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From brawl to boil: Crawfish Boil simmers into 40-year tradition

By
Cassia Catterall with the Gillette News Record, via the Wyoming News Exchange

GILLETTE — It’s not an extravagant affair.
 
There are no wine glasses or polished silverware, and no one needs to dress for the occasion. In fact, it’s probably better to wear clothes that can sport a few stains.
 
In simple terms, it’s a meal. A meal filled with friends and family and even those friends a person keeps in touch with only once a year at just such an occasion. In the last 40 years, it’s the essence of a simple meal and good time that have kept the annual Crawfish Boil going, along with a mass of local volunteers.
 
As the story goes, the boil that now racks in more than $100,000 a year for locals with medical needs began because a Louisiana oil field worker wanted a taste of home.
 
In 1983, Buster Hamley started the first crawfish boil with his oil rig buddies. Since then, the heaps of crawdads have grown to far more than the circle of friends who met that first year north of town across from the Office Saloon.
 
Since those early days, the Society of Petroleum Engineers’ Crawfish Boil has donated more than $1 million back to the very community that makes it happen every year.
 
A case for crawdads
 
After growing steadily for decades, Dave Dorson, boil committee member, said the feast has plateaued in the last few years because 14,000 pounds of critters is just the most that can be cooked in a day with the manpower and space available.
 
Still, 14,000 pounds of crawdads is a pretty impressive amount to crunch through, given the 33,000-population town.
 
Dorson and Sam Bennett, committee members, remember when the amount of crawdads making their way north from Louisiana was a few shy of the total now.
 
“Well, when we started out, we had about 50 pounds,” Bennett, 85, recalled. At one point, the crawfish were actually flown into Gillette, but when the weight reached thousands of pounds, travel transitioned to trucking across the states until reaching the end destination.
 
At a land board meeting this month, Keith Howard, Cam-plex director of sales and marketing, said the early days were also more rowdy, although today’s atmosphere remains filled with spice and energy.
 

 
A $10 ticket to the event would get a person “as much beer as you could drink, as much crawfish as you could eat and as much bare-knuckled brawling as you could take,” Howard said.
 
A big event for Gillette, the originally coined “brawl” has also met with approval from other native cajun-lovers.
 
Diana Enzi remembers bringing good friends from Washington, D.C. to the boil. The couple was from Louisiana and weren’t sold on the Enzi’s description of a Wyoming crawfish boil being the biggest boil they’d ever seen.
 
“They said ‘No way,’” Enzi said. “Then, they couldn’t believe what they saw and ended up saying, ‘you’re right.’”
 
The two weren’t alone. Dorson said many visit from outside of Gillette, like South Dakota or Casper, to partake in the boiled seafood and good company.
 
A community cross-section
 
The convergence of cultures at the boil is one of Enzi’s favorite things about the event.
 
“I really like when you go in and you see a cross-section of the community,” she said. “You see the doctor next to the oilfield worker next to the teacher. It’s not just one segment, it’s the whole community.”
 
Enzi said that is one of the reasons the boil continues to be successful to this day. She said she and her late husband, former Sen. Mike Enzi, tried to attend the meal every year even though she’s not quite as keen on crawdads as her husband was.
 
Mike was so proud of the event that in 2007 he submitted a speech to be recorded in Congressional record so national leaders knew exactly where he came from. In the speech, he highlighted Gillette’s ability to come together as neighbors, picking each other up by their boot straps when times are hard.
 
Bennett said he never could’ve foreseen the get-together turning into what it is today, but similar to the Enzi’s, he believes it’s the community itself that really makes it happen.
 
“It’s one of those things you never know how and why exactly it lasts,” he said. “Why has it? It’s a lot of support from the community that donates their money and time.”
 
Elaine Jessen, former committee member of 20 years, said the local tradition is something only made possible through hard work, time and effort.
 
Combined, Dorson, Bennett and Jessen have volunteered to raise money, set up and tear down the tables and cook on the line for about 100 years. And that’s only three volunteers among hundreds who have ensured the history and delicious feast lives on. It’s hard to fathom the amount of time that’s been dedicated by every person who’s ever been involved.
 
“It’s a lot of time,” Jessen said. “Especially when we think about guys who used to be on the board and the fact that they’re gone now. I think about what kind of impact the boil’s made on a lot of people.”
 
Although Jessen said the money given to families can’t cover all medical expenses, it is sometimes enough to change lives. 
 
Dorson echoed the fact, pointing out that not one person gets paid for putting on the event — it’s all volunteer time. 
 
All money raised is used locally for medical emergencies ranging from a car crash to cancer.
 
The emotion of the event is something that’s felt in the air at Cam-plex, a genuine sense of happiness and energy that all said is something to be part of. It’s an atmosphere of friends catching up with one another since the year before, knowing their money is going toward a good cause and filling their bellies at the same time.
 
With the 40-year celebration upcoming, locals are gearing up for another round of plates, pints and flavors. But with the seasoned veterans and host of volunteers to cook, clean and divvy, there’s no need to worry about the efficiency of the production.
 
“It ain’t our first picnic,” Dorson said.
 
This story was published on April 25, 2023. 

 

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