Maggie Vandergon, 91, is the force behind Atascadero’s annual celebration of its beginnings—Colony Days. Vandergon was born in Paso Robles and raised on a ranch northeast of San Miguel. Her parents’ families came to the United States in the mid to late 1800s; her great-grandfather came from Ireland and her mother’s family came from Germany.
“We were ranchers. We had both cattle and grain,” Vandergon said. “During the Depression years, it was tough. We always had enough to eat, but just barely. I went to a one-room schoolhouse. I rode a horse four miles one-way. I started that when I was 6 years old.”
Being longtime residents of the Paso Robles area, Vandergon and her family were involved in the Paso Robles Pioneer Day celebration. To this day, Vandergon has remained on the Pioneer Day committee, something she’s been a part of for more than 60 years. Her mother, Ella Adams, was queen of Pioneer Days in 1978 and Vandergon herself was queen of Pioneer Day in 2009.
Vandergon graduated from Paso Robles High School in 1945 and two weeks later left for San Diego because she had joined the United States Cadet Nurse Corp Unit. In order to be a part of that, she had to commit to joining the service after she finished nursing school.
“The war ended shortly after, so I wasn’t committed to joining the service,” Vandergon said, so she didn’t.
Her specialty was in surgery nursing, so while she was working on her post-graduate degree, she taught operating room classes to students. After two years she returned to Paso Robles because she was missing her family. She then worked off and on for Dr. Fred Ragsdale in Paso Robles. She lived with her parents until she got married to her first husband. She moved to Atascadero in 1965 and it didn’t take long for her to get involved with the community.
“I couldn’t understand why a community like Atascadero didn’t have [a celebration like Pioneer Day],” Vandergon said. “Lo and behold, the [Atascadero] Chamber of Commerce decided to have Colony Days, but there was no parade, no nothing.” She added that most of the celebration was a series of articles in the newspapers. The next year, 1974, she was organizing Colony Days and the parade.
“I was parade chair for 21 consecutive years,” Vandergon said. “I worked really hard to make it interesting. I had an elephant on roller skates, Morro Bay Belly Dancers, skydiving, Cal Poly Chinese Lion Dancers and some fantastic Peruvian dancing horses. Escuela del Rio has my biggest and most profound thanks for many fabulous floats year after year.”
After 45 years, Vandergon is still a member and instrumental in the Colony Days celebration.
“Now we’re 45 years and we have a great team and I’m confident we’ll celebration its 100th anniversary—without me, of course,” Vandergon said. “Colony Days is the one day of the year that brings the whole community together.”
Vandergon has been very involved with the Atascadero Chamber of Commerce for many years and when she was on the board, the organization hired its first chamber manager. After a year and a half, he moved on, and suggested that Vandergon take it over. So she resigned as chair and worked as the chamber manager for six years. She enjoyed her work with the chamber immensely and only retired when she married Jack Vandergon. Together they traveled around the world extensively.
“I’ve always enjoyed being active,” she said. “I’ve been on the grand jury, all sorts of things over the year.”
She collects badges, mostly political. She has several thousand political buttons from around the world for any and all sorts of candidates and issues she can get her hands on.
“My very favorite is one I got in China for Chairman Mao,” she said. “I didn’t like him, but it was my most terrific find.”
About Colony Days
This year’s Colony Days celebration will take place on Saturday, Oct. 6, two weeks earlier than it has been held in the past. Vandergon said the event was originally held in the spring, but she said it was changed to October after two years because none of the marching bands were meeting in the spring. The theme is Mudhole Follies, which is based on the follies that happened in Paris and is a play on what some people call Atascadero, “Mudhole.”
“We want to have fun. Follies is about silly, being foolish and we want to do that on as large scale as possible, but also being responsible,” Colony Days Committee Vice Chair Nic Mattson said. “This year we want to do this with the spirit of silliness and fun.”
The week of Colony Days kicked off Sunday, Sept. 30 with the Colony Days Reception hosted by Quota International of Atascadero. On Friday, Oct. 5 from 4:30 to 10 p.m., the committee will host its fundraiser Tent City After Dark, which features live music by Carolina Story, Hilary & Kate and Wood, as well as live music by the Toro Creek Ramblers. There will also be food trucks, beer and wine. Tickets for the event are available at ColonyDays.org.
The main event on Saturday, Oct. 6 will start with a pancake breakfast at 7 a.m., followed by vendors in and around Sunken Gardens from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., the parade at 10 a.m., historic re-enactment of 1916 Tent City, Dogtoberfest wiener dog races in the afternoon and more.
The historical society will also have its museum open during the day and docents will be giving tours of city hall. Community volunteers who work year-round to put together the event put on the Colony Days event. While committee members are always needed, there are a variety of one-off volunteer opportunities from keeping the grounds of the event clean, to setting up and taking down chairs and so much more. Check out ColonyDays.org for more information on how to help.
Heather Young is a freelance writer specializing in travel, wine, food and feel-good stories about people doing good in their communities and world. Find her on Instagram @travelswithheatheryoung