(March 24, 1:50 p.m.) What started out as a simple barbecue get-together for a bunch of guys in the Watsonville, Calif., area will celebrate its 50th anniversary May 16 as a major fundraiser for the American Cancer Society.

The gathering was launched in 1959 by John Moncovich and a handful of friends as a lamb barbecue at the Crosetti Ranch, just outside Watsonville. The group decided to donate the proceeds to the local branch of the cancer society.

The barbecue became an annual activity held the third Saturday of May and has become the oldest consecutively held fundraiser for the American Cancer Society in the country, according to the society’s records.

This year, it will add its own Web site — www.springlamb.com.

When John Moncovich died of cancer in 1973, his son, Bill, who had been involved with the barbecue since 1962, assumed stewardship of the event in his father’s memory.

Bill Moncovich is president and chief executive officer of Watsonville-based California Giant Inc., one of the top three strawberry-grower shippers, with 3,000 acres of berries.

“It was something I thought was a good cause,” Moncovich said. “We had always been involved with the cancer society.”

The elder Moncovich was chairman of the American Cancer Society’s Santa Cruz County chapter at one time, and Bill Moncovich served as a board member.

Several years ago, Moncovich set a goal of collecting $1 million by the 50th anniversary, and it looks like that will happen.

“We’ll be more than $1 million this year,” he said.

Moncovich will be featured in the American Cancer Society’s annual report this year, and he recently received a letter from Barbara Wakeley, the society’s regional vice president, commending him for his efforts.

Donations collected through the barbecue “support lifesaving discoveries, spread knowledge and awareness, increase the odds of surviving cancer and improve a cancer patient’s quality of life,” Wakeley wrote.

“We couldn’t do our lifesaving work without supporters like you and your family,” the letter said.

The event always has been backed by a lot of produce industry representatives, Moncovich said. The late Joe Crosetti of the Crosetti Ranch was a lettuce grower-shipper.

Some companies buy several of the $50 tickets and give them out to customers or employees, and salesmen twist the arms of customers to across the country to persuade them to buy some tickets.

“You hit everybody,” Moncovich said.

About 40 people are involved in putting on the event, but the coordination is very informal.

“A group of guys get together, and they pass out the tickets,” he said.

A highlight of the daylong event is a horseshoe tournament that started about 20 years ago.

A number of California Giant employees are involved in the fundraiser.

It’s a fun event, and it’s a chance to help a worthwhile cause, Moncovich said. “There’s not anyone who has not been touched by cancer.”