Mountain Fair at 50: Toasting five decades of arts, fun and music
One can visit the Carbondale Mountain Fair for a couple of hours on the last weekend in July and get a sense of what the unique gathering of townsfolk and visitors is all about.
Or one can literally “do” Mountain Fair for the better part of the three-day festival and play their own little part in the big show.
It’s that latter group of longtime locals, and former residents who make the annual pilgrimage back each summer and traveling vagabonds, that have helped define the spirit of the fair for 50 years.
“I think what is different here is that there is a spirit that you don’t find at any other fair,” longtime Mountain Fair and Carbondale Arts director Amy Kimberly said this week amid preparations for the big event.
“It is the community celebration, where people come together and kind of create this special space for the weekend,” she said.
Mountain Fair celebrates its golden anniversary the weekend of July 23-25 in and around Carbondale’s Sopris Park.
Carbondale Arts, which organizes the event and serves as its primary beneficiary, has already been gearing up for the celebration for weeks.
A collection of 50 years of Mountain Fair memorabilia — ranging from the many iconic Mountain Fair T-shirts and other collector’s items to newspaper articles documenting the annual event — is on display at the R2 Gallery at the Launchpad on Fourth Street in downtown Carbondale telling the story of its vibrant history.
Also this summer community radio station KDNK presented a series of podcasts reflecting on five decades of the Mountain Fair.
Laurie Loeb is considered the “Mother of Mountain Fair,” having brought a traveling artists’ chautauqua to Carbondale in 1971, which ultimately evolved into Mountain Fair.
Loeb, in the first KDNK segment that aired June 29, described the fair as a coming together of the many different types of people who inhabited the small town at that time, from the hippie newcomers to the old-timer ranchers and hard-edged miners who had been in Carbondale for many years.
“The essence of the fair has not changed, in my opinion; that feel-good, positive energy of people getting along together despite any differences,” she said. “That still remains, and that’s the heart of the whole thing. … It is a celebration of life.”
The radio series features numerous longtime locals who’ve come and gone, and even old interviews with people who have since died, talking about the uniqueness of Mountain Fair through the decades.
The series can be found at KDNK.org.
Among the voices is longtime local videographer Terry Glasenapp, who was asked by former fair director, the late Thomas Lawley, to document Mountain Fair through film and into the early days of digital video from the late 1980s through 2003.
“I would be there all weekend long with my camera nonstop,” Glasenapp said, describing his early shoulder-held VCR and Beta recorders.
He also collected boxes and boxes of local newspaper clippings and other memorabilia that are part of the R2 exhibit.
“I never realized how those newspaper articles and photos really captured the story until I started going through them,” he said.
Glasenapp attended the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969 and came to Carbondale in 1976. He said Mountain Fair has always had that same sort of free and open-to-all spirit.
“What it is about Carbondale Mountain Fair is that it’s open to everybody, all ages, all sizes and all colors, across all spectrum of people,” Glasenapp said. “It’s also the hundreds of volunteers who put their hearts into it and help make it a free event.”
Today, his own grandchildren enjoy the drum circle and the wide array of children’s activities that the fair offers.
He remembers one special musical moment shortly after he began filming the fair when John McEuen of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band fame was playing and sang the folk anthem “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” A member of the local band Sirens of Swing at the time, Elva McDowell, wrote an extra verse to the song talking about “Colorado Mountain people” that was sung that night for the first and probably the only time ever.
Another time in the early 1990s McDowell and the Sirens were singing the 1960s classic “White Bird,” toward the end of which a white dove was released from beside the stage and swooped over the crowd before flying off toward Mount Sopris, he recalled.
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When the world shut down last year due to the global pandemic, including festivals across the country, Mountain Fair plugged along in its own special way.
Rather than a big gathering in the town park, organizers took it to the streets with a traveling stage carrying local bands to the people outside their houses, and a mini arts booth showcase with a limited number of people allowed in at a time.
“We wanted to make sure we had a 49th Mountain Fair so we could have a 50th this year,” Kimberly said.
“Last year turned out to be an incredible experience, as nerve-racking as it was going into it. But the traveling band wagon was so well-received that we’re actually doing it again this year,” she said.
There may be some lasting benefit to some of what had to be done last summer in the way of social distancing that could improve Mountain Fair in future years.
Instead of packing all of the arts and crafts and food vendors into Sopris Park this year, as had been the practice in the past, they are being spread out this year to include side streets and parts of downtown Carbondale.
“Maybe that’s something that we need to look at anyway,” Kimberly said, noting the fair has kind of outgrown Sopris Park over the years. “We don’t know, but this is giving us an opportunity to try some new configurations and see what involving the downtown a little more will feel like. We’re hoping that people feel comfortable when they come to the fair, and not as crowded.”
That’s not at all to say people can’t socialize, she said.
“Our saying this year is, ‘From one year of social distancing to 50 years of socializing.’ That’s a huge part of the Mountain Fair,” Kimberly said.
On the main stage, the 50th Mountain Fair will also feature some of the more famous bands from past years, including Saturday and Sunday closers, respectively, The Motet and Band of Heathens.
A grand artistic procession from downtown to Sopris Park is set to kicks things off at 3:30 p.m. Friday, July 23, followed by the traditional drum circle led by Loeb to start the festivities.
The Friday night music lineup includes the return of several past Mountain Fair performers in the form of Tierro Band with Bridget Law, featuring founding members of Elephant Revival, Kan’Nal and Jyemo Club.
A retro slide show is set to close out the show on Friday night.
Saturday and Sunday bring the traditional competitions that are a big part of the fair, including wood splitting for both men and women, the 14-mile Sopris Runoff foot race, limbo contests for adults and kids, and pie and cake judging.
A throwback to years past will also be a tug-of-war competition between the Carbondale police and fire departments.
It’s notable that this year’s Mountain Fair poster and t-shirt design winner is a relative newcomer to town, sketch artist Larry Day, who captured the essence of Mountain Fair with several magical strokes of the pencil.
Day admitted his first Mountain Fair was just a few years ago. What struck him was the “chaos,” as he first described it.
“Maybe that’s not the best way to say it, but the one thing I really noticed being an outsider coming here from Chicago is that there was just a lot going on,” Day said. “Mountain Fair just seems to have its own voice.”
So when he decided to submit a concept for the 50th anniversary poster and T-shirt design, he settled on a scene depicting a couple seeking out a little peace and solitude in the middle of Sopris Park, surrounded by this grand festival of dancers, drummers, musicians of all sorts, circus-style performers, ax-wielding wood choppers … everything Mountain Fair encompasses, including Loeb in the image of an octopus leading the drum circle.
And not just people, but animals, too — which is curious because pets are not allowed in the park.
“It’s just this mix of chaos and humor that I thought captured the spirit,” Day said. “Even though I’d only been there once, I just took it all in and observed a lot of what the fair is all about.”
What: Carbondale Mountain Fair
Where: Sopris Park, Carbondale
When: Friday, July 23 through Sunday, July 25
How much: Free
Details: Full lineup of musical acts, contests, competitions, artists, food vendors at carbondalearts.com
The annual Sardy House Christmas tree lighting was held on a snowy Sunday, Dec. 3. Locals and visitors alike drank hot chocolate and ate cookies as they awaited the holiday tradition.