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Fair and rodeo a nod to the Old West

Alex Miller
Vail Daily file photoAction at last year's bull-riding event, which really packs 'em in at the Eagle County Fair and Rodeo.
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EAGLE ” When the 66th Annual Eagle County Fair and Rodeo kicks off this weekend, it will serve as a poignant reminder of the county’s roots in an agriculture lifestyle.

Long before the ski runs went up and the economy was driven by tourism, farmers and ranches were the economic engine of the county. But even as their importance has lessened, the annual fair brings it all back.

“I think that’s exactly what keeps it going,” said Brad Higgins, fair and rodeo manager for the county. “People like the Western culture and rodeo and livestock because they don’t see a lot of that in this valley anymore.”



By all accounts, the fair and rodeo is as popular as ever, even if some aspects of it have diminished. Higgins said the event usually comes in about $100,000 in the black each year; money that goes right back into the management of the fair.

“We have a pretty decent base of attendees,” he said. “Like the bull riding on Saturday night will be a full house. It always is.”

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Higgins said the rodeo usually pulls about 2,000 spectators nightly for the five days. The fair itself attracts some 20,000 over the course of a week.

The rodeo may be the high-profile attraction, but for a lot of local families, it’s the 4-H exhibits and events that hold the most meaning. Although there has been some shifting in what that component looks like, said Jenny Wood, 4-H director for Eagle County.

“We’re seeing more interest in building projects, like sewing and leather craft,” she said. “For animal projects, we’re seeing a decline in steers, which corresponds with the decline in ranches.”



Instead, she said, 4-H kids are focusing on animals more easily kept on smaller pieces of land: rabbits, chickens, goats and even cats.

“4-H enrollment is down, compared to other counties this size, but those are those are mostly agricultural communities,” Wood said.

“We’re happy with the enrollment we have, although we’d always like to see more.”

While the Eagle County Fair and Rodeo appears to be going strong, other similar events in neighboring counties are not so fortunate.

Summit County’s Mountain Community Fair has struggled with bad weather and reduced attendance over the years. Last weekend, after weeks of dry weather, the skies opened up just as the fair was getting ready for its big Saturday afternoon and evening program.

“People don’t come out on rainy days,” said Ann Lindsey, a Summit fair board member who also does the books for the event. “Even so, we probably had 3,500 to 4,000 people come through.”

Lindsey said she thinks people still aren’t willing to let go of the county fair ” even in the resort communities.

“The rodeo is Western yee-ha,” she said. “It’s cowboys and Wrangler butts. The fair is small-town America. Where else can you go to pet a kangaroo or get a pony ride?

“The big city carnivals and fairs don’t have stuff like that,” she added, “and people aren’t willing to let go of that yet.”

Mat Keith, the announcer at the Summit County rodeo, was quoted in the Summit Daily News saying he’d noticed a steady decline in rodeos in the region.

“As far as I’m concerned, the life and times of a cowboy is a dying breed,” Keith said after Sunday afternoon’s rodeo. “This is how we make a living. (Rodeos are) not like they used to be.”

But for Rachel Overlease, who’s president of the 4-H junior livestock program, Eagle County’s fair and rodeo go beyond cowboys and Western culture. For her, it’s teaching kids responsibility as well as some facts of life.

“I think it’s important people realize where meat comes from and know there’s some quality-assurance program,” Overlease said.

“The 4-H kids realize the importance of what they do, that they’re playing an important part in the food service of America.”

Overlease, who said she was a 4-H kid herself growing up in Colorado, said she’s seen a decrease in 4-H participation as the county has grown less agricultural.

“When you see ranches being sold and turned into housing developments ” like Eagle Ranch or Brightwater ” there’s less opportunity to participate,” she said. “There’s not as much interest, which is kind of sad.”

Compared to Summit County, though, the Eagle County Fair and Rodeo is going gangbusters, even while most residents can’t tell a goat from a cow. Don’t forget, though: Vail was built on the site of an old sheep ranch, and that was only about 45 years ago.

Alex Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 615, or amiller@vaildaily.com.

Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado


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