EAGLE — Seventy-five years ago, the only gated communities in Eagle County were ranches.
The Eagle County Fair & Rodeo is 75 years old this week.
It was Sept. 16, 1939, when local leaders held the first ever “Eagle County Fair and Fall Festival.”
Many of the valley’s residents old enough to remember it were together for lunch Thursday, and oh my, did they have some stories.
Things were different 75 years ago, but people are pretty much the same.
Cowboys now — and then — are more polite, “gentlemanly,” than city men, says Jennifer Bearden, who lived in major cities most of her life before settling in Eagle County with a cowboy.
Electricity didn’t show up in McCoy until 1952. Before that they used generators or lamps. Refrigeration was blocks of ice pulled from the river and stored. Running water was for rich people.
“Running water was when the kids were sent running to the spring to fetch it,” Jake Stull said.
Local rancher Vern Albertson won a catch-the-calf contest. Chester Mayer donated the heifer calf that Vern caught. The calf grew into a cow and had a calf. Vern showed that cow and calf at the next year’s fair and did quite well. And that, more or less, was one of the ways Vern got his start in the cattle business.
For Jac Laman’s first fair, he walked across the irrigation pipe that spans the Eagle River because he didn’t have any money to buy a ticket. He was 8 years old.
Harvey Ickes was the mayor of Fulford, because he earned it and because he was one of the only people who lived up there year-round. Harvey was not involved in the Great Fulford Shootout. No one there Thursday could remember what the shooting was about, but they’re pretty sure no one got shot. The desperados were apprehended.
Anyway, Harvey ran the meadow muffin throwing contest before the annual rodeo. If he liked you, he might slip you a tennis ball to throw instead of a small ball of equine byproduct.
Jack Phillips and a cast of several helped build the original grandstand. Years later when Johnnette Phillips was a county commissioner, she strong armed fellow commissioner Bud Gates into agreeing to build the new concrete grandstand. Bud saw to it that the arena was named for Johnnette, the name it carries to this day.
Nettie Reynolds’ grandparents came over in the 1800s from Nevadaville to homestead. He was a cowboy some of the time and was a foreman overseeing the prisoners building the highway through Glenwood Canyon — that would be the two-lane highway. She and her friends used to cook and create all kinds of crafts and enter them in the fair.
That first fair
Hundreds of people came from every corner of the county to compete in the various contests and browse exhibits by local ranchers and 4-Hers. More than 1,200 people ate the “bountiful free lunch” served up by Moulton Chambers.
The day also featured a football game between the Minturn and Eagle high school teams (Eagle won, 27–0), concerts by the Eagle County High School band (resplendent in purple and gold uniforms), a free picture show at the local movie theater and an evening dance.
Livestock judge Red Allen, sent to the fair from the Extension Service of Colorado A&M College (now Colorado State University), offered high praise, declaring the animals to be of “stock show quality.” The local potatoes were the highlight of the crops competition. Brush Creek rancher John Clark’s Red McClure spuds earned top prize.
The newspaper, The Eagle Valley Enterprise, is now one of Eagle County’s oldest continuing businesses. On Sept. 22, 1939, just days after the inaugural event, it gushed about the fair.
“We hope to see this fair (become) an annual event, it being an incentive for old and young to do our work well and compete with our sister counties,” it said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Kathy Heicher is a local writer, historian and the author of several books on Eagle County history.
Pride and Purple Ribbons:
75 Years of the Eagle County Fair
Seventy-five years ago, the only gated communities in Eagle County were ranches.
Agriculture drove the local economy. Farmers and ranchers worked hard year-around to raise crops and livestock and they were proud of the results. In 1939, community leaders decided to celebrate with the first –ever “Eagle County Fair and Fall Festival.”
The first Fair: September 16, 1939
The big event commenced on an early fall Saturday with exhibits on the grounds of the Eagle School (current location of the County Administration Building) and livestock events staged west of the courthouse.
Hundreds of people came from every corner of the county to compete in the various contests and browse exhibits by local ranchers and 4-H’ers. Over 1,200 people ate the “bountiful free lunch” served up by Moulton Chambers. The day also featured a football game between the Minturn and Eagle High School teams (Eagle won, 27 – 0), concerts by the Eagle County High School band (resplendent in purple and gold uniforms), a free picture show at the local movie theater and an evening dance.
Livestock Judge Red Allen, sent to the fair from the Extension Service of Colorado A & M College (now Colorado State University), offered high praise, declaring the animals to be of “Stock Show quality.” The local potatoes were the highlight of the crops competition. Brush Creek rancher John Clark’s Red McClure spuds earned top prize.
“We hope to see this fair [become] an annual event, it being an incentive for old and young to do our work well and compete with our sister counties.”
Eagle Valley Enterprise
September 22, 1939
1940s: Waiting on the war
Despite the smashing success of that first County Fair, it was nearly a decade before a celebration of that scale happened again. Blame Adolph Hitler and the turmoil of World War II. Men were called away to the service. Ranchers scrambled to find workers. Product shortages made ranching a challenge.
In 1940, a much smaller event — a 4-H Exhibit Day, was staged on the Eagle school grounds in August.
County Fair essentially went on hiatus during the war years. In 1947, the momentum picked up again. By the end of the decade, the temporary “Exhibit Hall” (the Eagle school gym) was crowded. Community leaders were discussing the need for a permanent fairgrounds space.
1950s: New home for the Fair
The 1950s presented challenges. The County Fair was growing, particularly with the addition of commercial booths selling farm implements and home appliances. The polio outbreak in 1951 stifled attendance. Still, what was now being called the “Junior Fair” drew 202 entries. In 1952, the Fair moved to the Eagle County High School grounds in Gypsum — the only time the event was staged away from the county seat.
In 1953 rancher Chet Mayer volunteered the use of more than an acre of land on the south edge of Eagle (approximately between what is now Sixth and Seventh streets west of McIntyre Street). Volunteers built a fence and piped water to the site.
Exhibit hall and livestock sheds were constructed the following year. Under the leadership of County Agent Sam Kuntz, the Fair once again became a two-day event. The 4-H kids brought their sleeping bags and stayed in town for the duration, tending their livestock and competing in contests during the day, and roaming the streets of Eagle at night.
1960s: The Move across the river
The summer of 1960 found Fair organizers scrambling. The Mayer Ranch sold to a corporation and the designated fairgrounds on the south edge of Eagle were no longer available.
The Eagle County commissioners stepped up and purchased a 15-acre chunk of land on the north bank of the Eagle River from dairy farmer Ross Chambers.
Led by County Agent Kuntz and his able secretary Eileen Randall, a squadron of local volunteers moved the livestock barn to the new site. The Eagle Valley Roping Club built a rodeo arena. The livestock could be accommodated; but home economics exhibits remained on the south side of the river at the school gym.
Determined to stage the entire Fair in a central location, in 1965 Kuntz and his volunteers built an all steel, 100 by 50 foot exhibit hall at the new fairgrounds. The building still stands on the east end of the Fairgrounds complex. Grandstands were constructed at the rodeo arena. The Colorado Amateur Cowboy Association staged a rodeo offering a $150 purse. Another day of events was added to the County Fair weekend.
Kuntz also introduced the Fat Stock Sale, at which 4-H’ers could sell their prize-winning animals to the local community, recouping their expenses and perhaps earning enough money to get started on a new animal project for the next year. This was the beginning of a still-ongoing partnership between the local business community and the 4-H kids.
1970s: Volunteers and versatility
By the 1970s, the County Fair was well established at its current location. County Agent Bill Coffey was the official leader of the Fair; but the volunteers made it happen.
Initially, the rodeo “concessions” stand consisted of a group of card tables from which workers sold sandwiches, cakes and pies donated by 4-H mothers. A solid wood concessions stand appeared in the early 1970s, courtesy of local builder Denny Eaton. Eagle County Fair Association volunteers put in countless hours flipping burgers and roasting hot dogs.
Some long-time Fair traditions, such as the Catch-It contest, in which fleet-footed 4-Hers could literally catch their project animal for the following year, remained popular. Friday night concerts were added to the program, with bands brought in from Denver. The ranch kids and town kids looked forward to a few
1980s: Small town Fair becomes big event
For its first 50 years, the County Fair was staged by Colorado State University extension staff and dedicated local volunteers. In 1987, the Eagle County Commissioners hired an events manager, Rick Beveridge, to develop the Fair into a true, countywide event that would draw not only ranching families, but also visitors from the growing Vail, Avon and El Jebel communities.
Big name entertainment was brought in, including the Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw and up-and-coming Country-Western singer Chris Ledoux.
The popular “Rocky Mountain Oyster Feed” event was introduced, providing a funding source for the Fair. And in 1989, the county brought in its first professional rodeo, a mid-size competition for the Mountain States Circuit Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association. Locals could participate in rodeo events such as the “Wild Cow Milking” competition.
Anticipating future growth, the county purchased an additional 145 acres of the Chambers ranch.
1990s – present
Growing popularity prompted even more improvements as the Fair grew into a multi-day event. In 1993, the county constructed a new livestock barn east of the rodeo arena, and the old red barn was torn down. In 1999, the old wooden rodeo grandstands were torn down, and new steel grandstands with a covered roof and seating for 2,650 people were built. The fancy covered grandstands immediately proved its worth when one rodeo performance coincided with a heavy rainstorm. The spectators remained both comfortable and dry. The PRCA rodeo draws crowds to fill those stands for several nights during the Fair.
The county built the Eagle River Center, where the 4-H livestock competition and open class exhibits are now staged.
Seventy-five years have brought many changes to the Eagle County Fair, but one thing is consistent: This is still the best opportunity in the county to get out the cowboy hat and boots, join friends and neighbors and celebrate our western heritage.
Kathy Heicher compiled this history of the Eagle County Fair & Rodeo, She is the author of several books on Eagle County history.