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Ronan Harvest Fest Celebrated

Record number attend annual town celebration

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RONAN–On a warm fall day, families and friends gathered at the Ronan Visitors’ Center to eat food, play games, and celebrate the start of the fall season.

“The picnic tables are full, and people are visiting who haven’t seen each other all summer,” said Heather Gray, a member of the Ronan Chamber of Commerce board.

Gray said this year’s turnout was the largest in the history of the festival. She said that the event successfully brought together businesses and community, capturing the character of the Ronan community.  

The main event at the festival was the third annual Dutch Oven Cook-Off. Nine groups competed for the first place t-shirt prize in four categories: main dish, side dish, bread, and dessert. Most participants were from the Mission Valley, but one group traveled from Plains and another from Casper, Wyoming to compete.

Contestants cooked their meals at the 

festival, some starting early in the morning. Each team was given $25 in Ronan Chamber Bucks for their participation.

Ronna Walchuk started the cook-off three years ago. She is familiar with Dutch oven cooking because she worked on a wagon train in the Mission Valley, where she learned to cook with a Dutch oven on an open fire. She said she thought that the cook-off would add a unique flair to the harvest festival, and the chamber of commerce supported her idea. 

Those who attended the festival could pay $10 for the opportunity to sample the cook-off entries. 

Just before the bell rang to start the tasting, Anza LaBonty cut crisp beer bread while her husband Dennis prepared to serve lasagna straight from the Dutch oven. A line of festival attendees waited eagerly to get their taste. For dessert, the couple had prepared a pineapple upside down cake. The LaBontys, who live in Polson, are veterans of the cook-off. They have participated all three years and placed first in 2016.  

The couple said that they have been cooking with Dutch ovens on river rafting trips for 20 years. “This is the best way to cook on the river,” Anza said.

Four judges determined the winners of the contest. The judges were Sherriff Don Bell, Geof Rohrlach, Jesse Lytton, and chef Mike Clairmont. Walchuk said she chose the four cook-off judges because they were adventurous eaters.

Clairmont said Dutch oven cooking is unique compared to cooking in a conventional oven because flavors blend more in a Dutch oven. He said that Dutch oven meals cook more quickly, which can make timing a meal a challenge.

First place for the main dish went to the Gukel team from Casper, Wyoming, for their prime rib. First place for the side dish was awarded to “Ed’s potatoes.” The Hee Haw team received the top award in the bread category for their cornbread. First place for dessert was awarded to the Access Montana team for their s’mores dish.

“I’m elated at how well it turned out this year,” Walchuk said of the event.

Renee Loehr of Ronan said her favorite part of the festival was browsing the wares that local people brought to sell. “Everybody’s so talented,” she said of the vendors.

Local vendors sold a variety of items at the event, from handcrafted jewelry, to furniture, to food. 

Nine-year-old Sierra Symington brought her goats Oreo and Trix to entertain children at the event’s petting zoo. Symington has been attending the event nearly all her life.

Symington said that the goats liked the attention they got from children, and she likes sharing her animals with the community. “I like making people happy,” she said. 

A rabbit, turkeys, and kittens were also part of the petting zoo. Other activities geared toward entertaining children included a bounce house, a rock-climbing wall, and crafts with the CSKT tribal education Maker Truck. Children also built small robots with the help of the Ronan High School Technology Student Association. 

John Turcotte was in town from Billings during the event and said that he was impressed with the festival. “The food was excellent,” he said. “The whole thing was wonderful.”

The Dutch Oven Cook-Off wasn’t the only contest at the festival. Attendees were the judges in the hay bale contest. Community members voted for their favorite of the 54 hay bale sculptures displayed around town. Photos of the hay bales, decorated by local businesses, organizations, and individuals, were displayed at the festival. 

First place in the hay bale contest went to Mission Valley Power for their magical chariot. Second place was given to Ronan Dental for the tooth fairy, and third place went to St. Luke Community Healthcare’s Eeyore.

“We had so many good ones this year,” said Lana Bartel, Ronan Chamber of Commerce member. “Letting the public vote for the best ones is the only way to go because it would be too hard for a few people to make that choice.”

She said around 400 people voted in the contest. “It was a great turnout. We had so many people that we ran out of regular voting tickets.”

If anyone has any suggestions for next year’s event, contact the chamber. 

“We continue to grow and add new things each year,” Bartel said. “If anyone has any new ideas, let us know.”      






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