Every Fourth of July for the past 18 years, Hall County residents have flocked to Memorial Park, drawn by a sense of patriotism and the aroma of grilled burgers and pulled pork.
Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, has been to all 18 barbecues that honor public servants, but he said the crowd at the 2011 event topped that of years past.
"We've only been feeding people for 50 minutes and we've already served 1,500 people," said Jack Frost, owner of Memorial Park Funeral Homes and Cemeteries, the Gainesville business that hosts the annual July 4 event.
Frost came up with the idea because he wanted to do something to thank local police, fire and emergency personnel. The first barbecue only brought a couple hundred people, but this year's event was expected to yield more than 3,500.
"It's unbelievable. We've always had a large crowd, but here we are 40 minutes into the event and we've served half of what we usually serve by 1," said Billy Hendrix, vice president of operations and public relations for Memorial Park. "Every group is represented — Hall County Sheriff's Office, Hall County Fire Department, Gainesville Police, Gainesville Fire Department."
In addition to emergency officials present at the event, Hendrix said several hundred on-duty officers and hospital workers had been delivered plates at work.
Gainesville Police Department Maj. Gerald Couch has been to the barbecue about eight times, and said he saw a steady trickle of emergency personnel at Monday's event.
"It's always been great to interact with the community, and they get to meet the public safety officers," he said.
For kids attending the event, such as 7-year-old Leilani Weathers, a student at Sugar Hill Elementary School, the barbecue meant it was time for special summer treats - enough chicken, watermelon and baked beans to feed the city.
Gainesville resident David Ivey attended for a slightly different reason.
"I enjoy it. I enjoy meeting all the veterans since I'm a veteran myself," Ivey said. "I was in the Army and Air Force and I served from 1963 to 1969."
Veterans and families from the Hall County area were in the crowd waiting their turn to speak with various state officials, including Rogers, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Gov. Nathan Deal, all of whom spoke at the event.
Georgia's first lady Sandra Deal was in attendance as well.
"I enjoy renewing old friendships and thanking the people who labor on a regular basis for our safety," she said.
The Deals took a mini vacation from their positions in Atlanta to return to Gainesville for the holiday weekend, the first lady said.
"We've enjoyed having a few days off," she said. "Since I grew up here ... I miss everybody. It's just nice to get to come back and have a little fellowship."
Hendrix said he was glad to see the community come to support the event every year, and glad the people who are honored are able to take time to come out and enjoy themselves.
"We're, as far as I know, the only entity or company that does this type of thing on July 4," Frost said. "And we're proud to do it."