The annual rite of fall in Carbondale
CARBONDALE, Colorado – As the seasons officially change today from summer to fall, it can only mean one thing in this valley town – time for another Potato Day.
The 102nd Carbondale Potato Day festival takes place on Saturday, in celebration of the town’s potato-growing heritage.
The one-day festival features a farmer’s market, the Tater Trot run, a parade on Main Street, a community barbecue, music in Sopris Park, and a bareback rodeo to round out the day.
Each year, the Potato Day committee, made up of members of the local Zeta Epsilon and Xi Gamma Tau service sororities, picks a fun theme for the event.
This year’s theme is A Fashion Extravaganza – Potato Sack is the New Black, playing off the Carbondale Council on Arts and Humanities’ popular Green is the New Black spring fashion show.
“We thought it would be fun, and asked them for permission to use it for Potato Day,” said Eva Cerise, a member of the Zeta Epsilon sorority and longtime Potato Day organizer.
The theme is expected to be on display in a variety of creative ways during the parade, usually one of the biggest in the valley, which takes to Main Street at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.
Awards are given for parade entries in several categories, including commercial, nonprofit, political, schools, youth groups and more.
Potato Day always coincides with the Roaring Fork High School homecoming weekend festivities as well, so each of the high school classes traditionally has an entry in the parade.
New this year will be a traveling trophy for the parade winner in the commercial category, Cerise said.
“Whichever float wins gets to keep the trophy until next year, then pass it along,” Cerise said.
Potato Day has been celebrated nearly every year in Carbondale since 1909. Potatoes were the primary cash crop throughout the middle Roaring Fork Valley from around the turn of the 20th Century until the 1950s.
The festival has continued on in the years since as a tribute to that era. Unlike the big summertime festivals, such as Mountain Fair and Strawberry Days in Glenwood Springs, Potato Day is a low-key affair.
Local farming and ranching families kept the festival alive through the years, even after the decline of potato farming. The tradition nearly came to an end in the early 1990s, until the sororities agreed to take over organizing the event.
Today, the festival still brings together a lot of Carbondale’s old timers, many of whom have ties to the potato-growing days.
“It’s a way to keep the heritage of Carbondale alive and ongoing,” Cerise said. “It’s one of the best days to spend with family and friends, and it’s a nice local event for visitors to attend.”
Also coinciding with Potato Day is the sororities’ annual honoring of a Carbondale woman of the year.
This year’s honoree is longtime Carbondale Fire Department EMT and firefighter Maureen Nuckols, who will ride as the grand marshal in the parade Saturday.
Nuckols recently retired from the fire department after 33 years. In addition to her years there, she also recently retired from her many years as a nursing instructor at Colorado Mountain College.
“She an inspiration to all of us … and a true Carbondale treasure,” Carbondale Fire Chief Ron Leach said of Nuckols at a recent Carbondale town council meeting where the award was announced.
Perhaps the signature attraction at Potato Day is the community barbecue, which takes place shortly after the parade at noon in Sopris Park. Tickets are $10 at the park.
In the early days, it was more of an old-fashioned, townwide picnic. Pit-roasted meat and cream-style potatoes were prepared by the area farming and ranching families and served up for free, according to an excerpt from the 1998 history book, “Elk Mountain Odyssey” by Paul Andersen and Ken Johnson.
“Starting Friday night, an oak fire heated a huge barbecue pit,” it reads. “Beef was seasoned with sauce and wrapped in cloth, burlap and poultry wire, and when the heat was just right, the meat was dumped into the hot coals.
“The pit was covered with iron doors and eight inches of soil, so any seeping smoke betrayed a flaw in the air-tight seal needed for a good barbecue. Eighteen hours later, the beef was cooked to delectable tenderness and ready for the celebration supper.”
Not much has changed even today, right down to the pit barbecue methods.
Earlier this week, crews hauled in three cords of oak, apple and peach wood for the pit fire, said barbecue committee chairwoman Kittie Anderson.
“All the food will get here Friday,” she said. That will include 650 pounds of inside round beef from Colorado, and 500 pounds of Colorado-grown potatoes, to be roasted in separate pits.
“We already wrapped the potatoes,” Anderson said.
Today, she said, “We’ll start the fire around 7 a.m. and stoke it all day to get the coals built up. We’ll gather at the park to season the beef and wrap it in muslin. By 5 p.m. we’ll have it in the pit where it will smoke for 17 hours.”
By noontime on Saturday, upwards of 1,000 people will line up for a plateful of meat, potatoes and cole slaw.
“It’s a lot of fun seeing how the community pulls together, just like the outdoor picnics of years ago,” Anderson said. “Just a local, fun, casual togetherness.”
Another Potato Day tradition is the kettle full of campfire coffee, brewed up in a large metal caldron that has been used since most folks can remember.
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After bowing out of the 3A state soccer playoffs in the quarterfinals and semifinals the past two seasons, the Roaring Fork Rams finally get their shot at a state title on Saturday.