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Cattlemen’s Days rides into Gunnison with a few new tricks

Rodeo is this weekend. 4H activities all week—and cashmere goats

by Dawne Belloise

Known as the Granddaddy of the Colorado rodeos, Gunnison’s Cattlemen’s Days is the oldest Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) rodeo in Colorado. Held every year since 1900, Cattlemen’s is celebrating 117 years of honoring the western heritage of ranching life, starting with the Cattlemen’s Day Parade on Saturday morning, July 15, at 10 a.m., on Main Street in Gunnison.

During Cattlemen’s Days there’s the traditional bull and bronco riding, barrel racing, roping and all the events that reflect the hard-working ranchers from pioneer times to the modern cowboys and cowgirls. The livestock events of Future Farmers of America (FFA) and 4H have been going on since July 7, with the sale scheduled for Saturday, July 16, at 1 p.m.

The three rodeo events run July 13, 14 and 15, starting at 7 p.m., along with the anticipated carnival for kids of all ages.

It wouldn’t be complete without music. Local favorite Evelyn Roper brings her band Opal Moon to open for national recording act Little Texas at the I-Bar Ranch for some boot stomping greatness on Saturday, July 15 at 9 p.m. Tickets are available at IBarRanch.com or the Cattlemen’s Days ticket booth.

Cattlemen’s Days president Margo Patton Blair is a fourth-generation Gunnisonite, raising a fifth generation. She started out riding a horse before she could walk. She was raised with six siblings on the Lawrence Phelps ranch and her great-grandfather, August Mergelman, worked his own ranch in Iola, before Blue Mesa reservoir covered the town, way back before Main Street in Gunnison was paved.

Cattlemen’s Days has always been a big part of her life. In fact, she was born during Cattlemen’s Days and now she’s the first-ever woman president of the association.

“I’m excited about the tradition of Cattlemen’s Days and its history. This year we’re honoring Faye Vader as the first Cattlemen’s Days royalty in 1950,” Margo says, and describes this year’s poster with a photo of Faye doing what she loved, trick riding during Cattlemen’s Days and for films. “Being the first woman president, I wanted to honor all those strong-willed women who came before me who never got the title but always did the hard work,” Margo says.

What Margo really enjoys is seeing how the community comes together for this time-honored Gunnison tradition. “I love just seeing all the people, tourists and cowboys come together and celebrate,” she smiles. “It all starts with the national anthem. It’s amazing, we’re all there for each other and when Cattlemen’s Days gets here, my family grows by one hundred-plus because everyone involved is like family.”

Although there’s no longer horse racing, the Gunnison Roping Club is adding a Jackpot Roping Competition on Sunday. And she notes something new: “In addition to the popular Tough Enough to Wear Pink Rodeo on Thursday, we’ve added Patriotic Friday and everyone wears red, white and blue to support our veterans. Then we were trying to do something for Saturday night—‘Backing the Blue’, in support of the police, EMTs, fire departments and any first responders, because our little town couldn’t do it without them. We live in a crazy place with crazy accidents happening and they get into some scary, odd places to help rescue people from steep mountains and snowy avalanches to the water, rivers and reservoirs. We’ll all be wearing blue to honor them. There will be some surprises on Saturday too, so that will be a great time to come if you have to pick a day.”

Another change Cattlemen’s Days made this year was making the events more affordable for families. “We made it more family-friendly for all three nights. All general admission tickets are $20 for adults, and now tickets for kids under 12 are all $5. We wanted everyone to be able to afford to bring the family,” Margo says.

Margo remembers her first 4H steer, named Lu, given to her by Lawrence Phelps. “Lu was a Hereford. Herefords meant a lot in this valley back in the day and they raised them because of their fat layers, because the winters were brutal. I showed him, broke to lead, and I sold him. I cried having to load him on the truck,” Margo says, because as part of the sale, all 4H kids are required to load their animals. “You have to say goodbye and you never see them again. Then the check comes in and you have enough to pay for all it took to raise them, with some left over to buy the next year’s market project steer.”

In 1994, when she was in seventh grade, Margo had enough saved up from her 4H projects to buy her first computer.

New to Cattlemen’s Days is the participation of the valley’s 4H goat club, the Get Your Goat Club. Ann Bertschy, who has a ranch up Ohio Creek, began the club when she moved to Gunnison 20 years ago, and today has about 160 goats, plus a couple of llamas and some Shetland sheep. There are now 52 young people in all from the Gunnison and Crested Butte areas in the club.

There are 11 Crested Butte youth involved and Ann is thrilled. “It’s our first year with the Crested Butte members and it’s been a pure delight having them. They’re hardworking, smart and a definite asset to the Get Your Goat Club.”

As she stops to give instruction to a group of 4Hers who are getting their animals ready for Cattlemen’s Days, Ann jokingly calls their goat grooming area a beauty parlor. Ann explains that these are not goats that will go to slaughter, and they’re not milk goats.

“These are cashmere goats. The 4H club members are versed in genetics so they have their own bloodlines. They start with a doe, breed her and then will keep the baby of their choice. When that goat is old enough, it’s then bred, so some of the members have several generations of goats.”

Ann explains that cashmere is a type of goat that yields a heavy production of cashmere fiber. “All goats make cashmere and cashmere only comes from goats but these goats are specifically bred to produce a quantity of it.”

The club members are all responsible for every aspect of the care of their goats, like trimming hoofs, combing fleece, vaccinating, and conducting tests for parasites. They harvest the cashmere, combing the fleece in February and March.

“The goats aren’t sheared,” Ann explains. “They’re shedding their winter undercoats and we comb it as they shed.”

The members get very attached to the goats. The 4H goat tenders start at six and seven years old—the youngest are called Cloverbuds, and they aren’t full 4Hers yet.

After devoting her time to the goat club members for two decades, Ann has seen the positivity it brings to the young animal caretakers. “The benefits are enormous. 4H is directed toward community service and there’s a lot in 4H that makes a young person better.”

In fact, Ann says, one of their slogans is “To make the best better.” The Get Your Goat Club participated in Cattlemen’s last Tuesday with a show of their very own in the Showmanship and Breed classes.

Ann explains, “In Showmanship, the young people are judged on how well they show their goat. In the Breed class, the goat’s confirmation, that is, its physical appearance and the quality of its fleece, are judged. I’m impressed with how these young people are able to take responsibility of their goats. They train them to lead and they imprint the baby kid by holding it a lot so that it doesn’t distinguish between them and us, so it’s not afraid because it thinks it’s one of us and that’s absolutely critical so that you can handle that goat.”

Ann offers that her ranch is always open to anyone who wants to visit and see the kids being born and even hold little wet babies, which start arriving the second week of February.

Whether you live in the Gunnison valley or are just visiting, you owe yourself a bit of the exceptional history that our area is steeped in. You don’t even have to wear cowboy boots, just get yourself and your family over to the Gunnison Rodeo grounds this week to witness some of the finest cowboy and cowgirl traditions.

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