My hometown is just about podunk as it gets. It is exactly one square mile (eight blocks by eight blocks), has 1,042 people (despite being the biggest town in the county), has one paved road running through the middle of it, has a commercial district consisting of a restaurant, gas station, and grocery store, has a median family income of $26,827, and is two hours from any city of considerable size. In fact, if you were to look up “nowhere” on a map, you’d find a little dot labeled “Manassa, Colorado,” right in the middle of it.
And yet, there is something so nostalgically magical about Manassa that one can’t help but love it.
One of the town’s most notable features is the Manassa Pioneer Days celebration that occurs every year the weekend of or before July 24th. Now, you may be wondering why a little town in Southern Colorado shares a traditionally Utahn holiday involving Mormon pioneers. To answer that, we have to go back in history a little.
The original Pioneer Day holiday stems from the Mormon pioneers who emigrated from Nauvoo, Illinois, and eventually found their way to the Salt Lake Valley where they arrived on July 24th, 1847. Manassa was founded in 1879 by Mormon converts from the South and was named after the Israelite son of Joseph (but why they misspelled it, I have no idea). My great-great-great-great-grandpa, Jeter Lawrence, was the minister of a little town in the Haywood Valley of Georgia. He and the majority of his congregation were converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by a missionary named John Morgan. Those converts, wishing to join the rest of the church, set out for Salt Lake City. Partway there, however, they received a letter from then President of the Church John Taylor telling them to settle in Southern Colorado instead. So they did along with converts from various other places including Fountain Green, Utah. Having been pioneers themselves, they wanted to celebrate that heritage and simply adopted the already established Pioneer Day that was held in Utah every 24th of July.
The celebration (as it’s called in Manassa) has grown over the last century or more to include a kickoff banquet, parade, rodeo, barbeque, concerts, 5k run, demolition derby, hamburger stand, horse races, Mexican dinner, and fireworks. Every year, the town grows from a sleepy 1,000 residents to 10,000 as visitors pour in from near and far. It is always held the Friday and Saturday before or on the 24th of July (but never after) with the kick-off banquet being held on Thursday evening. On both Friday and Saturday, the festivities are kicked off at 6:00 in the morning with the blowing up of dynamite just outside of town. I wish I could say it was just one little boom, but this year it was five bone-shattering explosions each morning. Most everyone hates it (especially the dogs), but it’s tradition, so what can you do?
The parade starts at 10:00 and runs the entire length of Main Street (a whole mile) before turning around and coming back again. That process is repeated again on Saturday meaning that one can see the parade a total of four times. As far as I’m able to tell, the logic behind the repetition is so you can see the kids on both sides of the floats and so you can see different kids on the floats on Saturday as well as who won awards (a major source of pride and contention among parade purists). The floats are made by church auxiliaries (Sunday school, relief society, primary, young women’s, etc.) from two of the three wards in Manassa (it rotates so one ward gets the year off) as well as local businesses like Martin Cattle Company and Larry’s Garage.
Once the parade is over, everyone either heads to grandma’s house for lunch or stops by the hamburger stand to grab a greasy burger and a Mountain Dew. The hamburger stand is now a permanent fixture of the celebration and is completely manned by church volunteers who spend three hour shifts working in the greasy shack. It’s a pain in the butt for those who have to do it, but nearly 11,000 hamburgers are sold each year to people who insist they are the best burgers around. It must be the nostalgia they’re tasting.
The rodeo is held Friday evening and Saturday afternoon and features everything from mutton busting to bull riding. This year marked the 134th Manassa Rodeo making it one of the oldest ongoing rodeos in the nation. The rodeo is very much a family affair (often dominated by the Huffaker clan) with multiple sets of siblings and cousins participating every year. I’m pretty sure I was related to about a third of the people in the rodeo arena.
As soon as the rodeo’s over on Saturday, the arena begins its transformation for the demolition derby where dozens of people drive old cars and trucks into each other until only one is left standing. Ironically, it begins with a prayer that goes something like this, “Please bless us in our idiocy that no one will get hurt despite our best efforts to trap each other in mutilated cages of twisted metal.” On a somewhat related note, I greatly enjoyed betting quarters on each round as a kid with my cousin, Blake. I won $1.50 one year.
Immediately following the demolition derby comes the magical part: the lighting of the “M” on M Mountain and the fireworks. As a kid, I looked forward to it almost more than the carnival. Like magic, the large “M” on the small mountain just south of Manassa would light up with little flickering cans of burning diesel. And as soon as it was dark, I would wait with eager anticipation on the front porch of my grandma’s house waiting for the fireworks to start. This year, I was invited to participate in the magic as I helped the Jarvies clan (and when I say clan, I mean there are A LOT of them) set up all the diesel cans on the mountain. It was a cool experience even if I wasn’t much help because I was glued to my camera.
The fireworks on Saturday night mark the end of the celebration. It’s a time of sadness for those who are visiting and a time of jubilation for those who actually live in Manassa. Because, truth be told, the celebration is a massive amount of work for the residents. In fact, that one weekend in July can be one of the most dreaded times of the year if you’re in charge of building a float, working in the hamburger stand, setting up for the kick-off banquet, riding in the parade, or all of the above.
So why do we do it?
Because it’s who we are.
Really, the celebration is about love, family, tradition, and heritage. In a way, it defines what Manassa is who its residents are. It is a memorialization of our pioneer ancestors, an excuse for families to get together, and a reminder that love of God, family, and country are the most important things in life. While the pioneers now play a small part in their namesake holiday, there’s something about being with aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and great-grandparents that reminds us that we are more than just ourselves. Sure, it’s a hassle and an overwhelming project for the months preceding it, but it ties us together as a family and a community.
Without the celebration, Manassa is little more than obscure farm town on a dusty road in Colorado. But with it, it’s home.