OAKLAND — Well before the annual Thanksgiving dinner starts at Messalonskee High School, the regular attendees from across central Maine start trickling in, meeting and greeting each other and saying hello to faces remembered from past years.

Others, new to the free dinner that feeds 1,000 by the end of the event, walk in unsure but are greeted warmly by the volunteers and soon are seated with other guests, drinking coffee and socializing.

They laugh. Some warm up with coffee. Widows and widowers tell stories of how they spent the holidays alone for years after losing their spouses until they learned about the Oakland dinner.

And while the growing crowd gets seated, the dinner’s 91-year-old founder, Bud King, makes his rounds through the cafeteria, saying hello and smiling broadly.

The camaraderie and sense of community created at the dinner is exactly what King said he had in mind when he started the dinner.

“That’s why they come early,” he said, after taking a seat at a table with his wife, Josephine. “It’s just that people want that feeling of someone else being there.”

King, former owner of Bud’s Store in Oakland, said he had worked since childhood in grocery stores and started giving Thanksgiving meals away decades before he started formally hosting the free dinners at a church in the early 1980s. He eventually moved the dinner to the high school, whose students come from Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney.

“You just see so many people that are alone,” he said. “We’ve always been neighborly, and so that’s how this got started.”

King still enjoys attending the massive dinner, where he socializes with the attendees and volunteers. Throughout the event, regulars and newcomers stop at King’s table to thank him for the dinner, though he is always quick to credit the dozens of volunteers around him cooking, serving food and delivering meals.

Melanie Pratt of Newport stood nearby with her four daughters and said it was her family’s first time assisting with the dinner instead of helping elsewhere, such as at a dinner in Bangor.

“We wanted to see if we could be of help,” she said.

Pratt, smiling, pointed out the mass of other volunteers surrounding them and noted that at the time there was almost more people to help than were needed.

“Maybe we can help clean up,” she said.

Sisters Helen Amazeen and Rita Melville were among some of the first to arrive. Amazeen said they have been coming for the past five years.

“Who wouldn’t want to be here? Look at this food! And we don’t have to cook dinner,” she said.

Amazeen said they are happy to enjoy the meal with whomever they meet.

At the next table, Jeff Tibbetts of Oakland said he and his wife came to the dinner for the first time this year.

“The last time I sat in the high school was 1975, when I graduated, so I thought for Thanksgiving that my wife and I would come to the dinner,” he said.

Organizers estimated that 900 to 1,000 people would be served this year, between delivered dinners and meals eaten at the high school.

The first year the dinner was held at the high school, King said, about 50 people went.