Summer 2011: After years of false starts, the Denver County Fair is making its debut
Lay-dees and gentlemen, step right up and see the most fantastic, the most amazing, the most marvelsome attractions the world has ever seen — or at least that Denver County has ever seen.
And let me tell you, it's one marvelsome attraction that's been a long time in the making.
The history of Denver County Fairs that never materialized goes back more than a hundred years, since before Denver even became its own county. Back in 1863, two years after the Colorado Territory was created and what was then called Denver City was incorporated as the county seat of Arapahoe County, territorial governor John Evans and Rocky Mountain News founder William Byers went in on forty acres of land east of the city for what they envisioned as a fairgrounds, but it didn't end up getting much use due to Indian Wars, the Civil War and — natch — budget problems. Shortly after 1902, when Denver was consolidated as its own county and the city became home to the National Western Stock Show, those wannabe fairgrounds wound up turning into what is now City Park, and the concept of the Denver County Fair was largely abandoned.
Summer Guide 2011
It stayed that way until sometime in the 1970s, when somebody evidently felt strongly enough about creating a fair for the city to register the trade name "Denver County Fair, Inc." But no fair was actually created, and the corporation was officially dissolved in 2006. "I don't know what happened with that," admits Tracy Weil, who came across the trade name while he and partner Dana Cain were looking to register under the same name (they went with Denver County Fair LLC). "I never heard of a Denver County Fair. I never saw one, and I've lived here my whole life."
And so when the idea to create one came to him via artist Chandler Romeo, he knew it must be.
"It kind of all happened at a party. We were at an opening at Ironton Studios," Weil recalls. (Just incidentally, Ironton makes its home in the RiNo Art District, which was pretty much founded by Weil.) "I walked in the door, and Chandler came up to me and she goes, 'I won my neighborhood pie contest!' And she said she wished she had somewhere to enter it, like a Denver County Fair. So I said, 'Yeah, that's a great idea. You know who we need for that is Dana Cain.' So I look over, and there she is. And, of course, she about blew her lid."
"I about blew my lid!" Cain agrees. "I overheard my name, and Tracy and Chandler told me about it, and I said, 'That's a great idea!' I e-mailed them both the next day and said, 'I don't know if you were serious, but we're doing it!'"
That reaction is not surprising if you're at all familiar with Cain, a woman who speaks in a way that basically demands an exclamation point at the end of every sentence, and who was just the person to put on this really big show (for more on Cain, see our February 17, 2011, cover story). A seasoned promoter, event planner and tireless booster of the Denver arts scene, Cain has both the chops to pull off a fair and the vision to make it a spectacle worthy of this town's good name — a name whose Wild West mythology doesn't exactly sound out of place next to the words "county" and "fair," but at the same time (we like to think) represents a town just as hip and cosmopolitan as any other big city, and probably more so.
What we need, then, is a Denver County Fair with plenty of the on-a-stick flavors of county fairs of yore, but one that's also, as they say, a horse of a completely different color. Like a rainbow with sparkles. Actually, just make that a unicorn.
And Dana Cain intends to deliver.
Picture this: "You walk in, and right off the bat you've got the 4H Pavilion — but Denver 4H kids aren't your traditional 4H kids," Cain says. "You know what Denver 4H kids are into? Rockets and robots."
Denver 4H (whose somewhat unwieldy official name is Colorado State University Denver Extension 4H) is pretty heavily involved in the Denver County Fair proceedings. "Traditionally, at the county fair level, however long county fairs have been in existence, 4H has been in charge of the youth competitions," explains Ashlee Adams, a Denver 4H extension agent. "In order for youth to participate in the competitions, they have to be enrolled in 4H. So we have kids involved in a number of categories." Categories like Clothing Construction, for example, and Gardening, Cooking and Art — all of which have that old-school home-ec vibe that's so au courant right now — in addition to (by far the coolest category) Model Rocketry.
But while Denver 4H's mandate is to meet the needs of a metropolitan community, Adams also notes that a little of the traditional, rural 4H is starting to make its way back into Denver. "A few years ago, backyard agriculture wasn't a big thing, but now people are getting into it," she says, adding that poultry, for the first time maybe ever, is now in the Denver curriculum. For Cain, too, the city farming trend is a big part of what makes the Denver County Fair particularly relevant right now.
"The timing could not be more perfect," she says. "We announced it last summer when chickens became legal with a permit, and it's the same summer they decide you can do chickens, bees and dwarf goats, and everyone's just gone nuts for it." The legality's a little more complicated than that; as of now, chickens are tenuously legal in some areas of the city with a complicated permit procedure. However, the Denver City Council will vote on an ordinance this month that would change zoning to allow for the aforementioned animals, in addition to ducks and other small food-producing animals.
As far as that goes, the agriculture guy on the team is Weil, Cain concedes: "I'm more of a city girl."
"I'm a huge gardener," confirms Weil, who sits on the board of the GrowHaus, an indoor farm, marketplace and educational center in the city. And growing plants will factor heavily into the proceedings, with large swaths of the fair being devoted to just that. Set up at the National Western Complex, the fair will be divided into eleven themed pavilions, including Farm and Garden, Buy Local and Green pavilions, in addition to Animals, Crafts, Holistic, Fashion, Fine Art and Kitchen, in no particular order. "Dana and I are both really big art promoters," says Weil, "so we're hoping that the art component of the fair will be pretty spectacular."
Those pavilions will be full of vendors and wares, but they'll also feature countless activities and demonstrations — like a knitting contest from Fancy Tiger to "see who can knit the fastest" and a Greased Pig Chase from the Colorado Steampunks (just visualize that for a moment) — along with about a billion other contests, plus the bands. "We're working on lining up some of the biggest-name local acts," says Cain, and for the pièce de résistance, the big, big headliner, she's recruited the help of legendary concert promoter Barry Fey, who came out of a fifteen-year retirement just to lend a hand.
As for Cain, she's most excited about the thing she got most excited about when she went to her first fair back in the '80s: the freak show, which, in this incarnation, will feature an array of Colorado-themed freaks like Mutants in Jars from Rocky Flats and a tribute to Mike the Headless Chicken, the mother of all Colorado oddities, who lived for almost two years back in the '40s without the benefit of his head (experts later determined he was able to survive and function almost normally because, in the botched head-chopping job, most of his brainstem was left intact). "It's going to be so cool," Cain says. "It's going to be so cool we're thinking it's going to have its own line of merchandise. We're going to have everything."
You can probably apply that last sentence to the fair as a whole: With a mind-boggling array of foods to eat, sights to ogle, oddities to consider, music to hear and things to do, it's hard to conceive of the person for whom the fair wouldn't have at least something. And in the end, says Cain, that's really about a labor of love. "You know, a lot of county fairs are born of some county commissioner, some poor little pencil-pusher who gets stuck with the assignment," she notes. "And that's why, frankly, just between us chickens, some county fairs are lame."
Not this one.
"We're one of five counties in the whole state that doesn't have a fair," she concludes. "Everyone has a fair! Our fair can kick all those other fairs' butts!"
The Denver County Fair kicks off at 4 p.m. July 28 and continues through July 31 at the National Western Complex, 4655 Humboldt Street; early-bird tickets run $8 for a single day ($3 for youth) and $22 for a four-day pass ($40 VIP), and do not include carnival rides and some concerts. Competitions are also open for $5 per entry. For tickets and more information on contests or activities, go to www.denvercountyfair.org.
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