UNDERWOOD, Ala. (AP) — Soon after Underwood-Petersville Volunteer Fire Department started in 1979, members began toying with a variety of fundraisers that could help with operation costs and equipment purchases.

"We started with an old truck we had bought, and it was housed in one of the member's garage," said Johnny Dennis, a longtime department member and former chief. "We started talking about fundraisers, and someone mentioned a fish fry. It was something that wasn't being done at the time, so we started exploring the possibility."

A decision was made to do a monthly fish fry.

"We thought if we could fee 250 to 300 people a month, we would be doing good," said Leon Wesson, a longtime department member.

In 1992, the department held its first fish fry. On Oct. 28, the department completed its 25th year of the monthly event — a fundraiser that surpassed many of the members' wildest dreams.

"We average 1,000 each month, if not more," Wesson said.

"There have been times when we had more than 2,000," Dennis added. "We were thinking about going for a year or so. That was 25 years ago."

"The community really got behind the fish fry, and it just took off," said Underwood-Petersville Fire Chief Joe Maxwell. "I don't think we could stop if we wanted to."

Firefighter Adam Richardson said when they open the doors for the fish fry, there will be 20-30 people waiting.

"It's really amazing see how popular this is," he said.

Over the years, the fire department has had visitors from several states and counties.

Maxwell said country music star Donna Fargo, who had relatives in the area, used to come each Saturday and eat.

"Only a few of us knew it, but she would wear a disguise, so no one would recognize her. She would pull up in that limousine, get out and come in and eat with us. She did it for years."

The fish fry is from January through October, allowing firefighters to take off November and December for the holidays.

"We wouldn't have the seven trucks we have, and all the equipment and the facility, if not for this fish fry," the chief said. "There are people who plan their weekends around our Saturday fish (fry)."

"It's almost like a social event," said Lauderdale County Emergency Management Agency Director George Grabryan. "There's people that come every time they cook. They come and socialize with others."

It's also a popular stop for politicians.

"If you are running for office in Lauderdale County, you had better make a point to be at the Underwood fish fry," said Lauderdale County Probate Judge Will Motlow.

Wesson and his wife Dee said they have made a lot of friends by working at the fundraisers.

"We got to know people by their first name," Wesson said. "We saw the same people each month. We saw people coming bringing their children. Now, those children are grown and coming to bring their own children here."

Preparing for the monthly event doesn't happen overnight — it's a process.

"It will start on Thursday morning before the fish fry," said Richardson. "A truck will deliver a lot of the supplies and after we get them unloaded, we started preparing."

Maxwell said slaw is made, packed and refrigerated on Thursday, and other things are set up so cooking can begin as soon as possible on Saturday.

"We're going to fill 500 cups of slaw, once it's made," Maxwell said.

What does it take to put on an average monthly Underwood-Petersville Fish Fry?

"I order 300 pounds of cabbage and 25 pounds of carrots for the slaw," Richardson said. "We'll go through 25 gallons of pickles and 250 pounds of sliced onions."

About 50 gallons of tea will be served, along with 1,100 pounds of fish and 400-500 pounds of chicken tenders.

"That's not counting the hush puppies. There are thousands of them made," Richardson said.

Around 7 a.m. on Saturday, department members gather to start setting up.

"We've got to move everything, sweep the floor, mop the floors, set up tables and chairs," Maxwell said.

At 11 a.m., workers take a break and have a meal together, before things get hectic when doors open at 2 p.m. "After that, we're going as hard as we can," Maxwell said.

Richardson said there will be a dozen workers in the kitchen cooking and filling take-out orders and eat-in plates.

"There will be at least 10 working the serving line, and then we'll have four or five extra just to jump and do what is needed," he said.

"It's nonstop until ... 7 p.m.," Maxwell said. "Then we get to turn it back into a firehouse. We usually lock the doors, if we are lucky, around 12:30 or 1 a.m. (Sunday)."

Richardson said working the fish fry is a "labor of love."

"You don't join the fire department to make coleslaw or cook fish," he said. "But the members understand how important this is to the department and the community."

Maxwell said while the fish fry is a major fundraiser, it's also a chance for the fire department to give back to the community.

"We do this to help the department. We also do it for the community, because they have been so good to us for so long," he said.

Dennis, a former Alabama Volunteer Firefighters Association president, said the Underwood-Petersville fish fry is the longest-running fundraiser of any department in the area.

"I know of no other fundraiser project across the state that has lasted as long as this one has," he said. "There is no telling the tons of fish and chicken that have been cooked and served here."

"It's a testament to the members and the community," Maxwell said. "As long as the community continues to support us and we have members willing and able, we will continue the Underwood-Petersville fish fry — it's a tradition."

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Information from: TimesDaily, http://www.timesdaily.com/