Who doesn’t like a county fair? As someone once put it, “County fairs are opportunities to bring in those handsome Holsteins competing for Best Bessie, to sample food that don’t normally belong on sticks and definitely shouldn’t be deep-fried and to enjoy carnival rides and games with unfavorable odds.”
Wealthy New England farmer and businessman Elkanah Watson, who showcased his sheep in the public square of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1807, is credited with the idea of a state fair. However, state and county fairs, as we know them today, have been around in the U.S. since 1841 when the first one took place in Syracuse, New York. And, food has been the centerpiece from the very beginning, including the judging of recipes, which is one of the oldest competitions at the fairs. Fairs of the early 1800s certainly didn’t feature the salty, greasy, pick-up snacks of today’s county fairs. One of the first World Fairs introduced “authentic” delicacies from exotic locales like China, Turkey and Morocco. Then, in 1889, visitors to the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889 scarfed down over 400,000 oysters a day and about 100,000 pounds of cheese a week — for two weeks!
Not to be outdone by the French, however, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago presented an array of concessions that covered 1.5 miles of lunch counters scattered throughout a park. Can you even imagine? Choices ranged from a $2 Porterhouse steak to Hungarian and Turkish dishes served by local restaurants. And all of it could be washed down with Pabst beer, which won its “blue ribbon” — hence, Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Popcorn was popularized at the 1901 Pan Exposition in Buffalo, New York, with vendors chanting rhymes like “Lovely eyes come shine and glitter; buy your girl a popcorn fritter.” At the St. Louis World’s Fair three years later, Missouri fruit specialist J.T. Stinson coined the phrase, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” There were also all sorts of sculptures created from pounds of butter to promote the dairy industry.
Over the years, fairs expanded to include an array of rides to entertain fairgoers of all ages. The Ferris Wheel, invented by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr, made its debut at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Then came the carousel with wooden horses that were once used to give horseback riding lessons to Turkish and Arabian cavalry members.
The first patent for a rollercoaster went to LaMarcus Thompson in 1885. However, modern rollercoasters actually descended from “Russian Mountains,” winter sled rides that were popular in 17th century St. Petersburg. Situated on icy hills, the sled topped out at 200 feet.
Over the years, rides like the Whip, the Wipeout and the mechanical bull (which until the 1970s were strictly used to train cowboys and rodeo competitors) became commonplace.
And let’s not forget bumper cars and the Tilt-A-Whirl, which made its debut in 1926. As the story goes, the idea sprang from the imagination of a woodworker and waterslide-maker, who experimented with the ride’s design by placing a chair on his kitchen table, making his son sit in it and then rocking the table. Of course, oftentimes there is one
“spectacle” at many fairs to entertain the crowd. In the early 1950s, a dental x-ray machine was demonstrated at an exhibit by the California Dental Association; in 1993 a radio talk show host, wearing a dress and pearl earrings, delivered her broadcast from a hot tub at the Minnesota State Fair.
And, in 2001 a butter sculpture entry of actor John Wayne required 400 pounds of butter and four days of labor. In 1939, an Eagle County Fair and Fall Festival was celebrated to support local farmers and ranchers of the area — people who worked year-round to raise crops (local potatoes were the highlight) and livestock (declared by Livestock Judge Red Allen to be “of stock show quality”). More than 1,200 people from all over the county came to enjoy a free lunch, to compete in the various contests and to look over the exhibits by local ranchers and members of the 4-H club. The festivities also featured a football game between Minturn and Eagle High School teams (Eagle won, 27 – 0) and concerts by the Eagle County High School Band as well as a free “picture show” at the local movie theater, followed by a dance. After years of work, including building an exhibit hall, piping in water, building fences and buying more land, the fair was able to be staged in one location. Then, in 1965, the Colorado Amateur Cowboy Association hosted a rodeo, offering a $150 purse, and eventually the entire event became the Eagle County Fair and Rodeo (ECFR).
For the first 50 years, the fair was staged by the extension staff of Colorado State University and local volunteers. However, in 1987 an events manager was hired to develop the affair into a countywide happening that would draw from the surrounding areas as well as the ranching community.
The fair, as old-timers knew it, had a brand new face! Big name entertainers like Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw as well as country singer Chis Ledoux performed. The popular “Rocky Mountain Oyster Feed” was held, providing extra funds for the event. And in 1989 the first professional rodeo, a mid-size competition for the Mountain States Circuit Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association, took place. And locals could participate in various rodeo contests like the “Wild Cow Milking” competition.
“There’s no other rodeo setting like Eagle, tucked among the mountains with the Eagle River right behind it,” says Clay Heger, a bullfighter (one who protects the rider from the bulls) with Pete Carr Pro Rodeo (PCPR).
Adds John Gwatney, livestock superintendent for PCPR, “We’re on the rodeo trail all year, and we’ve been to some beautiful places. The setting of the mountains is beautiful and the crowd is so captivated and responsive. It’s amazing and makes Eagle a wonderful rodeo.”
And that enthralled crowd is on its feet always hootin’ and hollerin’ after each event including barrel racing, bareback riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, team roping and tie-down roping. In fact, the ECFR ranks in the top 20 of small rodeos.
Between the rodeo and the fair with its exhibits, rides and tasty grub, one couldn’t ask for more of a down-home event.
These days, the rides at the ECFR are brought in by the Great Northern A’fair Carnival and include the Mystic Ferris wheel, Space Shuttle, Ripsaw, Thea’s Zoo and Flying Pink Elephants Games. And if you want to grab some grub, turkey legs, gyros, smoked sausage, Navajo tacos, pizza, corn dogs, burgers, BBQ pork and curly fries are just a few of the vittles that will whet your appetite.
It’s been 80 years since those early Eagle County farmers and ranchers got together to celebrate themselves. And rightly so! They worked together gleaning ideas from one another about ranching and harvesting crops and, over the years, many of the ranches and farms are still working.
This year’s ECFR won’t feature a football game or a picture show or a free lunch, for that matter. Just be ready for the time of your life — ‘cause this shindig is one of the best in the game!