Early Settlers Day is traditionally held on the Saturday following Labor Day Weekend, the second Saturday in September after the first Monday. The Chamber of Commerce manages the yearly event, which features a parade, vendors in the park, talent shows, a live band in the evening and a beer garden, in addition to games such as horse shoes and cornhole. There is a fishing contest for the twelve and under children. Seniors are honored with a free luncheon in the park. The celebration is this Saturday, Sept. 14.

Early Settlers Day was first celebrated in Rocky Ford in 1915, but it was meant for the whole valley, including  Ordway, Manzanola, Rocky Ford, La Junta and Las Animas. The celebration moved around from town to town. In 1931, the committee decided Rocky Ford would be the permanent home, but soon after it was moved to La Junta. The festival continued until 1958, with the exception of war years in the First and Second World Wars (1916-17 and 1942-45). In July 1972, it was revived, according to newspapers stored on microfilm at the Woodruff Memorial Library.

At that time, the celebration was held around the courthouse square downtown, spilling over into the neighboring streets. In honor of the pioneer spirit, many women dressed in the style of the earliest 19th century (about 1870) settlers. There were abundant bonnets and petticoats at the free senior luncheon, then served on the courthouse lawn.

In 2009 the celebration was moved to the city  park, with the northern entrance to the park blocked and the feeder street repaved, clearing the way for the many vendors, public service and food trucks.

Tim Klob was the Chamber president at the time, and there was much controversy about the move. Since that time, the crowds have come to appreciate the shady venue of the park. Many high school class reunions are held at Early Settlers Day, usually featuring their own floats in the annual parade.

There are 32 vehicles, floats and marching units entered in the parade this year. It will be led in by a La Junta Police Department car, followed by the Color Guard of American Legion Post 9. The parade, assembling at 9 a.m. and starting at 10 a.m., will go north from Fifth and Santa Fe to Second Street, east on Second Street to Colorado Avenue, then south on Colorado to Eighth Street.

The La Junta High School Marching Band, first in 2A at the Pueblo State Fair Parade, will play at the main stage immediately following the parade. There is a Kids Fishing Derby at 7:30 a.m., sponsored by Valley Wide Health Systems, followed by the parade at  10 a.m.

The free lunch for seniors is at 12 noon at the City Park West Gazebo, sponsored by Casa del Sol, Sodexo and A Beautiful You. The Singles Horseshoe/Cornhole Tournament is at 1 p.m., followed at 3 p.m. by the Doubles. Both are sponsored by the 16th Judicial District Attorney’s Office. In the meantime, entertainment is going on at the main stage, immediately following the pie eating contest (sign up at 12 p.m.). Pies are from the Village Inn.

Leading off after the pie eating contest at 1 p.m. is Kyle & The Break Room, a local band. At 1:45 the LJHS Cheer Leaders perform, followed at 2 p.m. by the LJHS Choir. Individual singers Bethany Taullie, Misti Hughes follow. The Koshare Indian Dancers perform from 4 to 4:30 p.m. and Destiny Clarke sings at 4:30 to 5 p.m. DJ Rivas acts as emcee from 12 p.m. until 7 p.m., the two hours from 5 to 7 p.m. on his own.

Admission to the street dance, with music by the So What Brothers, is $8 in advance or $10 per person at the gate (the gate being the fence around the tennis courts). The dance will start at 7 p.m. and go to 11 p.m. The beer garden opens at noon and end at 11 p.m. Servers are members of the Chamber of Commerce, who sponsor the whole shebang.

Early Settlers Day is the time to meet old friends and neighbors, a little like a family reunion for the whole valley. You can go early in the morning, have lunch at the park, and stay for the dance if you wish,which is the only thing where you have to pay to participate.