It seems like every town has some sort of festival to celebrate its heritage, and Gunnison is no exception. We have Cattlemen’s Days, and some years back I could tell you it always took place on “the third full weekend of July.”
It’s actually more than a week of activities, starting with horse shows the weekend before the rodeos, but the big public attractions — carnival, rodeo and parade — all take place at the back end of events. Which used to be the third full weekend, but now take place at the whim of the rodeo’s stock contractor.
Stace Smith Pro Rodeos is one of the top contractors in the business, and he brings quality animals and knows how to put on a good show, but I’m still not sure about letting the contractor dictate when to hold your hometown event, especially when his schedule jams the rodeo right up against the Fourth of July, stacking the summer’s two biggest tourist attractions on top of each other.
If you own a restaurant, a motel, a gas station or a downtown business, this schedule leaves you completely overwhelmed for two solid weeks, and then left wondering where the rest of your July business went the remainder of the month.
I did have someone just last night explain Stace Smith’s schedule, and I don’t understand it, but apparently this jam-up now only happens once every three years. Which is better than every year, but still not as convenient as “always the third full weekend in July.”
Cattlemen’s Days may or may not have started in 1900, but that’s what we all go with now. It kind of seems like the first “Days” might have been one bucking bronc event in front of Taylor Hall, which back then was the entirety of the “Normal School” that became Western State College that became Western Colorado University.
When I was a kid, growing up in town and all of my limited 4-H projects urban in nature, I didn’t give much thought to the “cattlemen” portion of the event. The important thing was the carnival, which in those days used to wrap around two streets in front of the courthouse, one block off Main Street.
By my teenage years I was enamored of my own vision of the “cowboy way of life” (which led to my very singular history focus on the trans-Mississippi West through my college years and well beyond), and I started going to the rodeo. I would buy a grandstand ticket and wonder who you had to know to get the seats on the fence around the arena.
It turned out, those tickets were cheaper than the grandstand. They were general admission, and the spots along the fence went to whoever got there first. Now you can still buy a general admission ticket for a little less than the grandstand, but no one is allowed to sit on the fence, and much of the space along the rails is occupied by little wooden booths that businesses pay for to provide up-close seating for employees and/or clients.
When I started at the newspaper, I became the Cattlemen’s Days Department. I put together the special section that was issued ahead of the celebration every year; I covered all the 4-H livestock activities; and I burned up roll after roll of film taking pictures at the rodeos. I loved Cattlemen’s Days and my free press pass that put me right by the bucking chutes.
Somewhere in there I decided I preferred the 4-H activities over everything else. This seemed to be the genuine part of celebrating ranching in Gunnison, where you could find all the ranch families raising their next generation right alongside the steers, swine and sheep.
I was on hand when Cody Setzer showed a steer on behalf of young Orrin Taramarcaz, who had been kicked in the stomach by something (horse? bovine?) earlier in the summer. Orrin and his folks had spent much of that very expensive summer at Children’s Hospital in Denver. You’d never seen such jubilation as Cody’s when Orrin’s steer was named grand champion.
And then the Taramarcazes, Orrin in tow, arrived at the livestock auction just as Cody once again walked Orrin’s steer around the ring as the bidding went up and up and up, thousands of dollars more than any steer had ever commanded, putting Orrin’s tough dad Phonse in tears as the ranch community came together for one of its own.
My association with the Patton-Faulds family, which started down at the fairgrounds as I chronicled their three girls, their two stepbrothers and younger half brother through an endless number of years of 4-H (youngest daughter Margo, now a mother of two boys, served as the first female president of Cattlemen’s Days two years ago) led to me even taking my own turn in the show ring for the adult classes that were done just for fun.
I borrowed pigs and goats from 4-H kids to parade before the judge, and thanks to careful coaching by the kids ahead of time, I was able to tell the judge what sort of feed I was giving “my” pig — and one year I even won the goat showing. I could show you the bag I won as a prize, but I think maybe I put stuff in it and buried it in our storage shed. Honest.
I used to enjoy going to the 4-H livestock auction and a few years into owning Pat’s Screen Printing even became a bidder. Thanks to my mom’s association with her business partner Melva George, whose husband ran the financials for the auction for years and years and years, we always had a freezer full of 4-H meat through the “buyback.” We and the Georges would pay market rate for the animal, while whatever business had the winning bid paid the overage and put it down as an advertising expense.
But my time at the auction came to an end after a couple of events. One year my friend Vikki wanted to bid on a grandchild’s pig, but you’re not supposed to do that, so she used Pat’s as a front (we would split the cost and the meat). But the grandchild’s other grandparent figured out what Vikki was up to and started bidding against her. I ended up paying a lot of money I could barely afford for a portion of a pig.
And then some big money started showing up at the auctions, although one year a “high roller” had the winning bid on a large number of animals and then defaulted payment on all of them. One year as the big money started trickling in, I told Burt Guerrieri, who was on the livestock committee, that I was looking to partner with someone and that I hoped to buy half a pig for $500. “I hope you can’t,” he responded.
And while I’ve always liked Burt, that comment told me everything I needed to know: my money wasn’t good enough for them. The junior livestock committee still sends me an invitation, two tickets to the barbecue lunch and an auction number, but I’ve never been back.
In fact, that may have ended most of my association with the 4-H aspect of Cattlemen’s Days, which for so many years was my favorite part of the week.
Up next: my rodeo years (no, not as a contestant).