Denver has an ambitious plan to revive the county fair: blend throwback chic with urban grit to draw crowds celebrating everything weird and crafty. Mix funnel cakes with drag queens, add a dash of old-time quilting and newly hip knitting, and the recipe could produce what organizers hope is a new flavor of county fair.
Fair staples like funnel cakes and cotton candy, animal exhibits and 4-H competitions are on proud display at the Denver County Fair; there's even a Ferris wheel in the parking lot.
But there's no mistaking this event for a traditional country fair. All the contestants in Saturday's Miss Denver County Fair pageant are drag queens. There's a speed text-messaging contest, and the highlight staple of a Western fair, a rodeo, has been replaced with a bicycle rodeo and a troupe of performing pigs.
"This is so cool," said 13-year-old Brian Torres of Denver, a first-time fairgoer who saw his first alpaca and planned to check out the carnival rides, just past a "freak show" highlighted by a bearded lady and a man lying on a bed of nails.
The fair has a city version of a traditional fair agriculture display. Chickens, rabbits and miniature goats sit in cages next to displays about container gardening and capturing rain in barrels to reduce water usage.
There are even contests for the best compost and best vegan cooking. Denver is adding a new green ribbon to the traditional red, white and blue lineup to reward contest entries that use "sustainable methods."
"I've never competed before, but I saw a billboard about this and thought, 'Why not?'" said Junior Perez, 13, who entered his two pet Japanese bantam roosters, Shadow and Tiny. "It was something different."
Corny is the new cool
The fair, which opened Thursday in a stock show complex by the interstate and runs through Sunday, also has a "holistic pavilion." There fairgoers can huddle with a psychic, get their auras interpreted or pick up a handmade sacred drum or dreamcatcher.
"The county fair still has its place, but it needs to reflect who we are now, and this is what you're seeing here," said Karen Harrison, a psychic who will be judging fair contests in "divination tools" and "potions."
Harrison, who owns a bookshop and gift store in suburban Englewood, is also selling jewelry, crystals and silks. She's heard of metaphysical shows and run-of-the-mill gift marts, but Harrison said her interest was piqued by the idea of throwing holistic elements in a county fair.
"The second we heard about this, we knew we had to be a part of it. It's so creative, so perfect for Denver," she said.
There's a heavy dose of irony, too. Denver County Fair contests include a molded-gelatin competition and a mustache contest. A John Denver impersonator led a group "Rocky Mountain High" sing-along to open the fair. A "freak show" area includes a bearded lady, a tattooed glass-blower and other throwback spectacles. The group Devo, the 1970s and '80s group behind the song "Whip It," will perform, along with a cover band for The B-52s.
"It's all so corny, it's crossing the line into being totally cool," said Dana Cain, founder of the fair.
There's a category for Denver's many home beer brewers, along with homemade wine and mead. One notable omission is Denver County's most lucrative crop — medical marijuana. There is a category for "herbal remedies," but fair organizer Dana Cain said no one has tried to enter weed. She chuckled about the idea of pot at a county fair, but didn't rule it out in the future.
"Everybody's divided on that. Half the people were like, 'Yeah! We're the pot capital of the country!' But others are like, 'Nah, don't go there,'" Cain said. "Next year, we'll see. I'm sure we wouldn't have any trouble finding judges."
Urban fairs aren't new, but most of them attempt to bring the country to the city with petting zoos and traditional fair elements. Cain, a special-events marketer, saw craft fairs and sidewalk farmer's markets endemic in hipster neighborhoods in Denver and elsewhere and wondered, why not throw it all together, artisan crafts right alongside caramel corn and carnival rides?
"It's a huge mix of performance art and display, pretty much everything you could ever want," Cain said.
After finding there's never been a Denver County Fair, Cain and other organizers said they were somewhat surprised to find that county officials and 4-H embraced the idea. The fair came together in just a few months. Organizers hope for 50,000 attendees.
"We love it," said Ashlee Adams, Denver County's 4-H Agent with the Colorado State University Extension. "People don't realize that 4-H is in urban areas, too."
Instead of competing with livestock, about three dozen Denver 4-H members plan to compete in areas such as rocketry, baking and horticulture. They'll give an exhibition on archery, happily sharing space with a live harp performance in the holistic pavilion and the ironic bluegrass band Rocky Mountain Jewgrass.
"Denver's kind of an open, liberal, embracing community. We're going to see how different and quirky we can be," Adams said.
The kitsch has a serious side for some. Apron collector EllynAnne Geisel is a baby boomer who will be selling some of her vintage aprons alongside women in their 20s selling knitted scarves and handmade clothes. Setting up her display, Geisel said she's touched by the resurgence of home crafting and hopes to see more county fairs like Denver's reach out to young people living in cities.
"I think there's been a reclamation of what people think they can do themselves. People are branching out, asking themselves, 'Why can't I make a pickle? How hard can it be?'" said Geisel, who wrote "Apron Memories."
Pointing to displays setting up around her, Geisel said, "Women have been doing this stuff forever, we just took a break for a little while. But it's back, the county fair is back, and we're celebrating it. How fun is this?"