RIDGWAY – When the roof of the WWII-era grandstands at the Ouray County Fairgrounds was peeled off like the lid of an old sardine can last year, it was “sad and depressing” for Richard Weber III.
The grandstands had been condemned for safety reasons, and there was little certainty whether they would ever be replaced. “I felt like so many memories were being lost,” said the fourth-generation Ouray County rancher, otherwise known as “Little Richie”.
So much of his family’s life, through generations of great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins, had unfolded at the fairgrounds, as they sat together on the old wood plank seating of the grandstands, or competed in rodeo events out on the racetrack or in the arena. Weber wondered if his niece and nephews would ever have a chance to taste that heritage.
Then, something amazing happened. Once the roof came off, “Me and my family realized it was the start of something good,” Weber said.
Now that they find themselves in the home stretch of a year-long horse race to get new grandstands and rodeo grounds ready in time for the upcoming Labor Day Fair and Rodeo, Weber feels like things are “coming together really nice.”
“Everyone else has new grandstands,” he said, pointing out the new facilities in Montrose, Norwood and Hotchkiss. “We might as well get with the program. Ours was old and run down. There was a lot of work in it, but it was old, no matter how you looked at it.”
Now, he said proudly, “We have one of the nicest facilities on the Western Slope.” He can’t wait to compete there this weekend in many of the upcoming rodeo events.
Contractors hired by the county were responsible for getting the $540,000 grandstands replacement project done on time. But the replacement of the rodeo arena was very much a community effort, and one in which Weber and his family played a big role.
Demolition on the old rodeo arena started in May, with “just a little shy of 20 volunteers that came to town for the demo,” recalled Ouray County Rodeo Association president Erin Stadelman, who has seen the project through from start to completion in less than a year, with the help of an “angel donor” who fronted the bulk of the money to purchase the new Priefert arena and holding pen components.
The volunteers demolished the entire old arena, including the old stock pen, in a single weekend.
The rebuild started the second week in June with dirt work, and the arena itself was assembled the weekend after that, with the help of close to 30 volunteers who gathered to put it all together.
“There were a great many hands, and without those hands it never would have been done,” Stadelman said. “They completed the entire arena in one weekend. It was quite an undertaking.”
But that was not all. For the following seven weekends in a row, “retired gentlemen from the rodeo association did the fine tuning on the arena,” Stadelman said.
The stock fence went in three weeks ago, and new arena footing (a mixture of sand and dirt) was delivered on Monday this week. It will continue to be “tweaked”, Stadelman said, up until Saturday afternoon when the Ranch Rodeo gets underway.
“It has been a thrill to watch, but quite a challenge, with all of these men in one place and getting them all to agree on how things should be done,” Stadelman laughed. “But being the woman they labeled the boss was so much fun.”
Little Richie’s grandmother Barbara Weber remembers, back when her own kids were in 4-H, how she and her husband and kids and the other 4-H families would head down to the rodeo arena with cans of white paint each summer to touch up the wooden holding pens and bucking shoots of the rodeo arena.
It was the way things got done in Ridgway back then. Much like when the Ridgway School was rebuilt in the 1970s. “We cooked for the excavators, and when the building was done, we painted the walls,” she said. “That was a community endeavor.”
Now, the community has come together again, to help build the new rodeo grounds.
“You don’t see that so much any more,” she said. “There’s that saying, ‘It takes a village.’ It does, to keep the village going, and to keep this heritage alive.”
There was a rumor going around among the old Ridgway ranching families, back when the grandstands were first condemned last year, that the fairgrounds would be converted into a botanical garden.
The thought was horrifying to Barbara, although she laughs about it now. “I was thinking, ‘When they start destroying your old traditions, what are they going to replace it with?’”
Now, she knows. And, she admits, she’s “tickled.”
After all, there are plenty of things she won’t be missed about the old grandstands. For example: “You had to be careful not to get splinters in your hiney,” she laughed.
Recently, Erin Stadelman was visiting with Ouray County Administrator Connie Hunt, who spearheaded the Grandstands Replacement Project from the county’s end. “She and I got a little misty-eyed,” Stadelman admitted. “It didn’t start out as such a positive thing. There was a lot of confrontation, and negative comments on both sides of the fence. But over the year, we realized how important it was for the county officials and nonprofit volunteers to work together.
“There seems to be a not-so-invisible line, and I am proud to say, we broke that line. And we are absolutely ready to begin to dance.”
They will have their chance this Friday night, when county officials and ranching families will gather together on the racetrack with their friends and neighbors from across the county for the first-ever Fairgrounds Dance, from 7-11 p.m.
It all seems just right to Shannon Robinson, the daughter of this year’s Rodeo Grand Marshal Louis Shlosser, and the mother of former Rodeo Queen Rissa Robinson. “Everybody did such a great job,” she reflected, “from the rodeo association to the county, in making it all happen and ensuring we have many more rodeos to come.”
The project has taken its toll on fairgrounds manager Susan Long, who did much behind the scenes to help shepherd it through to completion. “I’m as tired as a one-armed paper hanger with the hives,” she declared earlier this week.
Last Thursday night, Long took a drive around the project site.
“Just me, around the arena, and over the race track and past the grandstands. It almost made me cry,” she said. “I thought, ‘Holy cow, look at what this little community did. It wasn’t easy. But we all did it. It was a collaborative effort, and we did it. We are preserving our historic heritage, and offering it to a whole new generation.”
Thursday, Aug. 28: Ribbon Cutting Ceremony for Grandstands, 4 p.m. Antique Tractor Pull, 6 p.m.
Friday, Aug. 29: Fair and livestock exhibits throughout the day. Fairgrounds Dance, 7-11 p.m. featuring Opal Moon.
Saturday, Aug. 30: Portable Planetarium, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. in the Exhibit Hall. 4-H Junior Livestock Sale, 2 p.m. Ribbon Cutting Ceremony for Rodeo Arena, 4 p.m., followed by Ranch Rodeo.
Sunday, Aug. 31: CPRA Rodeo, 1 p.m. Fireman’s Dance, 9-11 p.m.
Monday, Sept. 1: Parade, 10 a.m. Barbecue, 11 a.m. CPRA Labor Day rodeo, 1 p.m.