CANTON — Though the main course has changed, the McPherson County Fair free barbecue still brings the community together after 63 years.

“The community has always been involved and so many people help put it together and partake in it,” said Tina McMannis, fair board member. “It’s always been a very popular event at the fair.”

The free barbecue will be served from 6:30 to 7:45 p.m. Friday at the McPherson County Fairgrounds, 1514 27th Ave. in Canton.

For many years, the meal has been more than just making sandwiches and watermelon available. Offering a free dinner allows many families to attend activities all night long at the fair.

“The pedal tractor pull, CPRA rodeo, crowning the rodeo queen and the court all happen that night, and there’s so many other things going on, that the meal helps draw those people out and keep them there for all the other activities through the evening,” McMannis explained. “A lot of the registrations start right around suppertime so it makes it more convenient for people to participate in those things to know that they won’t have to worry about supper out there.”

The meal started in 1954 as a bison barbecue. At first, the meal was served free to the public, but for two years, patrons had to purchase tickets to attend. Due to the cost of bison meat, the barbecue now serves beef.

Though some things have changed over 63 years, much about the free meal has stayed the same. The beef has been provided by the McPherson County Beef and Oil Producers and McPherson County banks since 1957, and it’s always cooked by the Canton Volunteer Fire Department. Citizens State Bank has provided watermelon for the meal for many years as well.

These long-time commitments contribute to a sense of community among those attending the meal and those serving it.

“The fire department gets together to make the sandwiches early in the day and it draws in a lot of the volunteer firefighters and their families to prepare it and a lot of them stay to serve the meal as well. The citizens state bank employees and their families are involved as well,” McMannis said. “It gets all the families involved, both those serving and those coming to eat.”

Contact Cheyenne Derksen Schroeder by email at cderksen@mcphersonsentinel.com or follow her on Twitter at @MacSentinel.