The Great Barbecue Men of Augusta

The stories of two long-forgotten 19th century African-American cooks.

By Robert F. Moss

Georgia Barbecue - Tending the pits at a Georgia-style barbecue at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition, Atlanta
Tending the pits at a Georgia-style barbecue at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition, Atlanta (New York Public Library)
Last year, when I compiled a list of the 15 Most Influential People in Barbecue History for Southern Living’s Daily South, I included an entry for “The Unknown Barbecue Cooks.” It was necessary because, unfortunately, the names of so many of this country’s barbecue pioneers have long been lost to history.

By the time of the Civil War, Southerners had been cooking barbecue for more than two centuries, and the great majority of those cooks were enslaved African-Americans. These men tended the pits at barbecues organized for the white community as well as at events for their own families and friends. Following the Civil War and Emancipation, thousands of talented barbecue cooks in rural areas and small towns fed generations of Southerners, but their names haven't made it into the history books. "We may not know who they were," I wrote in the Southern Living piece, "but we know they were there.”

Since then I’ve been digging a little deeper, and thanks to some clues uncovered by other researchers I’ve been able piece together the stories of a few of those long-forgotten cooks. Sometimes just knowing the names is enough to get the ball rolling. While working on his forthcoming book The Culinarians, David Shields compiled profiles of hundreds of once-famous and now-forgotten caterers and chefs from the 19th and early 20th centuries, some of whom were known for cooking barbecue. Shields didn't have room to include all the profiles in the finished book, but the information he shared on Facebook helped get me started, and thanks to newspaper articles, census records, and city directories, I’ve been able to fill out the stories a little bit more.

So without further ado, let's introduce two of Georgia's great barbecue men: Augustus Ferguson and Pickens Wells.

Augustus Ferguson

Augustus Ferguson was born in Pickens County, South Carolina, in 1856, five years before the start of the Civil War. As a young man in 1875, he got into trouble when, as the Augusta Chronicle reported, “Mr. W. S. Kirksy, of Pickens county, was struck on the head with a rock, and painfully wounded, by Gus Ferguson, negro.” Shortly after this incident—and perhaps because of it—Ferguson moved to the area around Augusta, Georgia, where he found work on the farm of a white man named J. A. Bohler.

Bohler owned a large cotton farm and was active in local politics, holding the offices of tax collector of Richmond County for many years. He and his son, Charles, were also well known for staging large barbecue dinners for guests at their farm as well as at other gatherings in the community.

In 1888 the Augusta Chronicle announced that a barbecue was to be given to a group of commercial men and would be “under the supervision of that prince of caterers, Charlie Bohler, and the bill of fare will embrace everything that you ever heard of at a barbecue.” The following year, a similar announcement declared the younger Bohler to be “the prince of managers,” and he presided over large community barbecues in the area for the next three decades.

Note that the newspaper called him the prince of “caterers” and “managers,” not of “cooks,” for Bohler’s role was to organize and secure the provisions for the gatherings and not to actually work the pits where the meat was cooked. That role was performed by a number of African-American men employed by Bohler, one of whom was Augustus Ferguson.

As the turn of the 20th century neared, Ferguson stopped cooking for Bohler and set out on his own. Ferguson’s name appeared in the local newspapers for the first time in 1898, when he staged a “Hen Barbecue” for the 55th anniversary celebration of the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church. “Gus Ferguson always cooks a fine cue,” the Chronicle noted.

A few weeks later, Jansen’s Restaurant on Ellis Street in downtown Augusta began advertising itself as “a nice clean place where you can sit quietly and eat a meal prepared by Gus Ferguson, the best cook in America.”

Advertisement from the Augusta Chronicle, December 18, 1898

In 1899 Ferguson fed more than 300 guests at the Knights Templar Conclave, and the menu at that event gives us a sense of Ferguson’s repertoire as well as the standard fare at a turn-of-the-century barbecue on the Georgia-South Carolina border: “cheese relish, pickled beets, mixed pickles, Vienna rolls, barbecue hash, barbecued lamb, barbecued shoat, chicken with mushrooms, asparagus, stewed corn, rice, stewed tomatoes, English peas, lemonade, cake, coffee, cigars.” The presence of lamb—then a common feature of Georgia barbecues—as well as hash—a classic barbecue stew more commonly associated with South Carolina today—are particularly notable.

John A. Bohler passed away the following year, and he left his former employee Gus Ferguson $50 in his will. Soon after, Ferguson’s career as a Southern barbecue cook came to an end when he and his family moved north. By 1910, census records tell us, he, his wife, and children were living in Red Bank, New Jersey, where Ferguson owned his own home and worked as a cook at a local restaurant. Once hailed as “the best cook in America,” after leaving the South he appears to lived out the rest of his life in relative obscurity. His death, which occurred sometime before 1920, received no mention in any newspaper that I could find.

Pickens Wells

The career of Pickens “Pick” Wells took a somewhat different course. After Augustus Ferguson stopped cooking for John and Charlie Bohler, Wells took his place and inherited the mantle of Augusta’s top barbecue man.

Wells was born around 1865 on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River on a plantation near Plumb Branch in Edgefield County. He moved to Augusta sometime in the late 1880s, where he found work at the John P. King Manufacturing Co., a large textile mill that made cotton sheeting and shirt material. He was employed at the mill through at least 1895, and during this period he also started working as Gus Ferguson’s assistant and learning from him the art of barbecuing meats. He later took over as the lead cook for the Bohler family.

In an 1906 account of two barbecues held at the Bohler place, the Augusta Chronicle noted that, “Both were the work of Pickens, one of the best known chefs in this vicinity.” Perhaps the most prominent meal he oversaw took place in 1909, when President-elect William Howard Taft made a tour through the South. Towns throughout the Carolinas and Georgia offered to host Taft at “an old fashioned barbecue,” but he ended up accepting just two invitations, one on January 10th at the Beech Island Farmers Club and another two days later at Charles S. Bohler’s cotton plantation outside of Augusta.

Taft and 30 other guests, the Macon Telegraph reported, were treated to “barbecued chickens, lambs and pigs; stuffed potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers; salads and hash and puddings” that were “fit for the palates of kings.” The Augusta Chronicle added that the president-elect “took occasion to go to the ‘cue pit after dinner and personally compliment Pick on the cooking.”

Just eight months after cooking for President Taft, Pickens Wells died suddenly, and it happened alongside a barbecue pit. Wells was working on George T. Barnes’s property, preparing a barbecue dinner, when he suffered a ruptured blood vessel in his brain and collapsed. He died just a few hours later.

“‘Pick,’ as he was so well known to all barbecue attendants,” the Augusta Chronicle noted, “was the best cook in the country. His fame was not alone in Richmond county, but spread over several states.” Indeed, notices of Wells death appeared in the newspapers across Georgia and South Carolina. The State in Columbia called him “one of the most famous barbecue cooks in the South.” Wells’s passing even earned a mention in the New York Times.

Notice in New York Times August 19, 1909

Such accounts offer just a few brief glimpses into the lives of these once-celebrated barbecue cooks. They are important glimpses, for they allow us to finally know the names and recognize the contributions of influential cooks who helped keep alive the old tradition of open-pit barbecue and carry it forward into the 20th century.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.