Before the corndogs and cotton candy, the bronc ridin’ and the rodeo queens, there was the Alfalfa Palace.
The year was 1896, and the sturdy, turreted structure, formed by stacked bales of animal feed, was “to be the principal drawing card,” in the words of the Montrose Daily Press, at the fair that year. “After some discussion it was decided to call it a Western Slope fair,” the newspaper wrote, “and to invite the different counties to join with us and exhibit their various products.”
In those days, as today, produce and livestock were on display for the judging. But instead of country artist Ned LeDoux (who’ll perform at the Mesa County Fair this year) the entertainment highlights were a brass band, a display of “tight rope walking from the top of the tallest buildings of the city” by one Prof. Ivy Baldwin (who also the thrilled crowds with a trio of balloon ascents) and a “grand pyrotechnic display” (today we’d call them fireworks). More than a century later, fairs are often paired with rodeos, and every county has its own version of what is perhaps summer’s most quintessential — and certainly quirkiest — event. Below, a few highlights of this region.
The Montrose County Fair & Rodeo celebrates its 133rd season this summer with a suitably down-home theme: “Where I Come From.” It’s the fair that brings you not only the usual complement of mature animals (and teenage owners), but the “Chicken Little Show,” “Peter Rabbit Show,” and “Merry Little Lamb” and “This Little Pig” — diminutively titled events designed for kids too young to compete in 4-H but who would like to be involved. There are horse and dog shows July 20-21, and then July 22 “is when all the 4-H animals come in,” said Fairgrounds & Events Manager Stoney Field. Roping, riding, an antique tractor pull, a fiddle-playing contest and a bacon-eating contest are also on the menu. “We even have homemade wine and beer,” Field said. “People take a lot of pride in their pies,” he added. “But it’s not like (the ones that are entered for judging) are available for tasting. The only person who can taste them is the judge.”
Paul Cooper was the judge last year; he recalled it being a challenging assignment. “You could even call it taxing,” he said. “I was the only judge, and I couldn’t spit out anything I tasted. It was all in public. I tasted over 100 brownies and cakes. At the end it was sauces and pickles — a nice, refreshing change from all that sugar.”
When the fair’s attendees first walked past Cooper, “They were like, ‘You have the best job in the world!’” he recalled. Later in the day, “They would ask, ‘Are you OK?’” Cooper got so overwhelmed by having to sample so many foodstuffs, “I was messaging my friends on Facebook, begging them to come down and help me out. There was no help.” This year, Cooper plans on entering his own baked goods in a couple of contests, but his days as a judge are over. For a complete schedule of events, go to montrosecountyfairandrodeo.com.
MESA COUNTY FAIR
The region’s biggest fair is right up the road on Highway 50 in Grand Junction. “Last year we stopped charging admission fees,” said Donna Redd, Mesa County Fairground’s manager. It worked: “Our attendance was 64,000, up 46 percent from 2017.” The fair’s theme this year is “Where Hard Work Meets Fun!” which could also be the name of what the fair’s brass has been doing to earn customers’ repeat business.
“We’ve added a huge number of acts — music, magicians, a comedian — on the grounds” for even more entertainment this year, Redd said. “There’ll be ‘bear’ wood carvers, racing ducks that actually race — a gentleman has trained them — and a four-time regional mountain biking champion” putting on a show. There is also “goat yoga,” a Professional Bull Riders event, a demolition derby, mud volleyball (with prizes for the winners) and “Inflataville,” blow-up animals and rides “up to five stories high” that charm small ones and save the fair big bucks because “they come in on one semi instead of 20,” Redd said. “It’s much more affordable.” The no-entrance-fee policy continues and, same as last year, local businesses are stepping into to sponsor the Mesa County Fair every day this year. The fair goes from July 17-20.
FAIR AND RODEO
What Mesa County lacks, Delta County offers in abundance: namely, rodeos (this year’s theme is “Let’s Stirrup Some Fun”). There is almost a rodeo-a-day beginning Aug. 3 in Hotchkiss with a Junior Rodeo and continuing with a team roping event, a Mountain States Ranch Rodeo (in which local cowboys and cowgirls compete at activities you’d typically find on a ranch, such as “sorting, doctoring, wild cow milking, trailer loading, gathering and more”) and a rodeo that has been sponsored by the Flower Motor Company for more than 50 years. There’s also a 4-H shooting sports contest, a fair parade, “Pee Wee Showmanship” events (“bucket calves, bottle lambs, goat kids, pigs”), a fair parade, a Cowboy at the Cross Church service in the Park (Aug. 11, following a pancake breakfast) and a Dutch oven cooking contest. Go to deltacountyfair.com to learn more.
SAN MIGUEL COUNTY FAIR AND RODEO AND OURAY COUNTY FAIR
Jordan Spor, 4-H program coordinator for the San Miguel Basin Fair, said that “definitely” the highlight of the fair “is watching 4-H members showing off their animals and their horses, and the demos” such as woodworking, leather craft and cake decorating. The fair is scheduled to begin July 13 with a decades-long tradition hard to find anyplace else: a dessert judging from 2-4 p.m. followed by a public dessert tasting at 5 p.m. (this doesn’t happen in Montrose County or Ouray County). The fair goes from July 13-20. “Last year, the rodeo was held after the fair,” Spor said. This year, it is planned for July 26-27, the following weekend. “We’re extremely desperate to make sure this year is a financial success, so we can continue put this on next year and for years to come,” said Regan Snyder, the San Miguel County Fair Board’s president.
The Ouray County Fair and Rodeo will go on as planned this year. The annual event is held over Labor Day Weekend, one of the final county fairs of the season (only the Jackson County North Park Fair in Walden is later).
Highlights of the weekend, according to Erin Stadelman, former president of the Ouray County Rodeo Association — the mom of a former Rodeo Queen — include mutton bustin’, “which I’m pretty darn sure we’re having again this year, and goatjoring, which is a hoot, unless you’ve got a soft spot for goats,” Stadelman said. On the other hand, “My son’s goats have competed for the past three years, and they’re just fine.”
The majority of events tourists return year after year “are a little bit quirky,” Stadelman said. “There’s a pick-up race, where an adult races down to the end of the arena” on horseback “and picks up a kid and races back. We have barrel racing and bucking horses.” She described the fair as “small, family friendly, everybody-knows-everybody. We’ve got pigs and sheep and even goats and rabbits this year. It’s a quaint, wholesome little fair: cooking contests, canning, pie-baking. You may not be able to sample the prizewinning pie, but you’ll be able to find the person who baked it because we’re a tight-knit community and we all hang out at the fair.”
The Montrose County Chamber of Commerce has disbanded, and as of press time Wednesday afternoon, the Montrose County Fair & Rodeo was in search of a sponsor. The San Miguel Basin Rodeo is seeking additional sponsorships. “I fear for the future of fairs and rodeos,” Stadelman said frankly, “but more than that, I fear for the loss of children involved in agriculture. Kids are pulling away. Horses are expensive to keep; land is expensive to buy. It’s epidemic in Colorado, and it’s sad to see. I fear this will probably be the last generation of my family” that may be involved in ranching and rodeos.
When Stadelman’s grandkids visit, “We say, ‘Put away your video games. Get on your horse and go.’”
Get out and ride while you can, in other words. The ranching life and its spoils — rodeo stock and farm animals to show, produce to grow and enter in a contest — is an increasingly rare privilege. Get out and go: it’s good advice for anyone thinking of heading to a rodeo or county fair.