Ease Your Winter Woes: At the Wild West Winterfest

Ease Your Winter Woes: At the Wild West Winterfest

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Hill, Pat
For a break from cabin fever, plan a visit to the Wild West WinterFest at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds in February.

The Wild West WinterFest fills the furrows left by the Montana Winter Fair, which took place at the fairgrounds for more than half a century. Though the farm- and ranch-oriented Winter Fair moved on to Lewistown in 2002, the Fair Board and the greater Gallatin Valley community soon started brainstorming something new to relieve the winter doldrums. With planning and cooperation, the WinterFest was born, taking the Winter Fair’s place without skipping a beat.

“The transition was pretty smooth,” says Gallatin County Fairgrounds manager Sue Shockley. “This will be our fourth year.” Like Bozeman’s Sweet Pea Festival or the Christmas Stroll, WinterFest seems to be “the place” where old friends run into each other.

“I love it,” says 19-year-old Nicole Yount of Bozeman, who’s attended the annual winter event most of her life, and competed in a few WinterFest Western riding events during high school. “It’s fun to look at all the displays, and see who won the blue ribbons. I like to walk through and look at all the animals, and I love the kid’s art show.” Other favorites at WinterFest include dog competitions (like Terrier races), the quilt show, horse-and-driver competitions where the Clydesdales show up, and the ever-popular chili cook-off.

The Montana Winter Fair originally provided farmers and ranchers a way to hallmark their trade in the off-season, but the agricultural way of life has changed course in Montana since the Winter Fair’s inception in the mid-twentieth century. That change is reflected in the music and memories of The First Annual Bozeman Winter Cowboy Gathering, a new addition to WinterFest activities.

“The Cowboy Gathering will include music, poetry, and stories,” says Shockley, adding that some of the “big names” in cowboy poetry will be speaking on Saturday night. There will also be music by the band Western Underground on Friday, in a tribute performance to former band member the late Chris Ladoux, who was also a former world champion bronc rider (Ladoux passed away last March after battling lung cancer).

Western tradition is still anchored in WinterFest events like the “always huge” Horse Sale, and for 2006, the celebration will extend into Monday (Presidents’ Day), which Shockley says will be a “tribute to horses.”

“There are more horses than people in our county, I think,” she jokes. “It will be fun.” Monday’s activities will include a veterinary clinic and hands-on equine chiropractic, a tack sale, a kids’ stick horse race, and a unique contest Shockley calls “the battle of the breeds,” which she hopes will feature at least eight breeds of horses, from appaloosas to quarter horses, competing in four to six different events.

One Winter Fair tradition that hasn’t carried over to WinterFest is dictated by Mother Nature: the winter celebration at the fairgrounds often marked some of the coldest days of the winter, but in the last few drought-ridden years, that hasn’t been the case.

“I’d love it to be cold, with lots of snow,” says Shockley. “I just want winter.” She says if the weather is right, WinterFest will feature an extreme snowmobile freestyle show, a hockey tournament, and even an area to make snow angels.

“Keep your fingers crossed for snow,” says Shockley, “but no matter what, it’ll be fun.”

The Wild West WinterFest kicks off on Friday, Feb. 17, at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds, and runs through Monday. Along with animal and agricultural exhibits like the FFA Farm Barn, arts and crafts, food, and photography are also part of the celebration, and Shockley urges interested parties to start thinking about getting their entries ready. For more information on the 2006 Wild West WinterFest, call the fairgrounds at 582-3270, or log on to gallatin.mt.gov/fairgrounds/.
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