Way We Were: Augusta’s baron of barbecue Clem Castleberry

Almost a century ago this month Augustans honored returning World War I soldiers with a massive barbecue held at the old fairgrounds, then located west of town near Lake Olmstead.

 

The crowd was large because the food was fixed by the barbecue baron, himself, Clement Lamar Castleberry.

Although most of us know the Castleberry name for the canned barbecue and Brunswick stew once produced prodigiously in its facility off 15th street, the legend of this Southern staple grew because of the reputation of Clem Castleberry, a Broad Street grocer who also served on the Augusta City Council and the Richmond County Commission.

Castleberry developed a knack for putting on enormously popular barbecues in the early 1900s, and Presidents Taft and Roosevelt sought out his skills. So did visiting major league baseball teams, as well as Detroit automakers. So did thousands of Augustans.

The September 1919 event was part of a membership drive of the American Legion, and there was no doubt the drawing card.

“It is needless to name the best barbecue chef in the city, for everyone knows that he is Clem Castleberry,” The Chronicle reported. “He has proved it time after time.”

“Every ex-serviceman in Augusta and Richmond County is expected to be present,” the newspaper predicted, rather accurately, according to the following day’s coverage.

“Of all the field days and barbecues ever held in Augusta, and they can be counted by the hundreds,” The Chronicle said, “the ‘cue of the 24th of September, 1919 will go down in history as the finest of them all.”

The next summer, he topped it with an Augusta Board of Commerce event at the same location.

Placed on the plates of more than 8,000 hungry Augustans were more than four dozen roasted hogs and lambs, 2,000 pounds of potatoes, 16,000 rolls, 3,300 pounds of hash, and nearly 10,000 ears of corn, according to the account by celebrated Chronicle journalist Richard Reid.

To pull off such a feast, it took 75 cooks, 500 waiters and 125 Boy Scouts. who usually a acted as crowd monitors.

It should be no surprise that Castleberry’s barbecue fame developed into another profitable operation, canned barbecue and Brunswick stew.

This enterprise grew from a 30-by-25 foot shed on 15th Street run by Clem’s son into what was described in The Chronicle’s 1985 Centennial Edition as a 300-employee operation that took up 150,000-square feet. The later facility marketed 175 products from a 150,000-square-foot facility that had achieved $50 million in sales in 1985.

Production finally stopped in 2008 when the plant closed. At the time, it was Richmond County’s eighth-largest manufacturing employer.

 

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