RIDGWAY – The Ouray County Fair’s theme this year is We All Shine, Living on Country Time. With all due respect, David Byrne’s familiar refrain from “Once in a Lifetime” is probably a better fit. There is very little new this year about the fair and rodeo this year – it really is the same as it ever was (with one important exception, and we’re not referring to the grandstands). The Labor Day weekend celebration goes back well over 100 years in Ouray, and more than ever this year, the point seems to be to preserve the best of the past and not monkey with it. “This wonderful little fairgrounds has been here since the 1890s,” says Fairgrounds Manager Susan Long. “We hope people will come out and support it. We really should preserve our history and our Western way of life.”
Oh, there are little tweaks here and there at the Fair. Amongst the canned goods, the baked goods, the artwork and photography you’ll find on display in the Exhibitors area at the 4-H County Fairgrounds, there will be “someone selling hay and grass samples,” Long said. “That will be a new one.” But mostly, the pies, the produce and fresh herbs, the homemade spirits, the needle & fancy work, the crafts, the floriculture – even the baled hay contest, alfalfa or grass – will remain the same.
So will the animals. The time to see the many 4-H-raised steer, lambs, pigs, goats, rabbits and more is Friday, beginning at 12:30 p.m. On Saturday, there will be more animal judging, and then Round Robin Showmanship, at 1:30 p.m. (including the champions of the 4-H Dog Show, held earlier this month). And now for the important exception: this year, the Beef and Market Beef show will be Friday evening at 6 p.m., and the swine will show Saturday morning at 9 a.m. That’s a flip-flop; for many years, it used to be the other way around. Moving the times is best for everyone, Long said. The pigs prefer (and thus, show better) in the cool morning air. “We think it will be cooler in the morning, and just a little bit easier to handle the pigs,” Long said. The average swine weighs 250 pounds, and some get up to 375 pounds. “At that weight,” Long pointed out, “they can be stubborn.” The Parade of Champions is Saturday afternoon at 3:15 p.m., and the livestock sale begins at 3:30 p.m. Monies raised from the sale of livestock are used to support local 4-H kids and programs. Don’t miss the antique tractor pull on Thursday night at 6 p.m., the first night of the fair, in which 30 tractors from 1955 or earlier will compete. “There’ll be food and beverages. It’s always very popular,” Long said. “A real nice way to kick it in gear.”
And then there is the Rodeo, which begins Sunday, Sept. 1 at 1 p.m. (gates open around noon). Look for barrel racing, bronc and bull riding, and team and calf roping at this PRCA-sanctioned event. There will be another rodeo Monday at 1 p.m., but never fear: it is an exact repeat of Sunday’s, with a second group of contestants. You’ll miss nothing if you don’t make it to both rodeos. If you do get to both, twice the fun! In between rodeos, there’ll be a Rodeo Dance Sunday night at the Firehouse, and a patriotic Rodeo Parade on Monday morning, Labor Day, beginning at 9 a.m. on Clinton Street. The parade will be followed by a fireman’s breakfast, which takes place only shortly before the traditional Old Timers Barbecue at Ridgway Town Park (11 a.m.). Originally, the barbecue pit was along the Uncompahgre River, said Louis Schlosser, who is on the Rodeo Board. By the 1960s-1970s, the pit had migrated to the Fairgrounds. “The pit goes way back,” Schlosser said. “The meat was donated by local ranchers, and for many years the barbecue was free.” Eventually the barbecue, and its pit, took up residence in Hartwell Park, where it will take place again this weekend. Schlosser believes that the entire Labor Day celebration in Ouray County originally revolved around its barbecue. “The settlers started getting together on Labor Day for a meal, and over the years it evolved into horse races and rodeos,” he said.
Earlier this summer, Rodeo Treasurer Erin Stadelman was perusing a few books on Ouray County history with her daughter. A century ago, Stadelman was surprised to read, local ranching families took just one day off per year: Labor Day. Not even Christmas. They worked their land and raised their animals. It was difficult and exhausting, it took all of their time – there was no “free” time on a ranch in those days – and one day a year was all they could spare. Although it was brief, the Labor Day celebration was sweet surcease from a grueling routine. “It gives me goose bumps just to think about it,” Stadelman said.
A tradition worth saving.