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Within hours of the German-American Festival’s Great Potato Salad Disaster of 2014, dozens of volunteers rallied to turn a fiasco into a comeback story.
An overheated refrigeration unit sent smoke and flames rolling though a permanent trailer holding 1.5 tons of the German potato salad the fest is known for.
The Oregon Fire Department responded to Oak Shade Grove at 5:46 a.m. Friday, just more than 12 hours before gates opened.
In addition to the potato salad, six 55-gallon drums of sauerkraut, eggs, and pickles were lost.
What fire didn’t destroy, smoke and water did.
“It’s a total loss,” Tim Pecsenye, event chairman, said. “Nothing is salvageable.”
More than 100 volunteers had spent two days prepping the potato salad for this weekend’s fest, which then was dumped into a large garbage bin.
“That’s the most heart-wrenching thing,” Mr. Pecsenye said. “All that work going in a Dumpster.”
Organizers considered ordering commercially produced potato salad, but the idea was quickly disregarded.
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“We hand make our potato salad, and we have for the last 48 years,” Mr. Pecsenye said. “Why should we do anything different?”
Frank Chenetski, the man in charge of food purchasing, got to work.
The fest’s suppliers responded immediately, and another refrigerated trailer was brought in.
“They’ve been nothing but helpful,” Mr. Chenetski said. “People care about this festival and they want to see it do well.”
In relatively short order, 250 pounds of potatoes were delivered and volunteers got started making potato salad — again.
Another shipment of potatoes arrived late in the afternoon and Mr. Chenetski said 50 volunteers rallied and made 500 pounds of potato salad, enough for Friday night’s crowd.
He said another 250-pound shipment of potatoes is expected today and volunteers will start peeling again.
“The support we’ve gotten, it’s been tremendous,” Mr. Pecsenye said.
He said more than 3,000 volunteers came out this year to set up the festival, cook, and otherwise make the affair a success.
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With all the help and support, the 49th annual German-American Festival kicked off without a hitch and many festival-goers seemed unaware that disaster had been averted.
By 7:30 p.m. the grounds were teeming with people soaking up the atmosphere and music from bands in three tents.
Bob and Nancy Rikard of Woodville, Ohio, said they have been attending the festival for the last 20 years. “We come every year for the potato pancakes,” Mrs. Rikard said.
Mr. Rikard was stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army in the early 1970s and said coming to the festival lets him relive some of the atmosphere he enjoyed there.
The German atmosphere also drew two high school seniors from Sylvania Northview, Megan Rausch and Shane Williams.
Ms. Rausch said her family is originally from Hungary but her last name means “drunk” in German.
“I think people come because they like to mingle,” Mr. Pecsenye said.
And of course for the food, he added.
When word of the potato salad disaster spread early Friday, dozens of people, some still in suits because they came straight from work, got busy peeling the newly boiled potatoes.
And the jokes were flying as fast as the peelings.
Could the potato salad on the truck be passed off as smoked or blackened?
Gotta work until you get that potato salad right, dang it!
Anyone else experiencing déjà vu?
Hey, long time no see!
We get overtime pay for this, right?
Peter Peterson, 91, who moved to Toledo from northern Germany in 1950, has helped with every German-American Festival. Another round of peeling meant he got to wear his new “Pete’s Power Peelers” team shirt for the second time this year.
“There have been other disasters, of course, in 49 years,” Mr. Peterson said. “But nothing we couldn’t handle, and we’ll handle this one.”
Mr. Pecsenye said past festivals have seen tornado warnings and flooding, but this was the first potato salad tragedy. But the timing could have been much worse.
“The best part about the whole thing is we didn’t have our meat until this morning,” he said. “Typically, it would be here and in that same trailer on Thursday. So that was a blessing in disguise.”
The fest scrambled to get its bratwurst, sausages, and other meats from a Detroit supplier this year when its usual supplier, Tank’s Meats in Elmore, issued a recall last week because of improper labeling.
But despite this year’s hurdles, the festival is off and running with a full menu, German potato salad included.
“We’re locked and loaded, ready to go,” Mr. Pecsenye said. “We couldn’t have done this without all the support.”