Eagle County Fair’s appeal grows in 1980s
EAGLE, Colorado –Beginning in the 1980s, Eagle County got professional help to stage its fair and rodeo.
Throughout its then-50 year history, the county fair had been presented through the efforts of Colorado State University extension agents and staff members, dedicated 4-H parents and members of the Eagle County Fair Board.
In 1987, the first paid fair manager was hired – Karen Phillips, of Vail. Phillips was the wife of former Vail town manager Ron Phillips and she came to town with an impressive resume. She had worked as the advertising and promotions manager for the Oklahoma State Fair. She had previously served as a member of the fair board before signing on as the paid manager.
With Phillips’ hiring, the county commissioners got ready to expand the fair’s appeal. That objective grew stronger in 1988 when Rick Beveridge, also of Vail, was hired as county events manager. In that position, the Eagle County Fair and Rodeo was Beveridge’s prime concern.
“My No. 1 priority is to make this a true countywide fair,” said Beveridge back in 1988. He cited the county’s desire to bring in more folks from Vail and Avon as well as residents from the Basalt and El Jebel areas.
Throughout its history, the fair had featured a combination of 4-H events, entertainment and amateur rodeo. Through the early part of the 1980s, that formula held with the Colorado State Rodeo Cowboys Association providing the amateur rodeo action and concert acts including Rex Alley Jr. and Jana Joe from Hee Haw in 1980, Doug Kershaw in 1981, Billy Jo Spears in 1982, Clyde Foley Cummins in 1985 and 1986 and Chris Ledoux in 1987.
But a big change came in 1989, when Eagle County event became a pro rodeo – a mid-sized competition in the Mountain States Circuit of the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association.
“It just made sense. We thought it would improve the quality of the rodeo,” said Beveridge.
It took several years to build the event, he added, noting that professional cowboys have plenty of competitions to choose from during the first week of August and they traditionally follow rodeos that have the best prize money and most quality stock.
In addition to the rodeo change, during Beveridge’s tenure a popular event was born – the Rocky Mountain Oyster Feed. Originally held in the spring, the event served as a fundrasier for the county fair. It was celebrated from 1989 through 2008, but dropped from the fair program this year in favor of last week’s Moos and Brews barbecue competition and microbrew tasting event.
This week when she arrived at the Eagle River Center, Karen (Greenman) Carthy wore a sweatshirt that declared she was a “Born 4-H Leader.” It was a very accurate description.
Throughout the 1980s, Carthy was an avid 4-H’er who competed in horses, market beef, market pigs, market sheep, market poultry and more. She also served as the Eagle County Fair and Rodeo Queen for one year and as the queen attendant for two years. One year her beefalo – the animal’s father was a buffalo and its mother was a cow – won both the Grand Champion ribbon in the market beef competition and the Grand Champion ribbon in the carcass competition.
When she was competing, Carthy said more families spent the week camping at the fairgrounds and more people from the Basalt area participated in the event. “But it’s pretty much status quo. The fair moved to the new building and just grew.”
Jenny (Walch) Eaton started her 4-H career in 1981 when she was 5 and a mini 4-H’er. Through the years, she spent countless hours at the fairgrounds competing with animal projects.
“My brother and I lived at the fairgrounds during fair week. We slept in the horse trailer,” she said.
She raised a grand champion steer one year and like Carthy, Eaton served as an Eagle County Fair and Rodeo Queen.
“That was fun because I got to go out of town for parades and grand entries at other rodeos and represent Eagle County,” she said.
Eaton will head out to the fair this week. She believes today’s events – pro rodeo and a carnival – do have more mass appeal but she likes to watch the more traditional 4-H fare when kids show animals and then sell them at the Junior Livestock Sale.
As he looks back on the 1980s at the Eagle County Fair and Rodeo, Beveridge credits the efforts of extension agents Lyn Merrick and Joe Winstad. Even after he left the manager job in 1991, Beveridge continued to serve on the Eagle County Fair Board, and he said that group has been instrumental in the event’s success.
“The fair board was always great and they were all volunteers. I remember building hog pens and ticket booths at night or on the weekends. I was a 23-year-old kid back then and I didn’t realize the time those people took and they effort they put in. It was just a great community effort.”