The world at large and the Roaring Fork Valley have seen massive cultural transformations in the four-plus decades since the first Mountain Fair, yet the annual Carbondale carnival has kept its freewheeling spirit. It’s always remained free, stayed in the cozy confines of Sopris Park and, though the crowds have grown, the three-day festival has held onto its eclectic identity — equal parts hippie happenings and family hoe-down.
“It has a flavor of good music, zaniness and something like a cross between a country fair and Woodstock and some exotic Middle Eastern bazaar,” says Brenda Buchanan, who’s been part of Mountain Fair since its inaugural outing in 1971.
This year, Buchanan is helping with food prep at the fair, among the hundreds of volunteers that make Mountain Fair happen.
In the alchemy of Mountain Fair, the homegrown volunteer spirit is the key ingredient, locals agree. Music, good food, body paint, drum circles, dancing, beer tents and competitions are the signature elements, but the fact that the town throws the party for itself gives it its cohesive community heart. Unlike so many festivals, it’s held onto a spontaneity that many say wouldn’t be possible with professional events promoters.
There are no sponsorship banners at Mountain Fair, none of the commercial marketing that comes standard with any large gathering of humans these days.
It was born out of the age-old American tradition of traveling Chataquas, which had a resurgence with the fairs of the hippie era — a phenomenon of community-made festivals that took root in places like western Colorado, rural upstate New York and northern California.
In 1971, about 150 people showed up. They held a tug’o’war, greased up a pig and chased it around, staged live music, sold and made arts and crafts. In the years since, the festival has grown hundred-fold, with an estimated 15,000 people attending this weekend from Friday through Sunday.
This year, there are nearly as many art and food vendors as there were festival goers in the first year. There are 135 booths, including art and crafts and clothing, made by locals like the Carbondale Sew-Op, with everything from hats, bags, belts, soaps, scarfs to plates and, of course, tie-dye.
As always, there are ample offerings of hand-blown glass and jewelry from the vendors, including whimsical offerings like charms for cats and dogs from The Healing Pet.
Re-purposed materials are continuing their rise in the local arts scene, with pieces that include clocks made from recycled computer and bicycle parts, and hand bags made from old vinyl album covers.
Functionally, Mountain Fair is a fundraiser. The Carbondale Council on Arts and Humanities (CCAH), a nonprofit that champions homegrown arts in the spirited mountain town, doesn’t charge for admission but splits all profits with vendors. It has annually raised something in the neighborhood of $50,000 in recent years, and those funds have helped boost the ever-expanding breadth of performing and visual arts offerings in the town.
Buchanan recalls Mountain Fair’s 10th year, in 1981, when a group of locals came up with a concoction they called “Dr. Limbo’s Elixir of Life,” a Carbondale tonic they hawked in the style of a classic medicine show production.
“It was kind of a spirited expression of the Mountain Fair,” she laughs, “guaranteeing to give you that Mountain Fair high all year long.”
Back then there was but one stage where the action was centered at Mountain Fair — these days there’s action anywhere you look, from the main stage to rows of vendor tents, a cantina, an open space area, a picnic pavilion and a booze-free “oasis.”
“I don’t feel like it’s changed at all really,” Buchanan says. “But some of the old-timers might think so.”
The fair volunteers do everything from selecting the vendors, in a jury process that assesses quality, to picking musicians, which this year includes locals and touring acts.
“I think everyone knows that volunteering is part of the fun,” says Buchanan, who is the matriarch of her family’s three generations of volunteers at the fair. Her granddaughter is on the “Green Team” overseeing recycling efforts.
Foodies and music fans have a weekend-long feast at the fest, with food offerings including Cajun, Greek, Pacific Rim, Mexican and Central American, Indian, and classic American offerings, and bands like Diego’s Umbrella, The Congress, Infamous Stringdusters and The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band.
Along with the reverie of the jam tent and the pig-out-friendly food options, the Mountain Fair’s competitions can be serious stuff. The show-downs include pie and cake baking, wood-splitting, fly-casting, limbo and horseshoes, as well as the Mt. Sopris Run-Off, Prince Creek 4-mile run, and the Porcupine Loop bike race.
The cake contest, for instance, is a prestige-laden prize for cooks throughout the valley. The actual prize, a “Mountain Fair” apron, is like the Masters golf tournament’s green jacket for local dough-punchers.
“We drink champagne and dress in costumes and stuff, but it’s serious business,” says Maura Masters, who works for CCAH and volunteers as a cake judge. “Because people are watching you eat their cake. It might be grandma Sally’s special cake. And she’s there looking at you and there’s this sentiment attached.”
Cakes are judged in three categories — cake, torte and vegan — while pie competitors duke it out in fruit, cream and exotic divisions.
The pie contest is one of the longest running competitions at Mountain Fair.
“To be a pie judge is pretty prestigious in Carbondale,” says Alta Otto, a born and bred Carbondale resident who is coordinating the pie contest this year. “It’s gotten to where somebody has to pass away in order for a spot to open up.”
The women’s wood-splitting contest carries some of the biggest bragging rights at the annual festival. Former Aspen mayor and current Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards is a near-annual competitor, who won the women’s wood-split during her first outing in the mid-80s. She says she hasn’t been able to practice her chopping this year, but is hoping to give it a go anyway.
“I find it to be a tremendously fun event,” says Richards, who is also competing in the pie-baking contest this year, “and I have great respect for all the competitors.”
The prize for winning axmen and women is a new wood-splitting maul.
Among the most recent additions to Mountain Fair is the singer/songwriter competition. Now in its third year, it carries more than bragging rights for the winner — it actually earns them the chance to record a demo at Echo Ranch Recording, to play the main Mountain Fair stage on Sunday, open for a bigger band at PAC3, and it wins them a new guitar.
After two rounds of elimination over the last week, the finalists in the adult and youth categories will have their final competition Saturday afternoon in the Jam Tent.
Otto, who now has two children of her own, says passing down Mountain Fair to new generations has become a key part of Carbondale life.
“It’s fun to watch them doing all the same things I was doing when I was a kid here,” she says.
Mountain Fair Schedule of Events
FRIDAY JULY 27
4:00 p.m. Opening Blessing by Lightning Heart
4:05 Community Drum Circle with Rhythms Of The Heart Beat
5:00 Spore Favore
7:00 Grant Farm
SATURDAY JULY 28
9:15 a.m. All Valley Music together with Annie Flynn
10:00 Art Booths Open
10:00 Bluegrass Jam with the Dos Gringos Jammers
10:00 Glenwood Center for the Arts Junior/Senior Dance Troupe
10:00 “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat: In Concert”
10:30 Fly Casting Competition in the Open Space
11:00 Pie Baking Contest
11:00 The Smuggler Mountain Boys
Noon Celebration of Kiteflight
Noon Kids Crafts
Noon Singles Horseshoe Tournament at Glassier Park
Noon Youth Songwriters Competition Finals
12:30 p.m. NorthySur
1:00 Adult Songwriter’s Competition
1:30 Mysto the Magician
1:30 The Adult Limbo Contest in the Open Space
2:00 Open Jam
2:30 Jeff Kagan and Paige Doughty
2:30 Sector 7G
3:45 Betty Hoops Hula Hoop Contest
4:00 The Women’s Wood Splitting Competition in the Open Space
4:00 Electronic Jam w/DJ Phathead and friends
4:45 Songwriting Workshop for Kids with Matt Hazlett
5:00 Singer/Songwriter Winner Youth Showcase
5:00 Singer/Songwriter Winners
5:15 Diego’s Umbrella
5:30 The Brink
6:30 The No Joes
7:15 The Congress
7:30 The Red Bandannas
9:00 Masri Nar Egyptian Fire Dance Troupe
SUNDAY JULY 29
8:00 a.m. Porcupine Loop Bike Race
8:30 True Nature Free Yoga In The Park
9:15 All Valley Music Together with Annie Flynn
10:00 Earthbeat Choir
10:00 Artists Booths Open
10:00 Old Tyme Jam
10:30 Synergy Yoga
11:00 Cake Baking Contest at the Judging Tent
11:15 The Starlettes Gospel of Love
11:30 Mysto the Magi
Noon Doubles Horseshoe Tournament at Glassier Park
12:15 p.m. Fantastic Fun Circus
1:00 The No Joes
1:00 Jazz Aspen Student Recital
2:30 Markus James with Mamadou Sidibe and Billy Hoke
2:00 Jeff Kagan and Paige Doughtery, Environmental Musical Kids Performers
3:00 Jazz Jam with local jazzers
3:00 Recycled Arts and Crafts
4:00 Men’s Woodsplitting Competition in the Open Space
4:30 Blues Workshop with Markus James
5:00 Reverend Peyton s Big Damn Band
5:00 Arts and Crafts Booths begin closing
6:30 The Renegade Marching Band Parade
7:00 The Infamous Stringdusters