Tiger Paws

a closer look into a Central Montana Fair tradition
Tuesday, July 30, 2019
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Erin Martin does her part in creating a tiger paw by frying the bread Thursday at the Central Montana Fair. Martin and her kids work the Tiger Paw booth every year.

Photo by Charlie Denison

“I’m ready for my one tiger paw of the year.”

That’s what Stephanie Berg is used to hearing while handing out the sugar-covered fry bread treats at the Central Montana Fair.

Known by locals as a fair food favorite, the tiger paw has been a tradition in Central Montana for 30-plus years, and that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. 

“The Christian school – now occupied by the Lewistown Dance Syndicate – used to own the tiger paw booth, and they handed it over to the local home school group,” said Berg. “Karla Butcher and her late husband Trevis are really the ones who took it and ran with it.”

Although instrumental in keeping the tiger paws going, Karla said Trevis was the one who really put his heart and soul into the operation, For 20-plus years, he worked the booth, spending much of that time as the “master fryer.”

Berg remembers this well.

“I think one year he cooked 15 tiger paws at once,” she said. “He loved the challenge and was super passionate about it.”

Berg has been working the booth for at least 15 years. Many others involved, such as Christaleah Carlson, Katie Simpson and Erin Martin, also have multiple years under their belt, signing up for three-hour shifts every fair season.

“We love doing this for the community,” Berg said, “and we do it for a good cause, as tiger paw proceeds fund home school student activities, such as music, drama, art, speech, engineering classes and gym day at the Civic Center.”


High demand

Each year tiger paws seem to grow in popularity, and Berg has to be prepared. This year she came to the booth with 650 pounds of flour, which was used to make 10-15 batches of dough per day.

“On Thursday we had 15 batches, which makes about 600 tiger paws, and we go through them fast,” she said. “Tiger pops – or fried ice cream – are also a hit. We have 50 gallons of ice cream and, as it gets hotter, I think we’ll get close to selling most of it.”

The tiger paws are made fresh each day, Berg said, as the dough is rolled, fried and sweetened up with cinnamon, powdered sugar or chocolate.

Erin Martin, whose children joined her in the booth Thursday, said there is a method to the madness. As fryer, she takes the process seriously, knowing exactly when the paw is ready to move to the sweetening station.

“You want it to have a nice golden brown color,” she said. “You want it soft in some spots and crispy in others.”

On Thursday, Erin’s daughter McKaelyn rolled the dough with Katie Simpson, Erin fried, and then her son Donovan and youngest daughter Madison added the sweet ingredients. It was fun for Erin to see the children working together well.

“It’s neat the kids can get a hands-on experience,” she said. “It’s good teamwork, and it’s nice they can also get the experience to run a business and deal with the public.”

Donovan more or less agreed

“It can be tough to keep up when it gets busy, but it’s worth it,” Donovan added.

Thankful for the continued support, Berg echoed these sentiments. The line can get long, but the tiger paw workers are providing an important service: they are keeping a tradition alive.

“As long as community members keep eating their tiger paws, we’ll keep doing this,” she said.



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