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Barry Schrader
Columnist

 

I currently write a column each Tuesday for the DeKalb Daily Chronicle. The column will also appear on this website each week and be added to the archives.

The Articles started December 2007.

 

If you've missed any please follow the links on the dates to catch up.

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Fay's and the American Dream

By Barry Schrader.................................August 31, 2010

Not long after returning to Illinois four years ago, I ran into Marcia Fay Dempsey, who was just behind me in grade school at Waterman, and we reminisced about a mutual teacher named Bernice Kirkus.
She had taught both of us during our respective third-grade years and is still around today – in fact, she celebrated her 90th birthday this summer.
I remembered Marcia’s father and mother, Wilder and Martha Fay, who farmed near Waterman when I was growing up. But I had not heard the success story of his “pigs-into-pork-chops venture” since I was away a long time.
So this summer at the Sycamore Steam Show & Threshing Bee I had a chance to reconnect with Marcia and husband, Bob Dempsey, and learned more about their family business – Fay’s Pork Chop Bar-B-Que – that started in 1962.
It seems that the county’s pork producers prepared a barbecue for the farm bureau, which Fay and other hog farmers organized. “Wilder had eight children, his barn was falling down and he had expressed the worry that, ‘What am I going to do…’ ” his son-in-law told me. Then-County farm adviser Al Golden suggested he try cooking for others, and the business evolved from that piece of advice.

Bob Dempsey and wife Marcia (Fay) stand at the grill holding pork chops and chicken at the recent Steam Power Show


Their first effort was setting up a barbecue tent at three county fairs – Mendota, Princeton and Sandwich – in the summer of 1962 with some makeshift equipment and a hope that they would realize a small profit. He told Golden after the fairs that he still had the eight children, and the barn was still falling down, “but now I’ve got enough money to fix it.” That was all it took to convince him there was a future in barbecuing.
“It changed his whole demeanor from that time on,” Dempsey said. He joined the new family venture while dating Fay’s daughter, Marcia. “I found her attractive and the barbecue business interesting, so between them both I was hooked,” he added. Dempsey was an industrial arts teacher in Ottawa, and Marcia taught third grade there.
As the business took off, Wilder involved the whole family. They added catering to their offerings after being asked to provide the food for an event in Naperville, and now that is a substantial part of their annual income. The Sandwich Fair was what really brought in the most business, and Dempsey recalls their biggest year there was in 2000, when they served 27,401 meals in five days. Now they have five vans, six cooking trailers and three other vehicles to haul equipment and supplies. During peak season, they can have three or four crews working different events on any given weekend. Three family members work full time in the business, and others are brought in as needed during the summer season.
Wilder headed the operation until he had a stroke, which caused his death in 1976. “He instructed the family to plan his funeral around their pork chop serving commitments,” Dempsey recalled, “and we only missed one job the week he passed away.” Wilder had also helped out other farm families by hiring them to work during the busy times and some have spun off into their own businesses as a result.
The Fays and Dempseys are now involving a fourth generation in the enterprise. Daughter Krista Mulligan works with them full time while her daughter, Kailey, a seventh-grader in Sycamore, has been helping out for a few years.
You will find them at their usual location at the Sandwich Fair again this year for their 48th season of barbecuing.
Dempsey said Marcia wants a history written about Wilder and his business. He said they might take the title from a 2001 headline in the Daily Chronicle, which stated: “Where there’s smoke, there’s Fay’s.” I hope that happens, as their success story is the way the American dream is supposed to turn out.

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or by snailmail at:

Barry Schrader
PO Box 851
DeKalb, Ill 60115