Rodeo queen, fair board in dispute over buckle
"It's a very glamorous life to serve as a rodeo queen," says Denell Wilms, mother of Jefferson County Rodeo Queen Aschten Thomas, who resigned her post in July.
The glamor proved too costly, says 22-year-old Thomas.
"I live on my own. I pay my own bills," says Thomas. "The amount of time they were wanting me to take off for the 2021 season, I couldn't financially afford to do that and keep a roof over my head."
A memento of that glamour — a commemorative rodeo belt buckle — is at the center of a dispute.
Thomas was ready to take on her rodeo duties when she tried out in 2019. She signed her contract as the 2020 Jefferson County Rodeo Queen in November before COVID was a household word.
Although the pandemic shut down most rodeo events, Thomas did whatever she was asked, which wasn't much, a parade here, a rodeo there, but she retained her title throughout the year.
"The fair board felt, as did we, the girls in 2020 didn't get the opportunity to represent Jefferson County as we had hoped they would be able to," says Tanya Cloutier, the fair court advisor. "So, the fair board extended the invitation for them to carry over their title for another year."
When Thomas signed the contract for 2021, her life situation had changed. She was working full time and going to school.
Thomas says the fair wanted her to attend about 23 rodeos, spending two days at each rodeo, and pay her travel expenses out of pocket to be reimbursed at the end of the year.
She couldn't afford the time off or the expenses, so Thomas resigned after serving a year and a half.
"She resigned before the fair, so we didn't have the representation she was obligated to represent," says Cloutier. "We had been trying to work with her schedule and represent the fair and the rodeo."
Thomas knew she was giving up a lot when she resigned: the clothes, the hats, the boots, the horse gear. All she wanted was the 2020 commemorative belt buckle.
"I just want something from my year because I did work really hard to get that title," says Thomas. "There's a lot that goes into trying out to be a rodeo queen and that was a lot of stress, a lot of money. I just want that one thing, and they were not willing to even negotiate."
"The fair board has always adamantly and unanimously agreed that if a girl does not finish her representation," says Cloutier, "then they do not want that person out wearing a buckle or something that represents them as a court member out in the public."
The contract is very clear, says Cloutier. "We are just trying to keep everything consistent because, as an advisor, it's somewhat pointless to have a contract that is not going to be upheld."
Regarding the buckle, Wilms urged her daughter not to take no for an answer.
"Someday, when you're in your 40s, you're going to look back on this memory and know that you served during COVID-19," says Wilms, "and you're going to be proud of that belt buckle. And if they take it, you don't have that memorabilia."
Wilms made her case before the Jefferson County Fair Board at its meeting Wednesday, Sept. 1. They said they'd look at the issue again and let her know their decision.
"It almost feels like a punishment because she couldn't serve two years when she was set up for only one," says Wilms. "She's out there chasing her rodeo dream and this has ended bitter sweet for her."
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