Utah pioneer celebrations weigh benefits, costs in this time of pandemic

Utah pioneer celebrations weigh benefits, costs in this time of pandemic

OGDEN — If all goes well, Ogden Pioneer Days could come full circle this year.

The 2020 version might very well accomplish what it originally set out to do at that first Pioneer Day event 86 years ago. In the teeth of one of the darkest times of our nation’s history — the Great Depression — then-Ogden Mayor Harmon Peery came up with the idea to take residents’ minds off their economic troubles with a celebration honoring the area’s pioneer heritage.

And now, in the midst of a viral pandemic that has seen virtually all other events canceled this spring, the keepers of the Pioneer Days flame hope to be able to once again offer a bit of much-needed cheer to a struggling community.

“Pioneer Days has a rich heritage behind it,” said Jeff Haney, spokesman for the Ogden Pioneer Days committee. “Harm Peery, in 1934, started the celebration to lift the spirits of the people of Ogden during the Great Depression. Our roots are deep in lifting the spirits of the people of Ogden during trying times, and now that we are again in such trying times, we’re hoping we can serve that same type of role this year.”

If, that is, a certain virus will cooperate.

Last week, one of the other big annual pioneer parties, Salt Lake City’s Days of ’47 celebration, was canceled, becoming the latest casualty of COVID-19. Meanwhile, down in Spanish Fork, that city’s Fiesta Days organizers are evaluating whether or not to cancel their annual parade and rodeo.

Haney said the Ogden Pioneer Days committee is taking a wait-and-see approach to this year’s celebration. As of now, the rodeo, parade and other events — scheduled for July 20-24 — are still on. But that could quickly change if strict social distancing requirements, just beginning to loosen up a bit, drag into early summer.

“Right now, we’ve not made the decision about the 2020 celebration,” Haney said. “There was a lot of texting among committee members immediately after we heard the word (about Days of ’47), but we’ll continue to monitor the situation and keep in touch with state, local and medical officials.”

Days of ’47

Greg James, executive vice president of The Days of ’47 Inc., said canceling the Salt Lake event was difficult, but it was the right call.

James said their celebration was canceled once during the First World War, and a couple of times during World War II.

“In those times, it was a matter of resources being so scarce, and so few men, that it didn’t seem practical to be able to do it,” he said. “Now, it isn’t that we don’t have the resources, it’s like war — we’re unwilling to risk the lives of anyone.”

James says the hard truth is that people weren’t going to stay 6 feet apart during a parade or rodeo, and in considering the state and medical advice, “it simply wasn’t worth it.”

“In July, things may be better,” James said. “But you don’t pull off a parade in July — you start working on the floats in February. And what about the high school bands, and getting them together for rehearsals? People weren’t going to do all that 6 feet apart.”

In the final analysis, preparations for Days of ’47 were going to force people close together early in this pandemic, and James said that just wouldn’t have been smart.

Another factor weighing on the decision to cancel was the huge numbers of people who come to town for the parade and rodeo. It will have a “devastating” effect on the local economy, according to James.

“But when you study the coronavirus by ZIP code, where’s the greatest concentration? Downtown Salt Lake,” he said. “Nothing matched up for going ahead with the events.”

Still, James said it’s not lost on his committee that Days of ’47 is a huge family tradition.

“I look at me — I’m a pretty old guy — and I never remember not having the parade,” the 72-year-old James said.

Organizers say they’ll do “something fun and different” for next year’s celebration.

“At the end of the day, our mission for Days of ’47 is to remember the principles of pioneering, tenacity, hope and sacrifice — and in many ways it’s in that spirit that we’ve had to make this decision.”

Fiesta Days

Down in Spanish Fork, the Fiesta Days committee is wrestling with the same questions faced in Ogden and Salt Lake.

“In short, we are still evaluating our Fiesta Days events — including the Fiesta Days Rodeo — certainly wanting to follow and stay in line with Gov. Herbert’s Utah Leads Together 2.0 plan,” said Scott Aylett, public information officer for Spanish Fork City. “And so our Fiesta Days staff and committee are closely evaluating that, as well as the event, but have not come to a decision at this point whether or not there will be modifications to the event, postponement or even cancellation.”

Aylett said the situation faced by the city’s committee is “unprecedented — this COVID-19 is nothing like anything we’ve seen before.”

If they are able to pull it off, 2020 would be the 78th annual rodeo there in Spanish Fork, according to Aylett. He called it a popular event that’s grown to five nights a year and in recent times has seen 57 consecutive sellouts.

“If there were to be a postponement or cancelation of the rodeo, or Fiesta Days as a whole, I venture to say it’s something that hasn’t happened before,” Aylett said.

Knowing that the Days of ’47 committee canceled this year’s celebration in Salt Lake City doesn’t make Spanish Fork any more or less likely to follow suit, according to Aylett.

“When Days of ’47 rodeo decides to cancel, that certainly causes us to look at this even more closely than we already are — and that’s not to say we’re not looking at it, we’ve been looking at it for several weeks,” he said. “But what we want to communicate is that, whatever decision is made, it will not be made quickly or lightly.”

Aylett said Spanish Fork doesn’t have a “drop-dead date” for making a decision, as a lot of the contracts have already been signed for the year.

“But I’m sure as our staff continues to evaluate and work with our committee, obviously we’d like to have a decision sooner rather than later,” he added.

History and heritage

Back in Ogden, Haney says the Pioneer Days committee has been communicating with its contemporaries in Salt Lake and Spanish Fork. Taken together, the three rodeos — all held during the week of the July 24 holiday — offer professional cowboys the chance to make a lot of money in a short amount of time, with relatively little travel involved.

“A lot of professional athletes come here because they’re making money along the trail,” Haney said. “So we are keeping in close contact with the other rodeos here in the West.”

Whatever happens this year, Haney is confident that these coronavirus disruptions are just a speed bump, and that Ogden Pioneer Days — along with Days of ’47 and Fiesta Days — will be back again. And again.

“What I can tell you is that we hold the celebration every year; its part of our history and part of our heritage,” he said. “Rodeo is America’s first extreme sport.”

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