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The Howard Chili Cook-off June 3&4

Article by Elaine Foster

Local Events – June 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

WE HAVE IN OUR MIDST an annual spring event that occurs every year on the first weekend in June and draws hundreds of regulars from as far away as Denver. It’s the Howard Chili Cook-off, which happens this year on June 3rd and 4th.

The Howard Chili Cook-off was started in 1983 by Bill and Sandy Tunstall, former owners of the Sugarbush Campground on Highway 50. The Tunstalls hosted this charity event for years and distributed the profits between various non-profit organizations, including the Howard Volunteer Fire Department and the local ambulance service.

Nearby residents would help Bill and Sandy gather items to be auctioned, clean the campground, set up tables and do the chili cook-off judging. But when the time came for the Tunstalls to hand off the fundraiser to the next generation, it was no small task to teach their successors the myriad of details involved in running the popular event.

The new owners of the campground had lost all of Sandy’s paperwork and she had to reconstruct her notes from memory. Yvonne Stromberg, committee member for the event, remembers that, “The folks at the Howard Volunteer Fire Department were so grateful for the efforts made by Sandy Tunstall to transfer the fundraiser into their hands that they elected her Citizen of the Year.”

So, in 1998, members of the Howard Fire Department officially took over running the Chili Cook-off, and they have hosted it as their primary fundraiser every year since.

After this event left its first home in the Sugarbush Campground, the firefighters held it in the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center (RMOC), which is now the site of Bandera’s Bunkhouse, for four years. The event was next moved to Charter’s Howard Storage building. Then in 2003, after the new Howard Fire Department building was completed, the Cook-Off was permanently housed there, at 8274 Highway 50.

Newcomers to the two-day Howard Chili Cook-Off immediately realize that its name is an understatement. Craft and flea market tables fill the entire fire station and overflow into the yard. The Charity Auction, held both days, offers donated items of all kinds — antiques, framed original paintings, bicycles, furniture, household gadgets and tools, new and used. There are different items every year. Beware: Bidding is contagious. You may think you’re immune, but many a spectator has become a participant when the auctioneer puts a must-have item on the block.

But of course, the chili sampling is what many people come to enjoy. Green chili is cooked, judged and served on Saturday. Red chili on Sunday. Contestants and judges must follow a strict set of rules laid out by the International Chili Society, which includes provisions stipulating that the chili must be cooked on site and no endangered species meat is allowed!

Don and Jackie Corey have been making their chili for this event since 1990. “We were surprised to win first place our very first year,” Jackie recalls. “And we had plenty of help decorating our booth with planks and shelves in western style.” That earned them first place for the best decorated booth, too. That same year the Scanga Meat Company approached them and has sponsored the Coreys ever since. Don Corey, who had a heart operation in 2002, said, “We’re getting older but we’ll participate as long as we can cook. It’s a community service and we enjoy doing it.”

People who are considering entering the Chili Cook-Off for the first time should not be intimidated by those who have been competing for years. New contestants have just as much chance of winning the chili contest as old timers, since new judges are picked every year and their tastes vary widely. And there’s also a People’s Choice category, which the general public gets to vote on.

Since firemen tend to be a competitive bunch, several other competitions take place throughout the weekend. Horseshoe pitching contests are held both days. On Saturday, individuals compete. On Sunday, teams of two take their turns. The prizes are ribbons, t-shirts, and cash.

THE MOTORCYCLE and car competition is always impressive, too. Each shiny, flawless vehicle is driven through the building to be judged by car aficionados. Trophies are awarded in several categories such as best classic, best paint job and best custom.

To continue the tradition of sharing, the Howard Volunteer Fire Department offers free tickets for door prize drawings both days. And they turn over the operation and profits of the kitchen/concession stand to the local ambulance service, Arkansas Valley Ambulance (AVA).

It’s easy to feel welcome at the Howard Chili Cook-Off. The doors of the Howard Volunteer Fire Department on Highway 50 open for the public at 9 a.m. on Saturday. On Sunday, church service begins at 8 a.m., followed by the day’s festivities. The coffee will be ready first thing on both days.

Being part of the annual Howard Chili Cook-Off is very inexpensive. Admission is free. Craft and flea market tables are only $20 for the weekend (although you can sell your wares on only one day, if you want). The cost of entering the chili cook-off contest is $10 each day. But, if you don t care to cook, but you do want to eat, the contestants will sell their chili creations for only 50 cents a serving.

If you’d like to rent a booth space or try your hand at any of the competitions, call one of the committee members: Yvonne Stromberg at 719-942-4213 or Julie Bates at 719-942-3353. They are part of a long history of volunteer service to the communities in the Arkansas River Valley and they would love to have you participate in this year’s event.

Elaine Foster is a grant-writer and ghostwriter. She can be reached at her email address: or P.O. Box 1794, Canon City CO 81215