebanon Area Fair chairperson. (The dinners include their respective meat, baked potato, applesauce, roll and butter, and beverage. Dessert is a cream-filled donut or, if dining in, the choice of a donut or ice cream.) 

“The sales from the dinners benefit, basically, the 4-H program, with proceeds going to the maintenance and support of the expo center,” said Siegel. “The various (4-H) programs then have free rental of the facilities throughout the year.” 

That arrangement is its own tradition, added Siegel.

“That’s been the deal ever since the place was a small complex – it predates the modern expo center for sure,” said Siegel. “That was happening before the North Hall was built and many of the larger buildings were built. It’s a tradition that’s maintained itself all of these years.”

Richard provided a brief history of the fairgrounds, noting the chicken BBQ started shortly after the land was purchased and the fair had its permanent home. 

“Initially, it started out as a gypsy fair, and it was held here and there and various places,” said Richard, who has been a 4-H volunteer for over 50 years. “A group of people – the 4-H leaders – decided they wanted a permanent location. And that is when they purchased the land, which I believe was in 1968, and it started from there with a small bunch of buildings, and then things just kept escalating. It (chicken BBQ) started about the time we bought the fairgrounds.”

Read More: For 60+ years, the Lebanon Area Fair has been one of county’s biggest attractions

The 2023 edition of the chicken BBQ will be especially poignant for those individuals who have donated their time over the years to make it happen. One of its two founding members, Phyllis Paine, passed away on May 28 after a long illness, and her funeral was held last Friday. Phyllis and her husband, Bob Paine, founded the popular event more than 50 years ago. 

“Robert and Phyllis Paine always took care of everything,” said Carol. “She and Bob did a lot, and they were the ones who started it.”

There’s no hard and fast rule when an event becomes a tradition, but one occurrence that may be considered its own mini-tradition is the provision of the chickens by Fredericksburg-based Bell and Evans. 2023 is the third straight year the company will supply that product, according to the Kreiders.

“Bell and Evans supply the chickens, Peters’ BBQ in Manheim makes it there and then brings it to us in large coolers, which is really nice,” said Richard. “Somebody used to come in, and they made it down at the pits, but when the charcoal wasn’t quite right, or you had a rainy day, it was a problem. Peters makes them at their indoor facility.” 

“I think it is great,” said Carol about the chickens being supplied by a local ag company. “Their chickens are uniform in size, it’s good quality, and Peters’, who do the barbecuing, tell us it is very good quality poultry.”

“It’s an amazing amount of support, it’s a good product, and you’re getting top-of-the-line chicken donated to you,” said Siegel. “It is very much appreciated.”

Another more recent tradition during the dinners is the advent of drive-thru service, which was added in 2018 – a fair year that Siegel said he’ll never forget.

“The drive-thru has its own interesting history. We had non-stop rain, the fairgrounds were a mud pit, and we were trying to find some way to have people get in and get out without parking in the muddy fields,” said Siegel. “I’ll tell you this, it was a real mess. The drive-thru and picking up meals has really taken off. It is an amazing convenience. People drive in, go to the different lanes, and then are on their way.”

Launched a few years ago, the drive-thru service for the ham and chicken BBQ dinners has quickly become a popular addition to the annual Lebanon Area Fair. (Courtesy of Tim McGowan Studio)

Siegel said the drive-thru was especially handy in 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The annual dinners were still held, even though the fair was shuttered that year.

“It has been a learning experience,” said Siegel. “We’ve worked on solutions to get meals out quicker – especially during rush times. We’ve learned from prior years and our past experiences. FFA members and other clubs help with serving the meals, so to speak, and our biggest learning experience is how to get people in and out quickly. Let’s face it, when you go through a drive-thru, you don’t want to sit in line and wait.” 

Whether dining in or picking up, it’s best to get your tickets early. (Richard said about one-third of the tickets sold are for dine-in service since the meal ticket also gets guests same-day admission to the fair.)

“We say that we have tickets at the door, but the last 15 years, we’ve sold out, so we always don’t have them at the door,” warned Carol.

Siegel and Carol noted that tickets are available from Lebanon County 4-H members who will sell them to the public through the first week of July. Tickets can also be purchased at the fair office at the expo center during business hours, which are Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. 

As expected, serving so many dinners takes a small army of volunteers to feed ravenous community members. The same can be said for all of those volunteers who also give their time to make the fair a successful annual event. 

With barbecue chickens stored in the coolers at the left, volunteers work diligently to keep the line moving for fair guests who choose to dine in at the annual event. (Courtesy of Tim McGowan Studio)

“There’s a lot of people doing things quietly behind the scenes – that’s the amazing part of the whole event. The silent support of those who work behind the scenes, who never cry for attention,” said Siegel. “Every year, you sort of have these moments when you sit back in awe and think about the amount of people it takes to make this thing work and the amount of people who work to bring together an event like this really from nothing.”

For Richard, there’s another tradition that means the world to him and the other volunteers who make the two dinners a memorable – and delicious – experience. While the chicken is prepped offsite, fair volunteers still cook the baked potatoes and ham on location, and there’s plenty of work required to serve everyone. 

“This is a community thing, and these guys and gals – those who make the potatoes and those who make the ham – they look forward to it every year,” said Richard. “It’s a tradition, and while we’re all getting older, the old timers still enjoy getting together.”

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...