William Ernest Hicks

[ Age 94 ] His barbecue wagon was a Baltimore mainstay

November 28, 2006|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,sun reporter

William Ernest Hicks, who sold his homemade pork barbecue to Southwest Baltimore workers from a blue food wagon for a quarter-century, died of dementia Nov. 21 at his Lochearn home. He was 94.

Born and raised in Kingstree, S.C., he had only a sixth-grade education but was accomplished in adding numbers in his head, his family said.

He moved to Baltimore about 70 years ago, and as a young man worked as a short-order cook. He became a tire mechanic at the W.T. Cowan trucking company on Oldham Street, and retired there at the age of 55 - but only to start his own business.

"He wanted to pursue a lifelong dream - Hicks Barbecue," said a daughter, Roxan Caillet of Gwynn Oak, who with two of her sisters worked during the summers and on Saturdays alongside her father. "He traveled throughout Southwest Baltimore and made stops at the industries there - Misty Harbor, Maryland News Corp., Carr-Lowry Glass, American Ice House, Bynum Oil and the barber shops. He developed a huge following. People would flag him down on the streets."

She said he bought blue panel trucks, first a Ford and later a Chevrolet, and outfitted them with propane gas tanks, a refrigerator and running water. They were known as the "blue food wagon."

Once a year Mr. Hicks returned to his home county in South Carolina and bought pigs, which he transported to a friend's farm in Anne Arundel County. He slaughtered the animals himself and used their meat for the pork barbecue he made - and built a brick barbecue pit with a smokehouse above it.

Customers ordered his pork barbecue on a roll for $1.65, or bought it by the pound at $3. He also set up at church functions and bull roasts, where he also cooked and sold pit beef.

"He created his own pork barbecue sauce recipe and took it with him to the grave," his daughter said yesterday.

Mr. Hicks left his home six days a week at 3:30 a.m. to catch the early-morning workers. Then he reworked the route for lunch. He returned home about 3:30 p.m.

"And then the cooking would start all over again," his daughter said.

His three older daughters - who also include Barbara Boston of Catonsville and Sharon Simpkins of Severn - worked with Mr. Hicks on the truck, and also cleaned it after their school day ended. Another daughter, Adrie Neal of Gwynn Oak, baked sweet potato and apple pies, which he sold by the slice.

When he turned 79, Mr. Hicks felt he was ready to retire again and gave up his business. He then spent most days at the Mount Moriah Baptist Church soup kitchen, where he befriended the homeless. He also drove the church bus.

More than 500 mourners attended his funeral services Saturday at Mount Moriah.

Survivors also include his wife of 57 years, the former Rachel Oliver, a retired National Security Agency worker; a fifth daughter, Viola Riley of Summerton, S.C.; a brother, David Hicks of Mattapan, Mass.; 15 grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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