An hour before the gates opened Thursday for the first day of the St. Mary's County Fair, Ben Simmons stood in the back of the Jolly Gents barbecue stand, stubbornly refusing to reveal the secret recipe for the tangy sauce that has made the booth a fair fixture for more than two decades.

There's a dab of sugar and a dash of vinegar involved. He'll say that much. Ask him to elaborate and he just grins and lists the other ingredients as "some of this and a little bit of that."

Simmons, 63, is president of the Jolly Gents, a 40-year-old historically African American civic club based in St. Mary's County. He fields questions about the group's famous barbecue at every county fair. But he won't give up the secret. Instead, he'll put a pile of minced pork, sliced beef or grilled chicken on a customer's plate, slather it with the all-important sauce, collect $3.75 and turn to the next person in line. This is business, after all.

"We try to spice it up pretty good," Simmons said on Thursday as the St. Mary's County Fair came to life for the 53rd time. "And if you got any complaints, tell us. If you don't, tell others." This grass-roots advertising campaign has worked, judging from the 300 pounds of pork, 400 pounds of beef and 150 or so whole chickens the Jolly Gents go through on a typical fair weekend. By 6 p.m. Thursday, the barbecue stand was hopping, luring passersby with an aroma so potent it stretched to the carnival area.

"We've been coming for years and years," said Jean Dean of Laurel Grove, as she and her husband, John, lined up at the white wood shack. "It's fresh, hot and seasoned just right."

Customers from North Carolina traded barbecue stories with Robert Hill, 50, the Jolly Gents member credited for adding his home state's signature minced pork and cole slaw to the menu that was started about 22 years ago. Proceeds from the stand go to the group's service projects, such as donations to the NAACP or the Urban League. But more often, barbecue money and members' monthly dues help county residents who can't make rent or pay an electricity bill.

While volunteering their time at the stand, Jolly Gents members crack jokes, play the dozens and talk about the weather. Most are sixtyish and have cooked and laughed together as long as they can remember.

"When you're not doing too much work, it's like being in a fraternity. Like this young man here," said Simmons, needling fellow member Donald Moore, 62. "I look better than he does--you can tell that--but we get together for hours and talk about politics and just about everything."

CAPTION: Missie Cannon, 9, left, and Morgan Clark, 10, both of Mechanicsville, cling to the bar of the Tempest at the St. Mary's County Fair.

CAPTION: Members of the Jolly Gents, Ben Simmons, left, and Donald Moore, stock their stand with barbecued beef.

CAPTION: Kyle Hudson, 8, fawns over a sheep as he waits to have it weighed before a livestock show at the fair.