From splash to sizzle: The West Tisbury Firefighters’ booth endures

Hard work and tasty burgers delight fairgoers, earn funds for a good cause

The West Tisbury firefighters have a food booth at the Ag Fair where they grill hamburgers and hot dogs. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Some time in the foggy 1970s, the West Tisbury Firefighters’ Civic Association was looking for ways to raise money for their scholarship fund. Someone came up with the idea of running a dunking booth.

“I can’t say for sure who spearheaded it, because it was a few years ago now,” says George “Harry” Athearn, who was a fireman at the time.

The dunking booth was a memorable spectacle at the fair until the mid-1980s. Fairgoers of all ages would line up and pay money to take their turns at trying to dunk whoever was on the seat.

Beth Kaeka, who now runs the firefighter’s booth with her husband Dwight, was among them.

“I remember the dunking booth growing up. It was fun to watch, because I was never able to knock anyone in the water,” Ms. Kaeka says.

“We used to get $500 or something for a ball to dunk a police chief,” assistant fire chief John Cotterill remembers.

Manny Estrella III, the current fire chief, was in the department back then, too.

“We just raised hell, that’s all. It was a fun time,” he says.

But nights at the dunking booth were cold, and it wasn’t making a lot of money. Besides, according to former fire chief Bill Haynes, it wasn’t always 100 percent safe.

“We dunked fire chiefs and police chiefs and selectmen,” Mr. Haynes says. “Whoever was walking by, we used to try to shame them into getting up there.”

At the beginning, the firemen were the ones to be dunked most of the time, sometimes in full gear.

“Very early on, when there weren’t so many people late at night, some guys would carry up a set of bleachers from the ring and set it up to watch.” One night, Mr. Haynes had to go away for a bit, so he left Trip Barnes in charge.

“I came back and he had a plank strapped to the seat with three young ladies on it. It was hazardous,” he says. “We ended the dunking booth based on liability for the most part, besides which it was getting old.”

In the 1980s, when the Firefighters’ Association decided to scrap the aging dunking booth, Bill Haynes was running a restaurant in North Tisbury, now the location of State Road Restaurant. He suggested that they try serving burgers at the fair; the firefighters’ burgers and hot dogs have been fair food staples ever since.

“Of course we were always on call. A few times we were there we had to abandon the booth to go to a fire, and usually there was someone around to take over.”

When the firemen returned, the booth wasn’t always as they’d left it, but the show went on and — more importantly — fires still got put out.

Three decades later, the booth is staffed by the roughly 45 volunteer firefighters, their families and friends, and scholarship recipients (along with the recipients’ friends and families). It’s a big job.

“We start talking about the booth months ahead, but really start about a month before,” says Ms. Kaeka. Once the fair starts, hours are long. “Dwight and I are there from 7 am to close every day.”

In the mornings, they serve breakfast sandwiches, pancakes, and occasionally even eggs Benedict — a tradition begun by late fire lieutenant Dan Prowten — to people who work at the fair, and early-bird fairgoers. Then they offer burgers and hot dogs once the crowds start to come in, all the way until closing time at 11 pm. The busiest time is in the late afternoon through dinner.

“Days and nights are long, but the end result is worth it. My entire family works Saturday night in the booth,” Ms. Kaeka says, “both my husband and I, as well as our daughter and her husband and our son and his girlfriend. It’s our way of spending a great night of fun together.”

Manuel Estrella IV is the fire department treasurer and also works at Vineyard Cash & Carry, which supplies the majority of the ingredients for the burgers and hot dogs. He comes around at the end of every night to get the money.

“They keep the booth going till the very last minute,” he says.

Ms. Kaeka keeps track of everything. “Last year we cooked 5,320 burgers and 1,680 hot dogs.”

In addition to cooking burgers, the firefighters run one of the fair parking lots, a tradition they brought over from the old fairgrounds at the Grange. Up at the old fairgrounds, parking space was in extremely short supply. There was a field behind the fairgrounds which belonged to the Wassermans, and according to Bill Haynes, everyone thought that they wouldn’t want anyone on it. But he and Skipper Manter went to them and got permission to use it for parking, and also to open the back gate as a second entrance to the fair.

“We went over to the Alley’s parking lot and measured the spaces to figure out how many cars we could fit,” Mr. Haynes says.

With the move to the new Panhandle Road Fairgrounds, the firemen continued to run the parking lot. They share the proceeds 50/50 with the Agricultural Society.

The proceeds from the parking lot and the burger booth go primarily to fund college scholarships for Islanders, as well as Thanksgiving baskets for needy and elderly people around town, and sometimes to buy new firefighting equipment. The firefighters, along with their families and friends, work all through the long days of the fair to support these causes, year after year and decade after decade, grilling thousands of hot burgers with all the fixings for hungry fairgoers in the cooling August nights.

Amelia Smith writes articles about the Vineyard, novels about dragons, and occasional blog posts about nothing in particular at She lives in the woods of West Tisbury.