Of pancakes, parades and pride in paradise

By Dawn Belloise

Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of it. The history of liberty is a history of resistance.” —Woodrow Wilson

What better way to kick off the Fourth of July shindig than with an all American Crested Butte tradition—PANCAKES! First things first on this illustrious holiday: To sustain your energy throughout the many events all day, you’ll need to load up the calories. From 7 to 10:30 a.m. on the celebrated day, the Crested Butte Fire and EMS Squad at the Fire Station, 306 Maroon Avenue, will be flipping those pan-cookies, along with sausages and fixins’. It’s advisable to get there early because it gets packed as the crew serves flapjacks to more than 1,200 people. That’s probably more than 2,400 pancakes (who can eat just one?).

Crested Butte is especially known for its community-wide Fourth celebrations and outrageous parades. Throughout its history, Crested Butte’s local population has put on a spectacle of creatively wacky floats and processions that border on the preposterous and always in good humor. In times past, the parade was small enough that it went up Elk Avenue and then reversed for a repeat performance in the opposite direction.

Locals will gather for days before the parade to create their costumes and floats. Some of the more innovative ones in the past included the ski jump packed with snow on the back of a truck, created by former town mayor Alan Bernholtz who bedazzled the crowd by hucking himself down the jump in full disco threads with his wig hat on his head. Then there was Alan’s daring bike jump through a hoop of fire, and his water slide during another parade, all on the back of a truck. Another float that awed the masses was Tucker Roberts doing full back layout on a trampoline while the float was moving. Then there was the time when Burt Rentals would ride snowmobiles in the parade with wheel attachments on the skis. And who can forget Tony Wildman in an American flag g-string on a horse?

In the earlier days of wildness, during the bicentennial parade of 1976, the scandalous Red, White & Blue Girls used only paint as their costumes. Most of them were topless, some were completely naked, and some of the crowd didn’t even realize the infamous troupe had only body paint on for the now-legendary tribute to freedom of speech.

Long-standing floats and groups to watch for are the Red Ladies, the wild sisters who represent the spirit of Red Lady Mountain—aka, Mount Emmons—in the town’s battle to keep a molybdenum mine from desecrating the sentinel, with the High Country Conservation Advocates leading the fight.

There’s the Flauschink Royal Has-Beens who follow the current Flauschink King and Queen in their Royal Chariot.

The hippest of funkiness belongs to the effervescent, groovin’ KBUT float with its disco dancers and mirror ball, hosting the chosen King and Queen of Soul.

The ecologists and biologists at Rocky Mountain Biological Labs (RMBL) in Gothic are brilliant researchers and scientists who work hard and let their hair down for Independence Day. It’s the only day they get off during their intensive summer work.

The RMBL folks in all their greenery have been favorites in the parade for as long as they’ve been marching. They come with spears and pots and pans, whistles and bells and wild primitive faces that tell of being in the sun too much, alone with plants, insects and marmots. They live under the towering cathedral spires of Gothic Mountain until the flora dies and snow threatens, but for one hot summer day in July, they costume up, wearing only corn lily leaves, which they sew together themselves. Marching in their outfits that conjure up images of crazed aboriginal biologists, they proudly chant and stomp their way up the parade route. In past years, after marching through to the end of the Elk, they’d walk backwards down the avenue, but these days, the parade is too big for that.

Current Crested Butte mayor Jim Schmidt—aka “Deli”—has been in town for the celebration every year since 1977. Having served as mayor in the past as well as on Town Council for well over two decades, he says of his 1995 brainstorm, “I decided that what the council should do was scoop up the horse poop in the parade. How could a Town Council be of better service to their community than slinging poop? I thought it was very symbolic.” He laughs about the past tradition that no longer exists since there are no horses in the parade anymore, but he adds that both tourists and locals got the message back in the day.

Deli feels the holiday is so special in the Butte because everybody gets to celebrate it in their own way and as for the parade, “There are no boundaries as to what you can put into the parade as far as floats. It’s freedom of expression and that’s what the Fourth is all about. A few years back, there was a move to ban political statements in the parade but the Fourth is a political holiday. We rebelled… That’s what we’re celebrating. That’s why I think if somebody makes a statement, whatever the statement is, it’s cool that they’re in there even if I don’t agree with it.”

Deli reflected on some of the parade aspects he misses, as times changed and the town grew. “I was disappointed when we stopped running the parade both ways… it was so short.” He remembers the parade getting to the Four-way Stop and turning around to march back up Elk Avenue. “It was like a snake that ate itself because they would take it around the block and suddenly you’d run into the other people coming back up. But it just got too long. Pretty amazing that we’ve never had a real marching band in the parade. There’s been the boom box band from KBUT and RMBL sort of band with their kazoos, chanting, and pots and pans.”

Deli reflects the sentiments of most in this valley when he says, “The whole tradition and people are all so great.”

A procession such as we have needs an interpreter, a liaison between the audience and the crazies marching up Elk Avenue. Than Acuff took the reins of announcer in 2013 from Denis Hall, who had been injecting his own style of emcee for 30 years. “I have no idea why Denis picked me,” Than shrugs and smiles in an interview a year ago. “It was a surprise and an honor. I’ve announced at a bunch of sports events and I’m comfortable with a microphone in my hand. Denis was my Fourth of July emcee sensei and I think because I’m sober, he figured I wouldn’t totally screw things up.”

KBUT deejay Josephine Kellett offered to jump up there and co-emcee with Than and now the duo rocks the parade. “I thought it would be great to have a woman’s energy up there and she provides the necessary sass,” Than says, and describes his favorite thing about announcing. “Being a part of one of the longest standing traditions in Crested Butte and seeing the same people year in and year out, whether they’re visitors or locals cruising down Elk, either in the parade or in crowd.”

And then, there’s the Twinkies. “People throw Twinkies at me… I love Twinkies. I put them in my bike pack and eat them on a big ride,” he laughs.

After the parade, there’s a much anticipated and refreshing water fight at the west end of Elk Avenue where the Crested Butte Fire Department brings in the big guns and revelers bring out their arsenal of semi-automatic super-soaker blasters. There was a time when the water fights took place all over downtown but they’re now limited to the first block of Elk, so if you aren’t a water baby, it is recommended that you stay away from that area or be considered as fair game. If you’re going into Kochevar’s for the traditional high noon tequila shot, you’d better be speedy in getting through the tossed buckets of water, blasters and hoses.

Crested Butte’s parade and celebration are eccentrically different from anywhere else, mostly because of the community of locals who make the town as funky as it still is. It’s always been more of a carnival atmosphere, because we’re just a town inhabited by kids of all ages. It continues yearly, the youthful, rogue energy of a typical Crested Butte Fourth of July parade and rest assured, it’s not likely to go conservative in our lifetime or lose its wild innovative spirit, despite Vail’s purchase of the ski resort. So don your most independent spirit and head out into the streets. Go Fourth and enjoy!

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