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Arthur Watts’ barbecue helped him build a new life after slavery. Nearly 160 years later, his recipes are helping his family build a business.

Read the full article in the Chicago Tribune or view the pdf version

Arthur Watts knew his way around an open pit barbecue from the time he was just 6 years old. Born into slavery in the Kansas City, Missouri, area, his job was to manage the cooking fires throughout the plantation.

Out of necessity, he developed his own techniques and recipes for cooking in the barbecue pits. And, by the time he was a teenager, he had become the primary caretaker of the open-pit fire.

“He had to learn everything on his own, and he had to learn it fast in order to stay out of trouble,” said Eudell Watts IV, who is Arthur’s great-great-grandson. “So he dabbled with whatever he could find to complement the flavor of what he was roasting.”

From that point, Arthur Watts handled the barbecue every single day until he was 27 years old, when he was able to exit bondage in 1863 following the Emancipation Proclamation.

Arthur Watts is shown cooking barbecue in Kewanee, Illinois, in 1916 in this family portrait. The patriarch passed his recipes and techniques to his children, and those recipes have become the basis for the family's Old Arthur's sauces and spice blends.
Arthur Watts is shown cooking barbecue in Kewanee, Illinois, in 1916 in this family portrait. The patriarch passed his recipes and techniques to his children, and those recipes have become the basis for the family's Old Arthur's sauces and spice blends. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

Now, nearly 160 years later, great-great-grandson Eudell IV and his father, Eudell III, are using the same recipes to recreate his sauces and spice rubs for Old Arthur’s Barbecue Sauce. They aim to grow the Chicago business, which was founded nine years ago but has seen an uptick in interest lately, that can support future generations of the Watts family — the same way Arthur Watts used those recipes to build a livelihood for his own children more than a century ago.

When Arthur Watts was able to leave his place of enslavement, he took with him the only valuables he had: the clothes on his back, plus his barbecue techniques and recipes for sauces and spice blends — which were all in his mind, as Watts was never taught to read or write.

As the Watts family history tells it, Arthur Watts eventually settled in Kewanee, Illinois, and soon garnered local renown for his open-pit prowess. If there was a church social, a fair or festival being hosted in the area, and barbecue was on the menu, there’s a good chance Watts was the one running the pits.

“He actually became a bit of a celebrity in central Illinois,” Eudell IV said. “Communities would regularly come and send for him when they did big community festivals, fairs and events.”

Indeed, newspaper clippings from the Kewanee paper, and even the Chicago Defender, from as early as 1945, recite anecdotes of the Watts family supervising 20-plus-foot-long barbecue pits in central Illinois, like this one:

“‘This is small compared to some we’ve made,’ said Eudell Watts who was supervising. For almost a half century Mr. Watts and his three brothers, Arthur, Jr., Robert and Ethel have made a business of holding Southern barbecues,” according to a 1945 clipping from the Kewanee Star Courier.

“They were taught by their father, a former slave who is now 106 years old,” the article reads. “The father instructed his son … in making tender, juicy barbecues.”

“He had to lean on what he had,” Eudell IV said of his ancestor, “which was his skill in barbecuing.”

Old Arthur's Barbecue Sauce makes a variety of sauces and rubs.
Old Arthur's Barbecue Sauce makes a variety of sauces and rubs. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

Arthur Watts worked to ensure that his children would be able to read and write, and he passed his barbecue techniques and, eventually, his recipes down to them, so that they too might be able to parlay his expertise into a livelihood.

The patriarch of the Watts family lived to be 108, and, thanks to his family, his barbecue continues to live on. The recipes have been passed down through the generations, Eudell IV said, thanks to those original writings from Arthur’s children, including Eudell Watts Sr.

“We’ve seen different iterations of a lot of the recipes. The handwriting changes sometimes on them. We’ve had to figure out how to make a couple of things that got lost over the years, but we’ve given samples to older folks in the family to make sure it’s right,” he said. “There were some things that (Arthur) was just real private about.”

The special blends of sauces and spices have become a multigenerational bond for the Watts family — a way to not only learn about and explore their family history, but also enjoy some incredible barbecue. (“There was always a lot of anticipation among the family when we knew the sauce was being made,” said Eudell Watts IV.)

The Old Arthur’s company began nine years ago when Eudell Watts III had retired and was looking for something “to keep him active.” About five years ago, Eudell Watts IV had a bit of an epiphany, “I realized for a hobby, this thing was doing a pretty good job of keeping itself alive.”

“What started as a hobby that paid for itself has now grown into a business,” Eudell IV said. “We want to share Arthur’s legacy, but also create the foundations of a company that future generations of Arthur can benefit from too.”

The Watts family has been purposefully careful about sharing Arthur’s backstory as part of its business.

”I was definitely afraid that a more heavily resourced marketing organization might swoop in and take the story in an inauthentic way,” Eudell IV said. “I was afraid to be in a position where we could not defend ourselves if someone tried to take the concept of Arthur’s life.”

Eudell Watts IV of Old Arthur's Barbecue Co. cuts up ribs prepared with his family's products on July 8, 2020, at Backyard Barbecue Store in Wilmette, where the products are sold.
Eudell Watts IV of Old Arthur's Barbecue Co. cuts up ribs prepared with his family's products on July 8, 2020, at Backyard Barbecue Store in Wilmette, where the products are sold. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)
 

As the Watts family started to actively place their products — two sauces, a mild and a spicy, and six types of rubs — they won a contest through the Peapod grocery delivery service looking for the “Next Best” product, beating out over 400 entrants. That victory in 2016 gave them a way onto grocery store shelves, as well as some publicity. The sauces and rubs are carried at Paulina Market in Chicago, The Backyard Barbecue Store in Wilmette and Wannemaker’s Home and Garden in Downer’s Grove, plus the company website, oldarthurs.com.

Last month, the sauce and rubs were featured on “Talkshoplive,” a web program hosted by Howie Mandel that highlights small businesses. Eudell IV said that within the first 35 minutes of the broadcast, all of the products they had provided for “Talkshoplive” sold out — 120 containers of rubs and 60 jars of sauce.

“I’ve also been surprised at how sustained the sales have been. We’ve probably had a half-dozen orders from their website every day since it aired,” Eudell IV said.

Sales have grown about 50% each year since the business was founded. Its biggest years have come in 2019 and already in 2020, doubling their output each year.

“This week, we will actually be receiving the largest order from our co-packer that we have ever placed,” said Eudell IV, who declined to share numbers. “I don’t want to say it’s frightening, but it’s definitely exhilarating.”

Old Arthur’s isn’t yet a day job for him. He works in pharmaceuticals for Johnson and Johnson, overseeing operations in multiple Midwest states. He’s confident that someday, maybe soon, he’ll be able to take on the company full time.

For now, it’s still all in the family: Eudell IV and his father handle most of the administrative responsibilities, and Eudell IV’s wife, brother and three sisters all assist the company in various capacities.

“It’s a family affair, and everyone wears multiple hats, but we’re building for the future, for the family,” Eudell IV said. “It’s also a way to share our family history and our family tree.”

Its longevity — and growing recognition — are both a testament to the skill and fortitude of their family patriarch, Arthur Watts.

“It shows you what’s possible when one person puts their focus into that one thing for a century,” Eudell IV said. “100 years worth of refinement by one person lends some pretty incredible results.”

Keywords: food, Garfield Park Neighborhood Market, local food

Posted in Garfield Park Partners and Initiatives