Once a year, the gym at New Douglas Mid-Elementary is transformed into the most popular restaurant in southwest Illinois. More than 2,000 people crowd into the school on a Saturday for a fundraiser that’s as much about building community and carrying on traditions as it is raising lots of cash: the sausage supper.

Hundreds of families pour in from surrounding towns. They come for the food. They come for the fun atmosphere. They come to support their local schools. And they come to be part of an enduring tradition, now in its 32nd year.

It’s a remarkable achievement for a small school; New Douglas Mid-Elementary has just 80 students in 3rd and 4th grades. The farming community of New Douglas has fewer than 400 residents, many of whom volunteer at the November event.

The centerpiece of the supper is link sausage made locally using a top-secret recipe. Side dishes, served family-style, include mashed potatoes, milk gravy, green beans, sauerkraut, and applesauce. For dessert, PTO parents bring homemade pies: pecan, cherry, apple, pumpkin, and cheesecake. In 2011, the meal cost $9 for adults and had a profit of $12,446, which included proceeds from sausage sold in bulk.

“Our product is quality, and our customers keep coming back,” says Carla Grapperhaus, the school’s principal, who coordinates the mammoth event. “People love the family atmosphere.”

It isn’t just the guests who keep coming back; volunteers do, as well. It takes more than 240 people to pull off such a massive event. Many of the volunteers started when their kids were students at the school and they belonged to the PTO. “They just keep coming back year after year to support our school,” says Grapperhaus, who has been involved with the event for the past 20 years.

Some volunteers bring their grown children, who once attended the school. Older elementary school kids help out, as do middle and high schoolers.

Volunteers do everything, including cooking, serving, cleaning up, collecting money, and even parking cars. Prep work includes borrowing tables and chairs from neighboring senior centers and churches. Volunteers order napkins, tableware, and fresh flowers for the tables. They place ads in local newspapers and radio stations.

Secret Is in the Spices

Then, of course, someone has to make the sausage.

For more than 25 years, Ron Hemann—the farmer who had the idea for the supper, invented the recipe, and also leads the sausage production—slaughtered hogs from his farm. But when Hemann, along with most local farmers, switched to soybeans and corn, organizers struck a deal to buy hogs from a nearby processing plant.

It takes about 60 volunteers to process the meat. They rent a local butcher shop and spend two days making sausage. The recipe is such a closely guarded secret, Grapperhaus says even she doesn’t know all the ingredients. “Just this year, I learned one ingredient,” she says. “But I don’t think I’m allowed to tell.”

During the event, one of the most labor-intensive volunteer tasks is washing and drying dishes. The school doesn’t have a dishwasher. “Every dish is washed and dried by hand,” Grapperhaus says. The meal is served from 2 to 8 p.m., and cleanup lasts until midnight.

The key to keeping the volunteers excited for the next year is planning. When the event runs smoothly, volunteers are eager to return. “This event is organized to perfection,” Grapperhaus says.

To get to perfection, organizers made changes over the years. For example, a few years ago, volun-teers tried a clever system for managing patrons waiting for a table. “The weather in November isn’t always cooperative,” Grapperhaus says, “and we didn’t want 2,000 people waiting outside in the cold.” They shifted the waiting area to classrooms inside the school. Each room has exactly 64 chairs, enough for four tables. The waiting rooms are color-coded. “You wait in the room with the people you’ll be dining with,” she says.

When a classroom’s tables are ready, a volunteer escorts everyone to the gym. The change made the whole operation more efficient and pleasant.

From Three Hogs to 65

The sausage supper got its start more than three decades ago, when a PTO mom asked Hemann, then a school board member, for ideas on raising money to buy playground equipment. He suggested a sausage supper. Churches had been doing them for years, and they were labor-intensive yet always successful, he says.

The first year, Hemann slaughtered three hogs from his farm, yielding 600 pounds of pork. Event volunteers served 185 people. The net profit: $321.

The PTO considered the night a great success and held a sausage supper again the next year. And the next. Word spread, and the event kept growing, reaching a peak of more than 2,300 guests in 2004. To serve that many hungry people required 13,000 pounds of pork from 65 hogs.

The supper’s profit has varied based upon the price of hogs and how much food is sold. In recent years, the event has had an average profit of about $10,000, but it reached as high as $17,830 in 2002.

Hemann, now 74, has remained at the helm of the sausage production team year after year. He creates what he describes as a mild, sweet, German-style sausage. “Never in my wildest imagination did I think it would grow the way it has,” says Hemann, who gets great satisfaction from knowing that the proceeds go to local schools and schoolchildren.

“We have students who don’t get the opportunities to do things,” he says. “The supper gives them the chance to go on field trips they might not otherwise get to go on.”

Hemann says he’ll retire eventually. To ensure that the product quality doesn’t suffer, he has shared his recipe with a trusted colleague, Suzy Eilers, who has volunteered at the supper for at least 27 years.

Like many volunteers, Eilers got started when her children were students at the school. She was also the school secretary. Today, her kids are 25 and 27. They are now volunteers. “The whole community pitches in,” says Eilers, who oversees the kitchen operation. “It’s more than just the PTO....It’s a testament to the community how everybody stays with it and keeps it going.”

The sausage supper has thrived even amid dramatic change at New Douglas. For many years, the school served grades 1 through 6. Five years ago, with enrollment at just 60 kids, the board decided to reconfigure three local elementary schools. New Douglas became a school for 3rd and 4th grades, with other students attending two nearby schools. The three schools have one PTO.

Some feared that the change would affect the sausage supper, but it didn’t. Parents from all three schools pitch in, and all three schools share the proceeds. Over the years, funds from the supper have been used for computers, playground equipment, microphones, a climbing wall in the gym, classroom equipment, and field trips to Chicago and to Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala.

Because of the success of the sausage supper, New Douglas has a miniature golf course and a tennis court, which everyone in the community can enjoy during the summer.

“It’s for an Awesome Cause”

Tammy Griffith got involved when her oldest child started at New Douglas in 1992. Like so many others, she keeps coming back. She’s in charge of making the mashed potatoes. Her husband, Larry, makes the gravy. She jokes that Grapperhaus writes her name next to “potatoes” on the schedule before confirming she will reprise her role. She says she looks forward to making enough mashed potatoes and gravy to serve more than 2,000 people.

“We have fun while we’re working together because it’s for an awesome cause...children,” she says. “Our community looks forward to helping earn money for important things to help them grow as they learn.”

PTO president Cathy Walker first attended the event with friends several years ago, before her son, John, was a student in the district. Her friends raved about the sausage, and it didn’t disappoint. But what really struck Walker was the sense of community. “The whole atmosphere is just fun, and you can tell everyone really cares,” she says. “It seemed so personal, and I wanted my son to be a part of it.” This year, Walker helped make sauerkraut, cleared tables, and served food. John can’t wait until fall 2012, when he finally will be old enough to help out.

The sausage supper, where generations of New Douglas residents work side by side, laughing and enjoying the camaraderie while feeding the masses, symbolizes everything Walker loves about the town. “You never leave New Douglas,” she says. “Your heart is always with New Douglas and the sausage supper.”


By the Numbers

It takes a lot of food and a lot of work to feed 2,000 hungry customers. Here’s a look at just how much went into the New Douglas Mid-Elementary PTO’s sausage supper in fall 2011:

Sausage Supper: By the Numbers