Arthur Watts’ Barbecue – Storytelling for Everyone

Black History

Pictured: Arthur Watts at age 106

One could literally say a full century’s worth of effort—and then some—has gone into the refinement of his sauce, Old Arthur’s Barbecue.

Arthur Watts was born a slave in 1837, and his primary task from the age of six was tending the cooking fires on the estate that bonded him. From this early age, Arthur continuously experimented with the freshest natural ingredients available to him to perfect his sauce to complement the meats he prepared over an open pit.

When freed at the age of twenty-seven by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation executive order (January 1, 1863), his recipes were the only possessions of value that he took with him out of bondage.

Arthur very likely continued working for his former owner as a freeman until he could strike out on his own. Arthur married his wife, Laura, in the mid-1870s; they continued to live in Missouri near where they had been enslaved, and had five children there. Arthur left the South and settled in Kewanee, Illinois.

Once Arthur and his family moved to Kewanee around 1901, there is an abundant history of their vibrant life in the growing city and economic engine of Henry County, known as the “Hog Capital of the World.” 

Living in Wethersfield, Arthur farmed on his land just south of Division Street and Chautauqua Park in the Blish Addition. He also periodically worked in Kewanee’s factories. He, Laura, and the children were active in the Second Baptist Church.

But Arthur was best-known for his skills in cooking meat over an open fire barbecuing. He learned to barbecue in slavery and continued honing his skills for the rest of his life. And those skills were unsurpassed.

Relying on the popularity and demand for his renowned sauce, Arthur took great pride in earning his keep with it until the time of his death at 108 years of age in 1945.

Arthur cooked for picnics, church events, celebrations of all varieties large or small. Whenever there was an outdoor gathering of people where food would be served, there was a good chance that Arthur would be leading the cooking.

By 1916, it was estimated that Arthur had been in charge of over 200 barbecues. His reputation continued to grow and was not confined to just Kewanee.

For instance, in 1919, Arthur led the preparation of a barbecue for a massive Fourth of July celebration in Neponset, serving an estimated 11,000 people. The Daily Star Courier called the day the greatest event in Neponset history, and proclaimed that “the greatest particular feature of the day was the barbecue, . . . one of the largest and most successful . . . ever held in this vicinity. Arthur Watts Sr. was in charge of the cooking pits … who has for years been in charge of large barbecues . . . .”

Arthur passed on his barbecue skills and secret recipes to his children. In 1954 during the five-day Centennial celebration of Kewanee’s birth, Arthur’s son, Eudell, led a crew of more than 300 volunteers all night and into the next day, endlessly turning the five tons of pork over and over on the two 150-foot-long grills to make sure it cooked evenly.

My Family History in Kewanee

My father’s people immigrated to Kewanee in 1870, after the Civil War to escape the Franco-Prussian War of 1970-71, that was fought in their German borderland. My ancestors worked in the Kewanee coal mines, as merchants, in real estate, and enjoyed some success.

When I was a child, we often visited my grandparents in Kewanee and stayed for months at a time when we had no other home.

My fondest memory of Kewanee is of a small town community sharing its delicious food, the simple pleasures of farming and gardening, of corn fields and hog farms. My grandmother’s pride in her kitchen garden, of her skill in canning, cooking, and baking is part of my legacy that continues to nourish me.

It’s a thrill to know that Arthur Watts and his family lived in our farming town in Illinois and contributed to its festivals and celebrations with open pit barbecues at the same time my immigrant family lived and worked there.

Sometimes it’s the simple pleasures in life that bind us and keep us close.
~Kate Fischer Farrell


With special thanks to my cousin, Dean Karau, who researched and wrote this featured article in the Kewanee Star Courier in honor of Black History Month.

Old Arthur’s BBQ Sauce recipes are preserved over six generations and for sale across the country:


Old Arthur’s Barbecue Sauce – 160-Year-Old Family Recipe

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