Storms, floods don't deter Ribfest

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Jake Magee
Sunday, July 16, 2017

ELKHORN—Walking through the Walworth County Fairgrounds on Saturday afternoon, one wouldn't have been able to tell Ribfest organizers had only a fraction of the time they had hoped for to prepare.

Days of storms and floods literally put a damper on organizers' efforts to set up the popular festival for its second year.

"Our plans were to take three days to set it up, and we had to press that into one," said Larry Gaffey, fairgrounds general manager.

When organizers finally did begin setting up, they had to deal with several pools of standing water throughout parts of the fairgrounds. Gaffey pointed out areas where organizers had laid mulch on the grass.

"We brought in about 80 yards of mulch because we need to soak up the ground," he said.

Some vendors have several-ton smokers that would have sunk into the soft, muddy ground had vendors tried to wheel them across the grass. Instead, volunteers came out with heavy equipment to lift and set vendors' cookers in place, Gaffey said.

The weather Saturday was perfect for the festival, and residents and organizers weren't thinking about the headaches the storms had caused. They had only one thing on their minds: delicious ribs.

Gaffey predicted Ribfest's second year would see even more people than last year when 30,000 people came to enjoy ribs from different parts of the world.

The three-day festival's initial year was so popular that organizers ran out of almost everything they needed by the end of the first day. Organizers had to raid every store they could from Milwaukee to Chicago to refill, Gaffey said.

This year, Gaffey and others prepared for the onslaught of rib-hungry residents.

One reason for the festival's popularity is its free admission and parking, said Donna Rice, owner of Desperado's BBQ & Rib Co. out of Cleveland, Ohio.

"Many barbecue shows in the area and around the country are going down because of ridiculous prices they're charging to get in," Rice said. "It's not any fun anymore."

Ribfest features 10 vendors from locations around the world including Memphis, Tennessee, and Australia. They're competing for awards based on critiques from professional judges' and regular customers.

Last year's grand prize winner is Leon Davis of LD's BBQ, which is based in East Troy. He got into barbecuing because his mother was a terrible cook, Davis said.

"I started cooking … because I didn't like what she was making, and I did most of it outdoors because I didn't have to clean up the kitchen," he said.

Since starting his business in a parking lot, LD's BBQ has only grown.

But it's not always easy. As of Saturday afternoon, Davis had gotten only four hours of sleep total since Thursday because of the work required to succeed at Ribfest, he said.

"It's tough. You gotta love it. You gotta be a little weird, too," Davis said.

New to the festival this year were carnival rides. There was also a traveling balloon animal maker, spray paint mural artist, small craft fairs and live music.

But most residents could be found doing one thing: messily chowing down on ribs.

"I think all the people that came last year had really good taste in their mouth, literally and figuratively," Rice said. "They didn't get ripped off at the gate, they didn't get ripped off at to park. They came in, they had great barbecue. What more could you ask for?"

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