By Tera Wick
The first weekend in August was a good time to be in Olathe. On Saturday, Aug. 1, visitors descended on the Western Slope town for all the corn they could eat at the 24th annual Olathe Sweet Corn Festival. And the next day, the second annual Main Street Latino Dance brought families out into the center of town, dancing to the music of a live band while kids hurdled through hula hoops and waved glow sticks. The themes of these two festivals speak directly to the diversity and history of the Olathe community.
Olathe is a town of 1,800 in Montrose County, north of the San Juan Mountains. The Olathe Sweet Corn Festival is an integral part of the Olathe’s identity as an agricultural community. The town’s largest annual event takes place in what the locals call the Corn Park. Along the eastern edge of the park, a large white double-arch commemorates the 1909 opening of the Gunnison Tunnel, the largest irrigation tunnel in the world at the time. The Gunnison Tunnel is literally the lifeline of the Uncompahgre Valley, allowing the waters of the Gunnison River to transform the dry and unyielding sagebrush into a lush landscape filled with the succulent golden crop that now makes Olathe famous.
John Harold, the owner of Tuxedo Corn Company, the sole producer of organic and conventional Olathe Sweet Corn, donates enough corn for hundreds of visitors to sufficiently gorge themselves on butter-covered goodness. Corn eating contests take the stage throughout the day, while visitors from throughout the region come to enjoy the classic small-town friendliness.
Part of my job as The Trust’s community partner for the southwest region of the state is to talk to as many people as possible about what they love about their communities, and what might make them better. At the corn festival, Olathe High School junior Jonathan Howell, Olathe native Sonja Gleason and local volunteer Linda Russo helped me have 108 conversations with the festival attendees about Olathe and the event.
The next evening, I attended the second annual Latino Dance, an event organized by Jose Gonzalez, a volunteer fire department lieutenant, long-time Olathe resident, father and Spanish-language community radio host. Jose’s vision for the dance is “to unite the Hispanic and Anglo families within the town, and to welcome the farm workers who come and work in this small county.” The dance drew several hundred people who, despite late summer rains, took to Olathe’s Main Street, which was closed down in honor of the event. There was pizza for sale, as well as refreshments from a number of Latino-owned businesses that have opened in recent years to meet the needs of the growing Latino community, which currently makes up approximately half of the population of Olathe. Local middle school student and farm worker Lizeth Ramirez, along with local mom Jamie Rodriguez Gonzales, braved the late afternoon rain to talk to more than 30 of their neighbors about what they love about Olathe, and what could make Olathe better.
So what do people in Olathe love about their town? They love its smallness, its tranquility, the way people look after each other and, of course, the corn.
What would people change about it? If you were to take a vote today, it looks like fixing the roads would win, by a long margin. People point to the potholes on Main Street, and the treacherous walk to the elementary school that children brave each day. For many small, hard-working communities like Olathe, raising local revenue for such expensive infrastructure projects can be extremely challenging.
I hope that these conversations are just the beginning of working with the people of Olathe, helping them find ways to make their community an even better place to live, work and play.
UPDATE: I am happy to report that long-awaited road improvements in Olathe are on their way. On Aug. 24, the Town of Olathe Board of Trustees voted to sign a contract for a grant from the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) for a Main Street improvement project scheduled to begin this fall. The funding comes from DOLA’s Energy and Mineral Impact Assistance fund, and will include “replacing old asbestos water line, new curb and gutter, sidewalks; new street lights and poles; storm water abatement; stamped concrete crosswalks; and new asphalt resurfacing,” according to the town’s website. The project cost of nearly $400,000 includes $75,000 in town matching funds made possible through county road improvement fees. Said Olathe Mayor Rob Smith: “I’m personally really excited that [this board of trustees] is going to be the one to do something as big as this for the town of Olathe… I think this is huge.”