The 73rd annual Cherry Days festival opens Thursday. One of the longest continuously running festivals in Colorado, this year's theme is "Small Town Living."
Cherry Days grew out of small-town spirit. It started with a decision in 1946 by members of the then newly-formed Paonia Lions Club to hold an Independence Day celebration. World War II was over, war-time military football games had popularized the sport, and the community wanted to raise money to light the high school football field so the home town could host night games.
To honor the town's already long-standing reputation for producing award-winning fruit, in particular the one fruit ripe by July 4, they called it Cherry Day.
The Cherry Days Committee that organizes and runs today's Cherry Days is small-town in action. It formed in 2012 when the little festival was floundering. Then called the Days Forever Committee, members vowed to keep the festival alive, bring some of the early traditions back and promote class reunions.
Original members still volunteering their time and talents to keep the festival going include president Bob Bushta, treasurer and advertising manager Tina Walker, secretary Kathy Linnell, coal-shoveling and parade coordinator Ulli Lange, and food vendor coordinator Brian Mellott. Esther Kinser, Rene Atchley, Sheree Fisher, Skip Naft and Spencer Lightfoot are now part of the committee.
The newest members include Tony Soto, who organizes the Cherry Days talent show; cherry pit spit and log splitting contest coordinator Darrell Speights; and Cherry Days booth manager Barb Newland, who is also new to Paonia. While visiting Paonia last July Newland and her husband volunteered to man the booth, said Bushta. "That's small town."
Bushta handles Cherry Days royalty and scholarships (the king and queen will be crowned at 12:15 p.m. following the parade at the Paonia Park gazebo), recycling, Wow Factor Attractions and activities on the football side of the park, and problems. "I guess I'm the go-to guy when things go wrong," he says with his signature sense of humor.
Volunteers too numerous to name will be pouring beer and wine, graciously accepting last-minute parade entries, emptying trash cans and recycling bins, organizing and judging contests and quietly working behind the scenes. "It would be impossible to list them all," said Bushta.
"We can't forget Patty Naft," he added. As parade emcee, she announces all entries from the judging platform on Grand Avenue, and does so with a smile.
Each January, said Bushta, planning for the next Cherry Days begins. The committee's first orders of business are setting festival dates and choosing a new theme so high school art students can start working on theme-based logos to submit for the Cherry Days art contest. The winner gets a cash prize and their work featured on Cherry Days advertising and buttons.
This year's winner, Audra Niermann, was inspired by the small-town theme to draw the iconic red barn located midway between Hotchkiss and Paonia. "It's kind of a well-known barn around here," said Niermann, who is also the second member of her family to submit the winning entry.
You might also catch some home-town flavor between 6-9 a.m. Thursday at the annual Paonia Volunteer Fire Department pancake breakfast at Town Hall. It's affordable, and proceeds go to the fire department's scholarship fund.
Find a comfy spot to watch the parade. Grand marshal Norman Vincent is being honored for his nearly 40 years of providing reliable, professional and affordable veterinary care in Paonia. He retired in February and will ride in a red convertible with wife Connie by his side.
Don't miss the Clown Band, which has been represented in every single Cherry Days parade. A few of the musicians in this informal ragtime band will sport original clown suits made of World War II parachute silk brought home by B-24 pilot Thorel Tollef "Skip" Johnson after the war. Hardly a parade has been marched without a member of the Johnson family, and this year will be no exception. They welcome anyone who can walk and play an instrument. Dress rehearsal begins around 8:30 a.m. at Paonia Friends Church.
"A big part of small town living is in supporting small businesses," says Debbie Kimball with the Paonia Chamber of Commerce. The chamber sponsors Friday's Downtown Day. Each of the 34 participating Chamber businesses and organizations has something small-town and unique to offer.
So, what is small town living anyway? "It's living in a community where you now a large amount of people in the community and you share experiences with them," said Bushta. "Small town is having a legitimate concern for your neighbors." Like last winter's water crisis, "the town came together and worked together. It was impressive."
Bushta teaches math at Paonia Elementary School, and is now teaching the sons and daughters of former students. "That's small town," he says. "You literally know their entire families. You become a part of their lives."
Become a part of Cherry Days and experience small town living Paonia style.
Some details to be aware of:
Alcohol: While beer and wine will be available in the wine garden, no outside alcohol may be brought into the park.
Park shelters: Park shelters are not available during the festival and are for craft and food vendors only. Vendors are open from 11 a.m. to dusk both days.
Safety: For safety purposes, organizers ask that no dogs or glass containers be taken into the park throughout the festival. While dogs are generally welcome in the park, due to numerous dog fights and other (sometimes icky) dog-related mishaps that have occurred during Cherry Days, dog owners should leave their best friends at home.
Glass: Also for safety reason, please do not bring glass into the park.