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Chicken barbecue tickets limited to 2,000

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO Happiness at the Shelter Island Fire Department's  Chicken Barbecue last year.
BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO Happiness at the Shelter Island Fire Department’s Chicken Barbecue last year.

What! You haven’t purchased your tickets yet for the 54th Annual Shelter Island Fire Department Chicken Barbecue?

You better hurry. This year, for the first time, only 2,000 tickets will be sold, according to barbecue committee chairman Brian Lechmanski.

Don’t count on being able to waltz over to Fireman’s Field on Saturday, August 19, hand over your money and eat. Walk-ins will be welcome only if the 2,000 mark hasn’t been reached, Mr. Lechmanski said.

The decision — a way to avoid under estimating attendance at the popular communal feast — was made by the new department leaders — Chief Anthony Reiter, First Assistant Chief Stanley Beckwith and Mr. Lechmanski, the Second Assistant Chief.

While acknowledging the old joke about not being at the meeting when he was tapped to chair the organizing committee, Mr. Lechmanski is enthusiastic about tackling the task. And he promises there won’t be a repeat of the resounding refrain that this barbecue will be the last.

The new chiefs, each expecting to serve for two years at the top, have committed themselves to keep the event going for at least six years. And if Chief Reiter has his way, it will continue for another 50 years.

That said, it is a lot of work to organize, set up, cook, serve and then clean up, only to have to make an immediate turn-around to prepare for the following weekend’s Country Fair held at the Center Firehouse.

Originally the Chicken Barbecue was the major fundraising effort for the Heights Fire Department while the Country Fair was the Center Fire Department’s fundraiser. When the two departments merged in the late 1990s, they agreed to keep both events going, despite the work volunteers put in on back-to-back weekends.

“It’s a lot of work, especially since as soon as the event ends Saturday night, department members begin taking down the tent, tables and chairs and sending them to the Center Firehouse to be set up for the Country Fair the following Saturday,” former chief Greg Sulahian said last year.

“As long as the department isn’t losing money, it’s worth the work.”

The chicken barbecue raises about $25,000 each year, which helps pay for equipment beyond what the Board of Fire Commissioners provides in its annual budget.

A decline in revenues was behind the talk of scrapping the barbecue a few years ago. John D’Amato, chief at the time, wanted to assure there would be a 50th barbecue. That occurred in 2013, and while the event was no longer bringing in the amount of money it had in years past, it was ultimately decided to keep it going and to keep the price reasonable so families could manage the cost.

“It’s not about the money,” Mr. D’Amato said at the time. “It’s about the community.”

Tickets — sold at most Island businesses — are $25 for adults and $15 for children. For the price, you’ll feast on chicken, corn, potato salad, watermelon and cold drinks. And, as always, if you can’t stay to eat, takeout is an available.

Islanders flock to the barbecue not just for the delicious food, but for a chance to catch up with friends and neighbors they may not have seen during the earlier part of the summer.

That it’s special for the community is testified to by a friend of Mr. Lechmanski’s. The young men grew up together and each year after the barbecue, the friend would take home one of the colorful posters advertising the event. He can’t be on the Island this week, but asked Mr. Lechmanski to get him a poster to frame as a memento of his days here.

Throughout the week, department volunteers will be preparing 1,800 chicken halves, 70 bushels of corn and 450 pounds of potato salad. Mr. Lechmanski says all are welcome to help out at Fireman’s Field starting at 9 a.m. Saturday to shuck corn, set up tables and chairs, take tickets, serve food and when all guests have gone home with full stomachs and smiling faces, assist in cleanup.

Volunteers don’t have to work the full day and evening; whatever time they can give is appreciated by those who run the annual event.

The barbecue is from 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday, August 19.