DANVILLE — Hundreds of people came from near and far Monday evening to enjoy the 65th Annual Danville Lions Club Raccoon Dinner.
A true community event, the dinner requires the work of over 100 volunteers, according to Danville Lions Club President Sandy Crow.
“The whole community comes out to help and work on this,” Crow said. “It’s a lot of fun and everyone gets a chance to visit and participate in the community.”
The tables were full all evening. Locals, who have been coming for many years and who say they wouldn’t miss the dinner, sat near strangers who came for the novelty of the event, and quickly became friends.
Danville native Tom Adelsberger said he has come every year to the raccoon dinner for over 60 years. Now 87, Adelsberger and his son, Lundy, say they never miss the event, which is their only chance each year to eat raccoon meat.
Shane Lannoy of Danville said he comes each year, but came to sample the raccoon the first time three years ago on a dare. This year, he brought co-worker Steve Heatwole, who lives in Virginia, to enjoy a dinner most people have never tried.
“I was surprised, it was really good,” Heatwole said after cleaning his plate. “I thought it would be a lot stronger than it was.”
Heatwole and Lannoy, who work for Columbia Gas, were sitting with the Firth family from Westerville, which also was enjoying its first raccoon dinner. Susan Firth, 5, was a little hesitant to try the meat.
Diners from several states made the trip, including from Georgia, Arizona and Florida. A visitor from Russia also enjoyed the meal.
However, the award given out to the attendee who had traveled the farthest, went to Andrew Robertson from Sydney, Australia.
Robertson, who works for Ariel Corp. and has been in the United States for about a month, said he was invited by a co-worker. Before sampling the meat for the first time, he joked that he had once worked in China, where questionable meats sometimes end up as dinner, so he was not hesitant to try the raccoon.
After enjoying the raccoon, stuffing, potatoes and raccoon gravy, Robertson said the meal had been very good.
“I will be back next year,” he said.
Although most guests relished the unique meal, there were a few holdouts who could not be tempted to try the raccoon meat.
Marva Spencer assured her husband, Dr. Jeffrey Spencer, that she was perfectly happy with the ham offered as an alternative.
Dr. Spencer, however, was looking for a second helping after polishing off his dinner. He said raccoon meat is actually quite healthy to eat. Unconvinced, Mrs. Spencer enjoyed the ham.
Those working hard in the kitchen shared the secrets of the slow-cooked meat.
“The most important thing, is you have to have plenty of flour and Crisco to brown it,” volunteer Sandy Ridgway explained.
Jerry Mickley, who helps trap, dress and prepare the raccoon, said the process actually begins months before the dinner, when he and family members begin trapping the animals locally during raccoon hunting season.
“We skin them immediately after we catch them,” he explained.
The carcasses are then taken to Young’s Locker to be frozen until the Saturday before the dinner, when they are thawed, cleaned and cut into pieces for roasting.
Mickley said about 25 volunteers were needed to clean the 250 raccoons prepared for this year’s feast. The meat is then soaked overnight in saltwater before it is rinsed, browned and roasted all day in preparation of the meal.
Mickley said he is one of several volunteers who work hard each year to prepare the meal, because it benefits the community.
“My dad did it, and my grandpa was one of the first,” he explained.
Mickley’s brother, Leonard, and his nephews, Brian Payne and Tim Allerding, also hunt and prepare the meat.
“I married into this,” Allerding joked during the meal.
He said he has been hunting the game for the dinner for five years, but this year was called on for the first time to help clean the meat.
“It’s a job,” Leonard said of the daylong process to clean and cut the meat. He said his grandfather, Rodney Mickley, began the family tradition which has lasted for generations.
Payne said he can remember helping his grandfather, Ralph Mickley, prepare the cornbread from the time Payne was in the second grade. He said he comes out to help every year to honor the family tradition.
Brian’s 4-year-old son Spencer did his part to carry on the family tradition by eating his share of raccoon.
Spencer received one of the commemorative pins sold at the dinner for being the youngest to eat at the dinner.
Lions Club Zone 1 Trustee Melody Brent sold the collectable pins during the dinner.
“They’re beautiful aren’t they?” she asked those admiring the pins, which have been designed over the years to mark the event. This year’s pin is decorated with two raccoons holding a banner which reads “We Serve.”
The Lions service to the community is supported by the annual dinner. Many local programs benefit from the proceeds.
MVNU freshman Natalie Dalton of Danville helped dish out raccoon to hungry diners this year. Last year, she received a scholarship from the Danville Lions Club to help pay for her education.
Natalie and her mother, Brenda, said they will be back to help each year because of the benefits the funds raised by the dinner bring to the community.
The Rev. Snoke of St. Luke Catholic Church, where the dinner is held, said he has not missed the dinner in the 22 years he has served the parish.
Boy Scouts helped with dishes, St. Luke and Lions members carried food to tables, Danville students and volunteers from all over Danville helped in many ways to make the dinner a success.
Looking at the crowded St. Luke Community Center, Snoke explained the community spirit in the room.
“Young and old, the whole community is helping,” he said.