Potato heads: Festival’s hundredth edition celebrates Carbondale’s past, present and future
September 17, 2009
CARBONDALE – Ernie Gianinetti is pretty proud of his “new” potato digger – even if it is more than 60 years old and has sat idle for the better part of the last four decades.The once state-of-the-art farm implement he purchased in 1948 rests on a bluff outside the Gianinetti home on Cowen Drive in Carbondale, next to a potato planter from the same era, overlooking the Roaring Fork River bottoms where Ernie and his wife, Carol, once grew up to 720 sacks of potatoes every year.Ernie’s dad, Ben Gianinetti, was president of the Carbondale Potato Growers Association for many years in the middle part of the 20th century.In their heyday, Carbondale growers shipped 1,000 train car loads of potatoes, about 360 sacks per car, across the country.In fact, Carbondale potatoes, including varieties like the McClure Red, rivaled the famous Idaho Potato for decades beginning in the late 1890s until the early 1960s.That heritage lives on in the annual Potato Day celebration, which the Gianinetti’s helped keep alive and nurture in recent decades, even after potato farming gave way to cattle ranching and coal mining, and then real estate development, skiing and tourism.The 100th Potato Days – yes, plural – takes place over three days this weekend, beginning with a free community dance Friday night, a parade, barbecue and music in Sopris Park on Saturday, and the Last Days of Summer Rodeo & Bareback Bonanza on Sunday.Traditionally a three-day festival through its early history, Potato Days dwindled to Potato Day sometime in the late 1950s or early ’60s. The town even considered canceling the event when most of the old timers began fading into the sunset.But it was people like Ernie and Carol Gianinetti who rode to the rescue and saved one of the oldest festivals on the Western Slope.”I’ve never missed a Potato Day to the best of my knowledge,” said Ernie, 75, who was born in Carbondale in 1934 on the ranch where he and Carol still reside. “It was one of those things where, if your parents went, you went. Our youngsters never missed one either. It was always the big celebration for Carbondale every year.”To honor their years of service to the community and their role in keeping Potato Day alive, the Gianinetti’s were named, respectively, this year’s Carbondale Man and Woman of the Year by the Zeta Epsilon and Xi Gamma Tau sororities, which have been organizing Potato Day since 1994.As part of the honor, they will ride as the grand marshals in the parade on Saturday, beginning at 10:30 a.m. on Main Street.”It’s really exciting for us and quite an honor,” said Ernie, who has helped pick many past grand marshals for the event. “Back in the ’70s we always talked about the 100th Potato Day, and whether we’d make it.”
Make it, they did.Carol (Fiscus) Gianinetti has also been to every Potato Day celebration since she moved from the eastern plains to Carbondale at age 10 in 1944, the only exception being last year when she was ill.Her favorite festival was in 1992, when they honored all the surviving potato growing families.”We asked them to all come ride in the parade,” she said. “It was pretty special. We’re both pretty excited about riding in this year’s parade.”Ernie has been in charge of the traditional pit barbecue every year since he was asked sometime in the 1960s to start the fire using his propane gas burner.According to an excerpt about Potato Days in the 1998 book, “Elk Mountain Odyssey” by Paul Anderson and Ken Johnson, “At first, the celebration was free and featured roasted meat and cream-style potatoes in the skin, all prepared by area ranchers and farmers.”Starting Friday night, an oak fire heated a huge barbecue pit. 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.”It’s much the same today, right down to the barbecue methods. In the early 1980s, instead of divvying up the 600 or so pounds of potatoes to be cooked throughout the community, a second pit was added in Sopris Park for the potato baking.”Early on, Potato Days was like a small county fair,” Ernie said. “People were able to win prizes here, and then send the same grouping of potatoes to the state fair and win there.”He remembers when barn stormers would land on the east mesa above town and offer rides during the big festival weekend.One of the Gianinetti’s two daughters, Melanie (now Cardiff), was the Potato Day Queen in 1975. She and brother Mark Gianinetti have also been instrumental in Potato Day since the early ’70s.”We used to pay marching bands to come in for the parade,” Ernie said. “They’d play in the parade and then continue in the park. That worked pretty well for four or five years.”In the late 1970s Potato Day was in jeopardy again, but the Gianinetti family stepped up to underwrite the event and lined up numerous other sponsors in the business community.A Potato Day committee was formed, and the event became known for a short time as Potato Day/Miner’s Day, featuring local coal miners in a variety of competitions such as rock drilling and coal shoveling.Then, the Lion’s Club helped organize it for a while in the late 1980s and early ’90s before the sororities took it over. Around that time, Potato Day began coinciding with the Roaring Fork High School Homecoming festivities. On tap for this weekend is the big Homecoming football game against Meeker Friday night. The high school will also have its class floats in the parade on Saturday.”It was all part of getting this day to live on,” Ernie said of involving the town’s youth more in the event.
As part of the centennial return to a three-day festival, Potato Day will include a free community dance for all ages from 7-11 p.m. tonight at the Carbondale Recreation Center. Heart of the Rockies will provide the music, and the local historical society will present a slide show retrospective of Potato Days, a disc of which will be available for purchase.”Many years ago they always had a Potato Day dance,” said Eva Cerise, one of the sorority members who helps organize the modern-day event. “We also decided to make it all weekend long, just like it used to be.”This year’s parade has no entry fee, either.”We’re trying to gift back some things to Carbondale, and hopefully we’ll get more involvement that way,” Cerise said.Instead of tickets for the barbecue this year, they’ll be selling commemorative 100th anniversary buttons.”We’re just trying to keep this long-standing tradition going in Carbondale, where the old time farmers and ranchers can mingle with the newcomers and enjoy the day.”I just like seeing the community coming together. To me, that’s what Carbondale is all about,” Cerise said.
In addition to their years of involvement in Potato Days, the Gianinetti’s have played a role in numerous other contributions to the community.They helped pay for the relocation of the Carbondale rodeo grounds to the present location on Catherine Store Road, where Sunday’s rodeo and Bareback Bonanza will be held.They also helped raised money to buy the land for Sopris Park from the Forest Service, and Ernie used his farm tractor and equipment to level the ground and dig trenches for the irrigation lines.Ernie and Carol also waged a campaign to keep the school district from consolidating Roaring Fork and Basalt high schools.”We wanted to keep the community identity and the rivalry going,” Ernie said. “We just couldn’t imagine a community without a school.”In addition, they helped start the Mt. Sopris Rec Riders snowmobile club, and were instrumental in getting Roy Romer to dedicate the Sunlight-to-Powderhorn trail system in the 1990s.Ernie also helped bring Roaring Fork Bank, now Alpine Bank, to Carbondale in the early 1970s, and in the 1990s he and Bob Sewell obtained the certificate of need to establish Heritage Park Care Center in Carbondale.”We like our community, and we like our involvement,” Carol Gianinetti said. “One of the things my grandmother always said was that you should be a productive member of your community, and make as many contributions as you can.”