The World’s Largest Barbecue – Abilene, Texas – Military Recreation and Special Events
Stephen C. Bailey
Thousands of pounds of Texas beef, a truck load of coleslaw, barbecue beans, and more than 10,000 hungry people is a brief description of the annual Abilene, Texas, World’s Largest Barbecue, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary in April. This event proves that Texans not only do things right; they do them BIG.
This type of big hospitality was one of the strongest motivators in establishing the World’s Largest Barbecue in 1965. The event, organized as a community thank you for nearby Dyess Air Force Base, arose from the outstanding relationship between the Abilene community and Dyess.
“We love the people at Dyess and basically treat them as one of the family,” said Bob Deegan, prominent city official and barbecue chairman. “This barbecue is our way of showing appreciation for the outstanding job the United States military performs everyday.”
Each year, the Abilene Chamber of Commerce’s Military Affairs Committee prints more than 14,000 tickets for the free barbecue. Nearly all the tickets are used by active-duty Air Force and their families.
Upon entering the Abilene Civic Center, all barbecue recipients are given a “Texas Howdy” by the mayor and other high-ranking officials. All are appropriately dressed in cowboy hats and boots. The welcome is quickly overshadowed by a giant plate of barbecue, drinks and desserts–all served by city representatives.
Oliver Howard, the chairman of the Abilene Military Affairs Committee, was the key figure in developing the barbecue back in 1965. “During that time, we were all looking for ways to better meet with and get to know everyone at Dyess,” Oliver said. “There were several ideas presented, such as Bingo events and other activities, but there was nothing that quite fulfilled the purpose we were looking for … then the barbecue was mentioned. And for 30 years, it has been a growing event showing our thankfulness of Dyess and the military community,” he explained.
The first barbecue was held at the base picnic grounds, Oliver remembers. “That day was something else. We hauled out all the food and all the preparations and set up in the midst of picnic tables and mesquite trees.” All was going well until the rains came and continued to come. “We were all standing in mud and pouring rain serving beans and beef,” Oliver said. “It was quite a memorable first barbecue”
In order to avoid further weather problems, the barbecue was moved to one of the aircraft hangars. One of the barbecue organizers, Fred Lee Hughes, remembers it well. “We were finally sheltered from the weather in those hangars, but then we encountered a heavy bird problem,” he said jokingly. “Yes, those picnics in the hangars were something else! Everyone ate their food pretty fast.”
Finally in 1975, the decision was made to move the annual barbecue to the Abilene Civic Center where it has been held for the last 20 years. “The center has been a great place to have the event,” Deegan said. “The weather and bird problems were sometimes hard to deal with,” he said laughingly.
The event has been a strong attraction for both civilians and military for the last 30 years. According to Deegan, more than 225 volunteers and all members of the Military Affairs Committee donate money and time to the task. In fact, military personnel have enjoyed themselves so much, that they have volunteered to help in the preparations. “No way,” said Deegan. “This event was primarily established for the military to eat and not to work.” Despite, the persistence from the base, the barbecue has remained a civilian-organized and executed event.
“I don’t know how many people have come to me each year to shake my hand or give me a hug telling me how appreciative they are,” said Hughes. “In fact, one year a young man came up to me and told me this was his first barbecue and that he was told at his last base to make sure he didn’t miss it. I guess the word is spreading from base to base!”
Overall, the barbecue has been a welcome and enjoyable event. In fact, the military’s Air Combat Command chose Abilene as their recent ACC Community Relations Award recipient. This award is given to the community that displays the best relationship between a base and community. Meanwhile, the barbecue continues to grow and build friendships.
COPYRIGHT 1995 National Recreation and Park Association
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