Riverton City keeps small-town charm during annual festival
Jun 05, 2017 03:58PM
By Tori LaRue
For the second year, the Riverton City Council voted to forgo a carnival at the Town Days festival. Instead, a Fun Zone consisting of inflatable slides, rock walls, obstacle courses and other activities will fill a section of the Riverton City Park. (Tori La Rue/City Journals)
Riverton City may have more than 41,000 residents, but its annual Town Days summer festival pays tribute to its humble beginnings and traditions.
City employees said they weren’t sure when the tradition started, but their earliest picture of the summer festivities is from the early 1900s when Redwood Road had yet to be paved, and the town, with a population of less than 1,000, hadn’t grown to city status yet.
Sheril Garn, a lifelong Riverton resident, remembers attending Town Days in the 1960s when she was a girl. Community member Roy Litson drove his “old, green van-looking thing” across the city and used a speaker system to invite families by name to the park, she said.
“He’d say, ‘Get out of bed. It’s time to come to breakfast. They’re down there cooking at the park,’” Garn recounted. “We decorated our bikes, and we had our bikes in the parade, and that was a big deal. You just didn’t miss that. You just didn’t miss Town Days.”
Fast-forward about 30 years and Garn became a member of Riverton City’s staff. At the time, Garn thought coordinating the city’s largest celebration sounded daunting.
“I said, ‘I don’t care what they make me do in the city as long as I never have to help with Town Days,’” Garn said. “And then, the next year it was mine, and they were like, ‘You’re in charge.’”
So Garn, now Riverton’s Parks and Public Services director, became the chief planner of the citywide party, much to her original dismay. It didn’t take long, however, for her to realize the impact Town Days had on the city and embrace the role.
“I think once you see 2,300 people show up for (Town Days) breakfast, you realize people count on this. This is important to them,” Garn, event planner of 17 years, said.
After a few years planning Town Days, the festival had outgrown some of its previous characteristics. It was getting too large for Garn to depend solely on volunteer forces. The city hired additional staff members to help Garn collect bids from businesses and vendors.
Gone are the days when it would be feasible for a character like Litson to personally invite each Riverton family to Town Days, but Garn’s staff strives to keep the small town feel alive through tradition. They look to utilize consistent vendors and events to create a community vibe like that in years past.
From the Riverton Rodeo and the Chuck Wagon Breakfast to the Town Days Parade and fireworks in the park, Riverton residents look forward to classic Town Days treats, events and even people. For example, two community members, Norma Bench and Colleen Van Wagner, have been self-appointed festival information volunteers for years. They sit in the Riverton recreation trailer and answer questions for Town Days participants. People want and expect those ladies there, Garn said.
Residents tell the recreation department via Facebook and phone that they are dissatisfied when planners steer away from typical Town Days activities.
“Don’t mess with tradition,” Garn said with a laugh. “(Residents) like that haystack guy. They like the parade at night. They expect Bingo. They come every year for the ‘Texas Twister Drink’ or they say, ‘We always come and get our kettle corn. That’s our tradition.’”
The Riverton City Council also helps to perpetuate the “hometown” feel of the event. When the recreation department presented a sleek, professional Town Days brochure to the council, its members voted against implementing the design and opted instead for the usual, casual printout.
“They wanted that little brochure that goes to everybody’s house because it doesn’t look like an advertisement,” Garn said. “It just looks like ‘Hey, come over to the park. Here’s what we’ve got going.’”
Hanging on to tradition while adapting the event to meet the needs of Riverton’s growing population is a delicate balancing act, according to Brittany Parker, community events coordinator.
Last year’s “Fun Zone” inflatable slide, obstacle course and zip line arena was intended to replace the carnival that residents had come to expect since 2004. The city council voted against a carnival when residents voiced safety concerns in public meetings. In the past, carnival operators had shut down rides unexpectedly, and parents had argued that the carnival wasn’t promoting a family-friendly environment.
The city received mixed reviews from residents about the change from a carnival, but the city council opted for the inflatable Fun Zone again this year.
“(Residents) are so used to that carnival, and to them that’s tradition, and I think it might just take a little bit for everyone to catch on to the inflatable-type deal right now,” Parker said.
Parker likes the idea of a Fun Zone because it provides a way for families to be active instead of sedentary sitting on a ride, she said. This year the Fun Zone has several new components including mini golf, waterslides and boxing.
New activities will also be offered before the Riverton Rodeo, the Town Days kickoff event, on June 30 and July 1. Parker said the recreation department wanted to create a “pre-event feel” for the rodeo by offering mechanical bull rides, pony rides and a petting zoo.
Ironically, adding more activities has helped maintain the “small-town feel” at Town Days, according to Garn. That’s why her department added activities in the park after the July 3 parade. Garn’s childhood memories of Town Days involve sitting at her aunt’s house to watch the parade before having a barbecue with her family, but she realized not everyone had a place to celebrate after the parade.
“Not everybody has that family for a tradition, but now we have a city family,” she said. “Now you can go down to the park with your small family, and you watch the movie with your family, or you listen to the jazz band or participate with the food vendors.”
In all her years coordinating the Town Days celebration, Garn said she’s learned that what happens during the parade isn’t nearly as important or memorable as what happens afterward.
“After the parade, you are driving down and watching families gather on the front lawn, and we are watching little ones dressed in red, white and blue eating that taffy out of their sack, and that’s why you do it,” she said. “You do it to build relationships.”
Riverton’s city celebration will begin on June 29 and 30 and July 1 with the three-man sorting competition and Riverton Rodeo at the Riverton City Park. The Town Days Parade and subsequent movie and concert will follow on July 3.
The city is hosting a slew of events on Independence Day, including a flag-raising ceremony, the Chuck Wagon Breakfast, the Riverton Country Mile and Tour De Riverton races, free swimming, an ATV rodeo, the Fun Zone, bingo, a haystack dive, sports tournaments, fireworks and concerts. For a full list of times and locations, visit rivertoncity.com.