By Wendy Corr and Joshua Wood, Cowboy State Daily
Cheyenne Frontier Days is a big deal. Billing itself as the world’s largest outdoor rodeo, the annual event draws the best rodeo cowboys and cowgirls from around the country, competing for more than $1 million in cash and prizes. Big-name entertainers like Brooks & Dunn, Kid Rock and Dierks Bentley pack the stadium, and visitors from around the region crowd the midway.
But for the majority of Wyoming residents, it’s not the “Daddy Of ‘Em All” that represents what life in the Cowboy State is really all about. It’s in the small town festivals and the county fairs where rural folk can truly celebrate their way of life.
From Dayton Days to the Big Horn County Fair in Basin; Longmire Days in Buffalo to the Goshen County Fair in Torrington – all of these small town celebrations bring together local residents, boost profits for local businesses, and give the local population something to look forward to every year.
Wyoming fairs are full of music, art, food and the best from our state’s farms and ranches. More than that though, the people who participate and attend them give tangible form to the spirit of their communities.
A Sense of Community
In Carbon County, the fair is a big show, with volunteers and participants from all 10 of the county’s communities. Julie Webb said her work as the fairgrounds director goes on year-round, lining up events, volunteers and vendors.
There’s a real sense of community at the Carbon County Fair, said Webb. She said the junior livestock sale is one of the top in the state, thanks to a number of generous businesses and buyers. Steve Perkins, owner of Perkins Oil, buys the grand champion steer every year.
Webb gets teared up talking about one example of community support from last year.
“We had an exhibitor whose mother passed away during fair week. When the little girl brought her pig into the sale ring, before she got into the sale ring it had been sold three times. Then, when she was in the sale ring, it sold three more times,” said Webb.
Each time the pig sold, the buyer would donate it back to the sale and bidding would begin again. Webb said it was likely one of the priciest pigs in Carbon County Fair history, but it all went to support a young girl in need.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when that was going on,” said Webb.
Celebration of Agriculture and More
Sixteen-year-old Tiegan Blain said her favorite part of the Park County Fair each year is the excitement of small children when they get up close to the animals in the show barns.
“Our mom and uncle are friends with Dusty Tuckness (the PRCA champion bull fighter from Meeteetse), so it’s cool to see him go and do stuff like (Cheyenne Frontier Days),” said Tiegan. “But honestly, I think I like our fair because when all the little itty bitties come through the barns, showing them our stuff and seeing their reactions to petting our animals, that’s my favorite part of the whole fair.”
Andrea Shephard is a fan of the early morning junior horse show at the Carbon County Fair because it means she can support her grandchildren. Hannah Lee and Katie Fiedor also compete in the horse show. Fiedor prefers the poles and barrels while Lee enjoys ranch and western riding.
Exhibits featuring photography, paintings, mechanical work and tablescaping are also a draw, said Shephard.
With Chancey Williams on Wednesday night, the Hell on Wheels rodeo Thursday night and the RawTown Riot demolition derby on Saturday night, there will be plenty of entertainment this year at the Carbon County fair.
The grandstand events at the Park County Fair included pig mud wrestling, the Outlaw Rodeo, and motocross racing, as well as a demolition derby.
The Carbon County Fair is also trying something new with their rodeo, contracting with the Hell on Wheels Rodeo Company, which is owned by David and Cindy DeLancey of Cheyenne.
Webb told Cowboy State Daily she was excited for this partnership.
“We hired Hell on Wheels rodeo to come in on Thursday night to do the rodeo for us,” said Webb. “We’re looking forward to them. Their rodeos down in Cheyenne seem to be really successful. The fair in Wheatland, I talked to the gal who does my job there, and she said they had over 800 people show up for the rodeo after they hired the DeLanceys.”
Jezria Latham in Rawlins has fond memories of the rodeo. Growing up, her grandparents took her and her siblings to the fair rodeo every year.
But for many who make plans to attend county fairs around the state, it’s the music acts that folks make their plans around.
Music Acts Take Center Stage
Throughout Wyoming, Cheyenne Frontier Days is a draw for music lovers from around the region. Jason Aldean, Kid Rock, Brooks and Dunn and Sam Hunt were just a few of the headliners at this year’s celebration.
In the smaller county fairs, the music acts that take the stage are either not quite as well known or had their heydays in previous decades.
This year, for the first time in a decade, the Carbon County fair will bring in a large musical act – Chancey Williams and the Younger Brothers Band.
Williams himself is a product of the small town county fairs, growing up in Moorcroft and finding his calling as a saddle bronc rider-turned-country singer.
Now Williams is touring county fairs throughout the region – Williams performed last week at the Park County Fair, and will take the stage in Rawlins on Wednesday, August 3.
But Chancey Williams and the Younger Brothers Band also bridged the divide between the small fairs and the large celebrations, appearing at Cheyenne Frontier Days last week as the opening act for country superstar Dierks Bentley.
“Thanks @dierksbentley for a night I will remember forever,” Williams posted on his Facebook page on July 24. “It was an honor to share the stage and sing one with you!”
The county fairs, though, also allow local talent to shine. At the Park County Fair, local music acts like the Cowley Boys, the Rewinders and Bret Savage appeared on the smaller stage in the evenings, and student dance groups such as Stomp & Company, the Upstage Dance Academy and Absaroka Mountain Thunder show off their skills during the day.
For many who attend these small town celebrations and county fairs, it’s the food that draws them to the midway.
At the Carbon County Fair, vendors from throughout the county gather to sell food and drinks to fair goers.
Ice cream has been a longtime favorite of Hannah Lee, and Katie Fiedor said her favorite vendor is Ohana Sips, a local food truck that serves energy drinks.
“You’ve got to stay awake,” said Fiedor.
Carbon County Fair even has its own concessions building, selling piled up plates of food. Menu items include poutine with green chili, smoked prime rib sandwiches and Irish Nachos. This year, locally-raised bison is also being offered to hungry fair attendees.
Lee tried Irish Nachos for the first time this year at the urging of her dad, who counts them as a favorite.
For Andrea Shephard, one of her favorite dishes is the breakfast burrito. Packed with the typical ingredients of eggs, sausage and hashbrowns, it is then deep fried to give it a crispy exterior.
Real Life Lessons
Along with the community spirit, both children and parents take away a lot of life lessons from the fair, said Webb.
In Park County, Laura Blain agreed. She said that her daughters have learned real-life skills that they otherwise can’t get in a classroom.
“In school, it’s a lot of book work, where they learn higher processing skills with math and English and vocabulary, and stuff that you’ll use later on in life,” Blain said. “But the life skills they learn for fair and working with animals are a whole different story.”
Blain related an incident that had happened earlier in the day, in which both girls were knocked over by the lambs they were showing for judges.
“They both got right back up, calm, they got their animal,” she said. “They know they can’t get frustrated and angry with that animal, because it’s going to just go downhill if they get mad at it. They just pick it back up, put a smile on their face and off they go again, even though it happened right in the middle of the show. And they ended up showing very well in their market class that went on.”
“The Heart of Wyoming”
For Blain, the county fairs and smaller celebrations represent what Wyoming is all about.
“The county fairs are really the heart of Wyoming,” she said. “It’s where our local people grow up and raise their kids. It’s all of our beliefs put together, and agriculture, and it’s just where we live.”