Ribbons await as Carolyn Altman writes down comments while judging a set of tomahawks Thursday during the Routt County Fair in Hayden. Ranking the best of Routt County isn't always easy for judges, but they said they're given guidelines, and they usually find those submitting entries simply happy to have their work out in the public and enjoyed.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

Ribbons await as Carolyn Altman writes down comments while judging a set of tomahawks Thursday during the Routt County Fair in Hayden. Ranking the best of Routt County isn't always easy for judges, but they said they're given guidelines, and they usually find those submitting entries simply happy to have their work out in the public and enjoyed.

Life as a fair judge not always so easy

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See a complete Routt County Fair schedule here.

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Norma Carver has been judging jellies, jams and other preserved and canned food at the Routt County Fair for 35 years. It's enough that she said she can grow quite full of the product, but she never stops appreciating it, as she did, smiling wide while tasting a raspberry winner Thursday.

— It’s not that she’s picky.

It’s that she inundated, and as a result, even those with the best intentions should be warned: Bring Norma Carver a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at your own risk.

That’s what sampling more than 90 jams, jellies and canned preserves can do to a woman.

“It will be quite awhile,” she said Thursday afternoon, considering when she might next seek out the sweet treats after her 35th year judging at the Routt County Fair, ongoing this week in Hayden.

“I admire it,” she said. “I just don’t eat it.”

Still, she beamed wide even late in the day at the Routt County Fair, sampling what would be a winning raspberry entry.

Such is the life of one of the many judges brought in from neighboring counties and tasked with picking out the very best Routt County has to offer.

Whether it’s arts, crafts or livestock, they know what they’re looking for, often relying on a checklist to help them find the best or worst qualities in any given item.

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Mary Pat Ettinger leans in to examine a painting Thursday at the Routt County Fair. Among the difficult aspects of judging, she explained, is setting aside her own personal taste to focus on the elements of a piece of artwork.

For Mary Pat Ettinger, there’s method to the madness. She was judging paintings Thursday, leaning in over a table to get a close look and consider everything.

“You really have to look at all the different elements,” she said. “You don’t look at it as whether you like it or not, but you judge it in terms of design and color balance. There are so many elements to consider.”

Now in her fifth year on the job, she has overcome the nervousness and intimidation that defined her first attempt and isn’t bothered when antsy artists gather on her periphery, eager to see how their work is scored.

She’s come to treasure the moments when a child walks by and sees the ribbon he or she was awarded, and she loves to use those moments for constructive criticism and praise.

Across the fairgrounds, young children soaked up constructive criticism of a different sort in the sheep showmanship competition.

The key, they explained, is showing the judge your animal is under control and the best way to do that, besides not letting the sheep leap away, is to keep your eyes on the judge at all times.

Those rules manifest themselves in a pen full of eager young faces following the judge like a growing sunflower follows the sun, grins plastered on even when a sheep tries to bolt for freedom.

“You’re trying to show the judge you have it under control,” Emi Ramirez, 10, said shortly after her first year in the event. “You have to remember that everything is going to be OK.”

But there’s one secret to the fair, and something that can give solace to any judges worried about wrecking dreams: blue ribbon or red, first or last, smiles tend to define the fair more than anything else.

“I just liked it because you get to spend time with your animal,” said Emi, thrilled with her high finish but happy just to be there.

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com

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