Pit builder William Chaney describes what makes a good barbecue pit
William Chaney’s substantial footprint on the Chow Town barbecue scene started in the 1940s.
Chaney was born in Jefferson City. He was raised in Kansas City. He recalls family stories going back to when his ancestors farmed near unincorporated Cedar City along the Katy Trail.
Growing up in Kansas City, he never thought of his family as poor. They had a roof over their heads and at least one meal a day — mostly beans, greens, and sometimes potatoes, chitlins, pig ears, pig snouts or chicken wings. Chaney was a toddler when the nation’s economy was topsy-turvy, spiraling down to the Great Depression.
Chaney got his first taste for real Kansas City barbecue at age 12 as part-time dishwasher at Charlie Bryant’s Barbecue in 1943. Thus began his rise from dishwasher to barbecue pit builder.
By age 15, Chaney worked for Archie Pierce, doing home remodeling. After high school graduation in 1949 Chaney hired on full time as a construction worker for 98 cents an hour. That’s when he learned bricklaying basics of from “a tough Pennsylvania German” named Larry. He was a strict taskmaster, sparing no stinging words when Chaney’s brickwork fell short of perfection.
Chaney recalls an incident when he was determined to be faster and better than his mentor. He was faster, but Larry was furious about the quality of the job. He made Chaney undo the work and start over. The lesson stuck. Chaney, like his friend Ollie Gates, went on to master the art and craft of bricklaying. Many fireplaces in Fairway homes built in the early 1950s bear Chaney’s handiwork.
In 1957, Chaney partnered with Archie Pierce to build the original Smokestack pit for Russ Fiorella, and Chaney became a family friend. Jack Fiorella and William Chaney share a longtime history at the Tenderloin Grill on Southwest Boulevard as pig snoot sandwich fans.
Today’s working pits built by William Chaney, with co-workers James Ingraham, Johnny Bell, Lacy Bernard and Lloyd Lee, include three pits for Smokestack, four pits for Smokehouse, four pits for Jack Stack, two pits for LC’s, plus the pit at The Stack, Winslow’s City Market and others.
Chaney has worked on or repaired many working pits and grills all over town, as well as some that have faded into Kansas City barbecue history.
Although he didn’t build BB’s Lawnside BBQ pit with its historic granite pavers, he has repurposed many brick pavers from the West Bottoms stockyards district in barbecue pits around town.
Due to hardwood fuel costs, increased demand for barbecue and other factors, today’s barbecue industry has evolved toward commercially manufactured stainless steel ovens fueled with a combination of gas or electricity and hardwood chunks or pellets. Kansas City’s custom-built brick barbecue pits, however, continue to serve us well, thanks in large part to William Chaney.
When I introduced KC Star food editor Jill Silva to Mr. Chaney, one of her questions was, “What’s your favorite food now?” Without hesitation he replied, “Beans and greens.” No wonder he is a trim and healthy 85 going on 45. Beans and greens; all else in moderation. We would do well to follow his example!
Ardie Davis founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on food shows and writes for barbecue-related publications. His most recent releases are America’s Best BBQ (Revised Edition), with chef Paul Kirk, and Barbecue Lover’s Kansas City Style .