In 1947, the newly-formed Paonia Lions Club was looking for a way to raise money to light Dan Lawrence Field so the Paonia Eagles football team could host night games. Paonia was known for growing prize-winning fruit, so they decided to honor the cherry in a day-long celebration on Independence Day, and Cherry Days was born.
A lot has happened to the celebration over the decades, but Cherry Days has endured. This year the festival celebrates "70 Cherry Years" with music, food, art, contests, activities for kids of all ages, and, of course a Fourth of July parade.
Four years ago, a new group of volunteers committed to keeping Cherry Days alive, and formed the Cherry Days Forever committee. Most of that core group is still on the committee, and one plays a vital role in putting the celebration together, said committee chair Bob Bushta, from securing the park and obtaining insurance, to booking musicians and other talents and bringing in vendors and the X-Treme Zone.
One of their goals was to bring back some of the early traditions and place more emphasis on class reunions, said Bushta.
With a great deal of support from the local coal mines and sponsorship by the North Fork Rotary Club, they brought back the popular coal-shoveling contest. Unfortunately, said committee member and Rotarian Ulli Lange, due to the recent mine closures and downsizing, the coal mines are unable to provide the resources this year. Rotary is hoping to bring it back next year, said Lange. "It means a lot to me and it means a lot to others. We want to keep the tradition going."
Cherry Days is also traditionally a weekend of class reunions, and this year is no exception.An area on the west side of Town Park is reserved for reunions.
The relationship with the Paonia Chamber, which sponsored the event for many years, has been renewed, said Bushta. The chamber will sponsor Downtown Day Friday.
This year the chamber asked all member and non-member businesses to participate, according to Downtown Day coordinator Susan Shoemaker. As a result, this year, more than 25 businesses are involved. In addition to downtown core businesses, Dependable Lumber, 415 2nd Street, and Green Cottage Collectibles, 334 Grand, are also participating. Four recently opened businesses, including Indigo Autumn at 230 Grand Avenue, Berg Harvest, adjacent to the Paonia Public Library, The Refinery (carrying Paonia-made Elisabethan clothing), and Cirque Cyclery (three businesses in one) are celebrating their openings.
Follow the signs to other participants, including Ben Lehman Photography, located in the basement of The Hive. Stop by and meet Ben and receive a free postcard with one of his stunning images of the local scenery.
All three downtown banks will hold their annual customer appreciation day. Enjoy free hot dogs at First State Bank, ice cream at Bank of Colorado, and help support the Paonia High School volleyball team during its annual barbecue lunch at First Colorado National Bank.
The Cherry Day 5K run, and North Fork Challenge bull and bronc ride all happen Saturday, and at 7 p.m., enjoy live music at local businesses (see separate stories).
Cherry Days officially kicks off Sunday morning with the annual Potluck Fellowship Brunch from 9:30-10:30 a.m. (bring a covered dish), followed by a Fellowship Service with members of the Assembly of God, Church of Christ, Paonia Christian Fellowship and Paonia Friends churches a 10:30 a.m.
Walk on water, fly high, become a human bumper ball or cool off on the 170-foot long Hippo water slide all day on July 3 and 4 at the X-Treme Zone. Two-day passes can be purchased in advance for $40 and are available at Dependable Lumber and Paonia Farm & Home in Paonia, and Ace Hardware in Hotchkiss or Delta. Festival-day passes are $25/day, or $50 for a two-day pass.
The Howard Berkman Memorial Stage is the setting for the Talent Show and live music, starting at noon. Local historians Kathy McKee and Claudia King will speak about the tradition of coalmining and Paonia poet Marian Stewart will read "Ambiguity," a poem about coalmining, at 1:30 p.m.
Start the July 4 celebration with the Paonia Volunteer Fire Department's annual fundraiser pancake breakfast at Town Hall. After breakfast, enjoy more than 50 entries in the annual Cherry Days parade. Food and craft vendors open at 11 a.m. The annual karate demo with Sensei Rick begins at 11:30 a.m. at the gazebo, followed by the flag ceremony and crowning of Cherry Days royalty.
At 71, the Paonia Lions Club, for which the park pavilion is named, is also still going and will be selling pulled pork and more to raise money for scholarships and their nearly 100-year mission to prevent blindness, improve eyesight, provide eyeglasses and improve access to eye care and screenings.
Stop by the Cherry Days booth for a button or a souvenir. It's not too late to volunteer and a sign-up form can be found at http://www.paoniacherrydays.com/volunteers.html.
The committee Cherry Days Forever committee also asks that people leave their dogs home, and reminds everyone that smoking of any kind is prohibited in the park.