Children are the undisputed stars of the La Plata County Fair. This year, more than 300 adolescents will compete in all manner of 4-H activities at the La Plata County Fairgrounds, and even the most photogenic horses, illustrious bulls and charismatic sheep will find themselves relegated to supporting roles.
Yet many of the fair’s most fearsome competitors are well passed the legal age to vote.
Greg Felsen, 4-H youth development agent at the Colorado State University Extension Office, said about 500 grown-ups will compete in hundreds of “open class” contests, entering their flowers, knitting, jams, photography, livestock, poetry and fresh herbs in the hopes of winning a blue ribbon.
Angela Fountain at the Extension Office said quilting was a famously tough category.
“It’s a great group of ladies, and they’ve been at it so long, some competed against my grandmother,” she said. “They’re unbelievably talented.”
Like many longtime competitors, Heather Lundquist, 66, can’t remember the first time she entered a quilt into the fair. She remember how many blue ribbons she’s won, either.
“I’ve probably entered almost every year since, oh, at least ’95, if not earlier,” she said.
Lundquist said Tuesday she’s still deciding whether to enter a quilt this year. Lately, art quilting has become the focus of her interest – a tough category to predict judges’ tastes.
‘You get hooked on it’
For devotees, there is no “retiring” from competition.
“Maybe you take a year off, but it’s not the same as retirement,” said Barbara Barnes, who along with her husband, John Barnes, has for decades donated hours and hours of time to help organize the fair.
County fair veteran Emma Shock, 90, said, as best as she could recall, the last time she officially competed in the fair was 1997.
“But that doesn’t mean I won’t next year,” she said.
Over the course of three decades, Shock has been a judge at the fair.
She said, to this day, former fair contestants whose baked-goods entries she judged will introduce themselves to her on the street, telling her, “You were there at the fair!” – such is the thrall in which the fair holds adult contestants.
Carolyn Aspromonte, 70, has competed in the fair every year since 1978 with her sister, Judy Dossey, and daughter, Gina, in food preservation and beer and wine.
“We’ve lived here all our lives,” she said. “This is really important to us.”
Aspromonte is a practiced tactician.
“I don’t enter quilts – quilts are real competitive,” she said. “Those quilts are beautiful, and those ladies work really hard.”
Aspromonte, too, has lost track of how many blue ribbons she’s won.
“I don’t know – I wouldn’t even be able to count. Yeah, it is a lot,” she said. “We just have a lot of fun, and I try to enter as many things as I can. Once you start entering, you get hooked on it.”
This year, Aspromonte anticipates entering “probably 100 items,” including canned fruits and syrups, with an eye to winning the Home Economics Sweepstakes Award.
To pull off such a feat will take strategy.
“I’ve been entering all the categories to get the highest number of points for the food stakes, and my granddaughter found out I could sew, so I’ve been making her dresses,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
Childhood activity, lifetime pursuit
Barbara Barnes said the fact that people come back through the decades to compete in the fair is a testament to the fair’s power and effect on its young protagonists.
“It gives me hope seeing young people learning the same skills that my mother and grandmother taught me,” said Barnes, who made sure to teach her daughter and granddaughter the county fair heritage.
“Some of our happiest memories are canning in the kitchen when it’s hot.”
Plus, she said, “It’s fun to get a blue ribbon.”