The Incredible Story Behind One of the Country's Best BBQ Sauces
Old Arthur’s Barbecue Sauce is built upon a family history that traces its roots directly to slavery. Arthur Watts, who was born into slavery just outside of Kansas City, Missouri, became a local barbecue celebrity throughout his life. Arthur’s recipes and his love for barbecue lived on within his son, Eudell Sr., who transferred the barbecue knowledge to his son, Eudell Jr., who carried it on to his son, Eudell III, who in turn taught his son, Eudell IV. About a decade ago, Eudell Watts IV decided it was time to share Arthur’s recipes with the rest of the world. Here, Eudell Watts IV tells the story of how his great-great-grandfather's flavors, skill, and heart have endured—both within his own family and beyond. —Nina Friend
The image on the label of our sauces is my great-great-grandfather, Arthur Watts. Arthur was born in 1837 in the Kansas City, Missouri, area. He was born into slavery. At about the age of five or six, part of Arthur’s daily responsibility was making sure that the cooking fires on the estate that owned him always had kindling. There were three different hearths. There was one indoors, one outdoors, and then there was an open pit barbecue. By the time Arthur was in his teens, he was assigned responsibility for the open pit meat roasting. That’s where he began to dabble with anything that he could get his hands on to compliment the foods and meats that he was preparing. He did that day in and day out until the age of 28, when he was freed through the Emancipation Proclamation.
When Arthur was set free, the only thing of value that he had to take with him out of bondage was his skill at open pit barbecuing. He left the Kansas City, Missouri area and settled in Kewanee, in central Illinois. As a man with nothing to his name, he had to find a way to earn his keep and to put food on the table. Aside from initially taking small odd jobs, it quickly became discovered that he had an incredible gift for open pit barbecuing. He became almost a celebrity in that central Illinois area, so that over the course of his life, if someone were hosting an open pit barbecue for around a 75-mile radius of his home in Kewanee, they would send for Arthur to come and supervise the big cook.
Arthur lived to be 108 years of age, and he was up and active for 107 of those years. From about the age of 15 or 16, when he started dabbling with combinations of spices and herbs, until the age of 107, he never stopped refining his flavor profiles for the sauces and seasonings that he created.
Arthur was not literate. But after settling in Kewanee, he got married and had children, and he fought really hard to ensure that his children got an education. Because of this, my family has the blessing of Arthur’s recipes. The handwriting in the recipes evolves over the years, and you can see different iterations of the same recipes where Arthur tinkered over the decades.
This one man had literally a century worth of effort into refining the sauces and dry rubs we offer at Old Arthur’s. I'm trying to tell Arthur's story one bite at a time. As a child, my family didn't talk so much about Arthur's legacy or the trials and tribulations of his life. But what we did focus on was Arthur's exceptional sauce. As a child, we made his sauce on special occasions: 4th of July, our yearly family reunion, Labor Day, Memorial Day. There was always a lot of excitement and discussion in the weeks coming up to whatever that event was because we were going to have Arthur’s sauce. It was either my grandfather or my father who were the ones responsible for putting it together.
Ten or eleven years ago, my father and I were talking about making the sauce for an event. By this time, my father had sold his trucking business and retired. We were talking about the preparation of a sauce, and I started suggesting a couple of short cuts to make it easier. My father said, “Well that's not the way Arthur would have done it.”
I started asking him questions, and then I became fascinated. I started digging into what other older family members knew about Arthur, and I told my dad that we’ve got to tell this story. We’ve got to figure out how to share the uniqueness of Arthur’s flavors, but people also have to understand the why behind it.
The topic of slavery is not one that is comfortable for anyone to have. And I don't necessarily want to say this is a lemonade out of lemons situation. Arthur simply made the best of what life dealt him. We have historical credibility that no other product on the marketplace has; that's our differentiating factor. Once folks taste our products, they recognize that it is exceptionally different than anything that they've had before.
We are having our strongest year ever in terms of growth of our brand, and I owe it to our direct-to-consumer approach. We’ve all been at home for the last few months, we've all been cooking more. What we have found is that there’s a lot of curiosity. Once people hear the story, they want to see if it’s true. Is there really this difference in flavor because of the amount of effort put into refining the recipes? Does this historical connotation ring true in what you're tasting? We are now beginning to see repeat orders of those earlier spring and early summer orders that came through our website.
When Arthur was set free, he went North. He set out on foot from Kansas City, Missouri, some 135 miles to the Iowa border, and then another 35, 40 miles to a little bitty crossroads town called Udell, Iowa. We believe that's the first place that he laid his head as a free man outside the state of Missouri. He heard about paid work in central Illinois, in Kewanee, and was able to hop a series of trains to get there. He went to a local tavern and asked the barkeep if he could clean up in exchange for a meal, and the barkeep said no, I’ve already cleaned up myself, but I got a delivery coming this afternoon. Ordinarily there are a couple of guys that show up, and I pay them with rounds of drinks, but if you’re here when it gets here, I’ll pay you to move the barrels down to the basement.
What we know as a keg of beer is a half barrel. A full barrel weighs a little over 300 pounds. So Arthur waited around, and the wagon showed up with three barrels of liquid that needed to be offloaded. He was getting started when the three locals showed up. The barkeep stopped them and said that Arthur had been promised pay, so they were a little salty and gave him a hard time. One of them bet the others that Arthur wouldn’t be able to manhandle these barrels by himself. Arthur picked up each one of the barrels and walked them into the building and down to the basement. When it became apparent that the guy was going to lose his bet, he tried to trip Arthur down the basement stairs. Arthur fell against the wall but he didn’t drop the barrel, and he was able to finish the task. Now the guy is irate because he had to pay his buddies for losing the bet, so he instigated a fight with Arthur. Arthur tried to refuse, but they put him in a situation where he finally acquiesced; he had to fight in order to leave the establishment. Long story short, the three local men wound up in the hospital, and Arthur wound up behind bars.
He didn’t know what was going to happen. He appeared before a judge the next morning, and the barkeep actually showed up and said he warned those guys against a fight, and he had legitimately hired Arthur to do the work. Arthur was so surprised that the barkeep showed up and spoke up for him, and he was even more surprised when the judge released him. He had been treated fairly, and that’s why he called Kewanee home for the next 80 years. So when I think about Old Arthur, that’s where my mind goes—back to Arthur’s place in that community and the fact that he had to fight for that place.
Arthur made the most of whatever was given to him, and we have continued to try to do that. Even in commercially producing his sauce, we’ve been very specific with the contract manufacturer. We know that we could choose lesser ingredients and our profit margin would be higher, but we are willing to sacrifice to keep it as close to Arthur’s way of doing things as possible. This is a labor of love. It’s as much about the richness and quality of Arthur’s craft as it is about sharing the richness and quality of his life and legacy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.