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Photo by Tamie Meck Allison Kirk feeds grandmother Lori Marek of Paonia a sweet cherry at Orchard Valley Farms. With most area fruit growers getting a good crop this year, cherries will be plentiful this Cherry Days.
Photo by Tamie Meck The coal shoveling contest is back, beginning at 1 p.m. Wednesday, July 4.

Celebrate 72 years of Cherry Days fun

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One of the longest continuously running festivals in Colorado, Cherry Days turns 72 this year.

The Paonia Lions Club planned the first Cherry Day as a fundraiser to secure lights for the high school football field, also known as Dan Lawrence Field.

"The celebration met with such success that it was continued to present day," wrote Paonia native Claudia King in her 1996 book, "Treasured Memories: The First Thirty Years." To mark the occasion, local fruit houses offered free bags of cherries. "These were well-received by the throngs of people coming to Paonia as all loved the delicious, dark-red Bing and Lambert cherries and colorful yellow Royal Anne cherries with blushing red cheeks."

This year's theme is "Grounded in Our Roots." One of the oldest Cherry Days traditions, the Clown Band marched in the first Cherry Day in 1946. Originally called the Lions Club Clown Band, member costumes were sewn from World War II parachute fabric "dyed bright garish yellow with an intervening red piece of fabric completing the costume," wrote King.

Chris Johnson, who has marched in more than 50 Cherry Days parades, shared in 2017 that his dad, Tolly Johnson, and George "Shorty" Hunteen with Howard's Hardware were among the founding members. His uncle, "Skip" Johnson, a WWII B-24 pilot with the Flying Tigers, supplied the parachute silk fabric he brought home after the war. Some of those costumes are still worn in the parade.

Anyone who can play an instrument is welcome to join them, said Johnson. They meet the morning of the parade, around 8:30 or 9 a.m., at Friends Church to dress and rehearse. It helps to have a costume, but if musicians don't have one, they'll try and come up with one.

The more trumpets the better, said Johnson, because their sound carries and the other musicians don't have to play so loud.

Cherry Days is made possible by an all-volunteer group known collectively as the Cherry Days 4-Ever Committee. Six years ago this group stepped in and literally saved Cherry Days.

"It's a great group," said chair Bob Bushta. The first couple of years were rough, but three years after they pulled off their first Cherry Days, they began operating in the black and remain debt-free to this day.

After two challenging seasons, area farmers report healthy cherry crops this year. One of more than 40 booths expected at this year's festival, Antelope Farms will have fresh cherries for sale. They also supply pits for the July 4 Cherry Pit Spitting Contest starting at 4:30 p.m.

The festival officially runs July 3 and 4, but events begin at 7 a.m. this Saturday with the Cherry Days 5k run to benefit the Paonia High School cross country program. The Cherry Days softball tournament happens Saturday and Sunday at Volunteer Park, located off of Mathews Lane on Hayden Road. Registration information and other details are at cherrydays.com.

Celebrate Paonia's ranching heritage Saturday night at the 13th annual Bulls N' Broncs War (formerly the North Fork Challenge) at North Fork Horse Patrol where Mathews Lane meets the railroad tracks. A group of young local rodeo enthusiasts took over this event last year. They will award the first North Fork Horse Patrol scholarship during the event.

After the rodeo, dance the night away at the American Legion Wilson-Head Post 97.

On July 3, experience the best of downtown Paonia at the Paonia Chamber of Commerce Downtown Day. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. enjoy food, special sales and live music.

Start July 4 off at the Paonia Fire Department's annual pancake breakfast, served from 6-9 a.m. at Paonia Town Hall. Cost is $7 for adults, $5 for kids, with proceeds benefiting the PFD scholarship fund.

The parade begins at 10 a.m. sharp. The challenge is to put some meaning into the sequence in which the parade is organized, said parade organizer Ulli Lange, who is also this year's grand marshal. Registration is accepted up to the morning of the parade, but early registration helps greatly to keep things running smoothly. (Registration forms are on the Cherry Days website.) "The earlier the better," said Lange.

Early registration also helps Tess Backhus to write a good parade narrative, which is read by parade announcer Patty Naft.

The hugely popular Coal Shoveling Contest returns to Cherry Days on July 4. Last held in 2015, this contest of strength, grit and endurance harkens back to the glory days of coal mining in the North Fork Valley. It starts at 1 p.m. at the football field grandstand, but arrive early for good seating.

While at the park, consider visiting the newly-renovated Miner's Memorial located at the southeast end of Town Park. Made by Price, Utah, sculptor Gary Prazen and dedicated in 1983, the Miner's Statue includes the names of local miners who lost their lives over the years.

A full schedule of events is included in today's paper, and paoniacherrydays.com has tons of information.

A couple of things to remember: Admission to Cherry Days is free, but the WOW Factor Attractions charges admission. Due to past issues, NO DOGS are allowed in the park during the Cherry Days festivities. State law does not allow alcohol to be brought into the park or the Beer & Wine Garden. And please leave glass containers at home.

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North Fork
Cherry Days, Paonia
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