The Valley of Opportunity: A History of West-Central Colorado
BLM Cultural Resource Series (Colorado: No. 12)
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Chapter VII:

"The year following our first planting on the mesa was fated to be one of the dryest on record. The canal stopped two miles above us and we died—slowly; keeping up the fight to the last."

—Mary Hallock Foote

In 1881, when the United States Army opened the Ute Reservation for settlement by Anglo-Americans, many of those who rushed in were searching for land to farm. The agrarians had read Professor Hayden's reports and heard about Meeker's experiments on the White River. They knew that with hard work, the valleys could bloom. Over the years these people struggled against drought, pestilence, and other hardships to carve out lives for themselves. These sodbusters, in many ways, were the real heroes in the settlement of west-central Colorado. They came as families to build permanent homes throughout the region's valleys. Their numbers were such that they peopled all arable land. Because many came as members of family units, they brought "civilizing" forces with them, demanding schools, churches, towns, and many other things not sought by cattlemen or prospectors.

Vast quantities of cheap land attracted farmers as it did cattlemen. Parts of the area fell under provisions of the Homestead Act, as explained earlier, while other tracts, particularly around Grand Junction, were covered by the Ute Reservation bill that allowed settlers to pre-empt up to 160 acres. Pre-emption gave each claimant the right to purchase his land from the government for $1.25 an acre before the land was opened up to others. If farmers chose not to buy from the General Land Office (GLO) the land reverted to the public domain. It could then be filed on by anyone. Some west-central Coloradans also took advantage of the Timber Culture and Desert Land Acts to acquire farms, but not to the extent cattlemen did. [1]

People lured into the region by the availability of land came from all walks of American life. Many were Coloradans who moved to the new frontier from other parts of the state. A considerable number came from mining camps where they could not secure satisfactory jobs. Leadville, which attracted many people to Colorado, also acted as a gateway to the western regions of the state. [2] Specifically, early settlers and farmers who moved to Aspen, McCoy, Glenwood Springs, Rifle, and Parachute, as well as Grand Junction, often travelled via Leadville. [3] Grand Junction also received many settlers from the San Juan mining camps such as Telluride or Ouray. [4] After the Panic of 1893, and the closing of many Colorado silver mines, this trend became more pronounced. Mining towns within the region, such as Aspen, supplied settlers to farm in west-central Colorado. [5] Land promoters around Grand Junction and Palisade recognized this phenomenon and actively recruited throughout the state, especially on the eastern slope. This type of boosterism lasted until 1910, and in some cases, later. [6] The promoters will be discussed in the next chapter.

The sellers of west-central Colorado spread their message throughout much of the United States and in so doing, convinced many Americans to relocate. While all parts of the Union contributed to the area's population, Midwestern husbandmen became the major source of the region's settlers. Rail connections helped, as did special fares offered immigrants by many rail companies. [7] Ohio, Kansas, Nebraska, Illinois, and Missouri all sent families to the Grand Valley. Some came before the Panic of 1893, however, that financial upheaval encouraged many to head west seeking a new start. [8] Iowa offered the largest and most consistent flow of Midwesterners to west-central Colorado. [9] Some of these people, such as Isaac Cooper, became town founders and promoters. Glenwood Springs was named after his hometown of Glenwood, Iowa. [10] Most from the Hawkeye State never became as well known as Cooper, but their presence brought qualities to area life that would have been missing otherwise. They took up homes all over the region, from Eagle to Grand Junction. [11] At times they came in large groups, such as a trainload of 50 who relocated to Palisade, Colorado, in 1905. [12] More often they arrived one or two families at a time. [13] No matter how they came, the Iowans were present in large enough numbers to hold their own Iowa Day celebrations at Grand Junction in the early twentieth century. [14] During the period 1881 to 1920, Midwesterners far and away led in numbers of immigrants to the area but other parts of the country also sent sons and daughters to the Grand Valley.

Another section of the United States from which large numbers migrated was New England. People from Maine settled Battlement Mesa in the late 1880s. They made up the majority of that locale's population until 1920. [15] Elsewhere in the region, such as at Grand Junction, other New Englanders built their homes at the same time. Few blacks settled in west-central Colorado, but those who did were well accepted. [16]

No matter where they moved from, native-born Americans made up the majority of west-central Colorado's population during the first forty years of Anglo occupation. In 1882, only a very small number of non-native born Europeans were present around Grand Junction. [17] This pattern remained fairly constant over the years and by 1930, only ten percent of the Grand Valley's population was foreign-born. [18]

Of that ten percent of non-native settlers, most came to west-central Colorado from English-speaking nations, primarily England and Canada. [19] W. A. E. DeBeque, for whom DeBeque Canyon was named, relocated to the region from New Brunswick, Canada, [20] while Morrisania Mesa was first opened by Englishmen in an attempt to re-create the country gentry lifestyle of their homeland. [21]

People of German ancestry were also attracted to western Colorado. During the 1890s Germans, who first settled at Golden, Colorado, moved west to Conger Mesa near McCoy. [22] At approximately the same time, farmers from Mahrenburg, Germany, located on Battlement Mesa. [23] German-Russians, (Germans who had settled the Russian Steppe at the time of Catherine II) dissatisfied with Russian life, came to Colorado during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

These Volga Germans, well respected sugar beet growers on the eastern slope, [24] came to west-central Colorado early in the twentieth century as beet cultivation spread into the region. [25] In 1906 and 1907, German Russian representatives examined Mesa and Garfield Counties as well as Montrose and Delta Counties. This did not lead to a large migration until 1910-1913, when numerous Volga Germans crossed the Rockies in order to become independent farmers in the Grand Valley. They were disappointed by the hilly terrain and "poor" soil. By 1915, most had returned to eastern slope beet fields. [26] Not all immigrants were unhappy with west-central Colorado and stayed to build their lives much like their native born neighbors.

Other foreign-born families came from all over Europe. Frenchmen, Hungarians, Poles, Slavs, and others helped build the region from a barren wilderness into an area world famous for its bountiful crops. [27]

The river valleys such as the Eagle or the Grand were the areas farmers sought when they arrived during the 1880s or 1890s. The 1880s was a decade of rapid expansion for all Colorado farming. The number of farms increased 400 percent. The west-central area of the state led all Colorado regions in this increase. [28] The valleys had rich soils of decomposed lava and silt deposited by floods over thousands of years. The rivers also provided the water so necessary to successful crop cultivation. [29] In Colorado, land and water did not come together. A settler could buy or homestead land but then had to buy or claim water rights if he intended to irrigate his land. [30]

Irrigation in the United States dated to well before European settlement. The Pueblo Indians of New Mexico watered their fields for hundreds of years before Spaniards arrived in that territory. The Spanish had experience with artificial water supplies in the Old World and when they found the Native American system, they simply adapted it to their uses. Out of this tradition, Mexican settlers in Colorado's San Luis Valley irrigated their crops, being the first Coloradans to do so. Next, Brigham Young's followers learned of irrigation first hand from these people when they settled Utah during the 1840s. The practice of artificially supplying water to the land was copied by Colorado's first Anglo farmers on the eastern slope during the 1860s and 1870s, such as the Union Colony settlers at Greeley, Colorado. [31] By the time Anglo-American farmers penetrated western Colorado, they were well informed as to reclamation methods and technical requirements.

Colorado's state constitution also helped spread irrigated farming. Framers of this document, realizing the special water problems faced by state residents, set out the doctrine of "prior appropriation" to govern all water usage. This called for superiority of rights if the water was put to "beneficial use," which was then defined as domestic needs, had top priority followed by agricultural use. This assured farmers protection for their rights once they had secured water through claim or purchase. [32]

The importance of irrigation to farmers in the Grand Valley was well recognized. During his promotional efforts of 1880 and 1881, before Grand Junction was founded, Governor Crawford recognized the need for reclamation. His ideas were probably based on the Hayden Tenth Annual Report in which the explorer proposed a canal system for the region. [33] Once the first farmers settled along the Grand River in the fall of 1881, they realized the accuracy of the Geological Survey's work.

The next spring construction on irrigation projects, using river water, got underway. Twenty-two ranchers built the Pioneer Ditch upriver from Grand Junction. Another group dug the Pacific Slope Ditch to carry water to town and this ditch opened on July 4, 1882. [34]

Further east in the region, other farmers also began irrigation systems during these first years of settlement. Near Rulison, Colorado, the Camp Bird, Harding and Sinnerl, and Holmes ditches, using water from Cache Creek, were all in operation by the end of 1884. [35] In the Roaring Fork Valley Glassier, Peterson, Robinson and Harris, and Reed ditches began moving water that same year. [36] Midwestern farmers learned quickly how to farm with artificially supplied water. Their economic and physical survival demanded such lessons. Throughout west-central Colorado the necessity of irrigation to successful farming was accepted. Until the early 1900s, almost all cultivation of crops was done by irrigation and the interdependence of the two must be kept in mind when discussing farming in the region's history during the years from 1881 to 1920. [37]

As mentioned, reclamation was started almost as soon as settlers arrived in the Grand Valley. These first attempts were limited in size to individual or small group ventures. Often these ditches were too poorly and hastily constructed to be long lasting. Spring high waters in the rivers often destroyed the headgates, inundating the entire system and damaging the fields. The lack of resources, both labor and financial, were to blame. [38]

Realizing this, many irrigators turned to cooperatives and corporations to solve their problems. In 1882, capitalist and water promoter, T. C. Henry, proposed the construction of an intricate set of canals to be known as the Grand Valley Canal from Palisade to the future location of Fruita. Local agriculturalists welcomed Henry's scheme as a panacea. [39] The canals were to be gravity activated. [40] The promoter secured financing for the effort and started construction. Part of his plan called for users to eventually buy out the company and operate it as a cooperative, allowing them to exchange money or labor for shares in the corporation. Parts of the ditch were completed by 1883, and the first fields were watered that year. [41]

Following Henry's example, companies and farmers all over the region built corporate canals during the 1880s and 1890s. Many of these companies were based outside the region and operated as both land and water brokers. Such ventures bought tracts from other landowners or the government while securing water rights at the same time. They offered settlers a package of both commodities. The corporations did much to promote the Grand Valley because to make a profit they had to attract pioneers. [42]

Another approach used by companies was to found agricultural colonies. Such operations were commercial farms wherein each worker had specialized duties. He rented or received housing and pay from the owners. The corporation retained title to the land and water rights. It also managed the farms by providing seed, tools, and other necessities. Often these large-scale commercial farms operated as raw material suppliers for food processing companies.

Garmesa Farms was foremost among such communal agri-businesses in west-central Colorado. This colony, located approximately 15 miles north-northwest of Fruita, on the border of Garfield and Mesa Counties, Colorado, covered 3,000 acres (probably 1,200). Quaker Oats owned the farms. The immediate area had been settled earlier but by 1911 these farmers had left. The colony was designed to be self-sufficient, growing or producing all the resident's needs on the farm. [43]

Plans called for all the facilities of an irrigated farm to be built at Garmesa. Cisterns, reservoirs, and irrigation ditches were constructed. Barns, sheds, houses, and various out buildings sprang up. Grain fields, stock pastures, and hay fields, as well as orchards, were planted. Cattle, sheep, pigs, and horses were tended and raised for work as well as food. Each family was assigned a garden plot in addition to the truck crops grown in the larger fields. Quaker management hired Robert Lazear to be general manager of Garmesa Farms. Quaker Oats did all this work as an experiment and an investment. [44]

When the project was announced in 1911, optimism ran high in Grand Junction. During the first years of production the farms lost money because of construction costs and the fact that self-sufficiency was not attained. During World War I, Garmesa enjoyed the general agricultural prosperity of the region, however, new problems began to appear late in the war years. Silt build-up in the reservoir and irrigation ditches required constant attention and a general drought made the situation worse. Silting removal became such a problem that by 1920, Quaker, on the advice of Lazear, decided to close Garmesa Farms. Lazear believed that the farms could have succeeded had a solution to the silting dilemma been found. But no practical alternative was found and on March 31, 1920, a liquidation sale took place. [45] This marked the end of the greatest experiment in corporate colonization in west-central Colorado.

The Garmesa experience typified many of the pitfalls faced by farmers in the region. First the practical problems of raising crops with irrigation had to be overcome. Silting was an ever-present obstacle and in many areas dredging canals became an annual event. Water seepage from the ditches and increased saline content also had to be overcome, either through drainage or concrete linings for feeder canals or both. [46] Spring floods endangered headgates and other parts of the systems and often caused severe damage. [47] These conditions limited the irrigator's choices as did other factors.

As corporations, rather than individuals, became the primary financiers of water diversions in west-central Colorado, the farmer's monetary woes grew. Homesteaders in any newly opened area needed capital and often used mortgages to raise funds. In irrigated regions the capital demand was greater, so water companies found a ready market for their services. [48] The agrarian's mortgage obligations and fixed costs were considerably higher in irrigated areas than elsewhere. Because of this they organized, and later lobbied for, state legislation to protect their rights from the water companies. They succeeded in getting an anti-royalty (surcharge) law for water companies placed in Colorado's statutes. [49]

During the 1890s irrigators also sought state financing for new reclamation projects. Grand Junction area agri-businessmen were particularly active in this drive. As early as 1891 Mesa County representatives secured state support for a "high line" canal from Palisade to Fruita, north of the Grand River. The state ditch plans lasted two years before the effort was halted by the General Assembly. [50] This defeat did not stop area farmers from arguing their case or hoping for renewed state interest.

Others, especially after defeat of the high line measure started talking of Federal aid to build irrigation systems. The Federal government, however, resisted all attempts to get directly involved in the business of supplying water during the 1890s. Rather Congress and the President hoped to encourage private or state involvement. Passage of the Desert Land Act in 1877, and its later application into west-central Colorado, served as an example of this laissez-faire philosophy of government that predominated the late nineteenth century American political climate. Many people, both in and out of Washington, felt that abuses of the public domain were not too high a price to pay to keep the Federal bureaucracy at a minimum. [51]

By the mid-1890s, when it became obvious that the Desert Land Act was not encouraging the development of private irrigation, Congress determined a new policy. Still believing in laissez-faire, the legislators examined the situation. After years of study it was decided that individual western states should have financial responsibility for reclamation projects. As a result, in 1894, the Carey Act passed through Congress and President Grover Cleveland signed it into law. This provided for grants of up to two million acres in each state if the individual states would capitalize and maintain irrigation projects. The law proved a failure and farmers, still seeking Federal aid, had to wait until the twentieth century for satisfaction. [52]

Demands for state or Federal assistance to reclamation was only one manifestation of the dilemma that faced most west-central Colorado irrigators. They had to have artificially supplied water to successfully grow most crops. But the cost per acre to produce that way ran as much as three or four times more than doing so with naturally available moisture. Cereal cultivation did not yield a high enough return to cover these increased expenses so west-central Colorado agrarians were forced to find cash crops. [53] Subsistence farming, as typically associated with frontier development, was not part of the area's experience. Instead of farming to survive, settlers in the region soon turned to commercial agriculture.

Upon arrival in 1881, the first settlers in the Grand Valley set out to establish farms and find markets for their produce. Many turned envious eyes farther east because they had easier access to the mining camps. These mineral towns offered trading centers. Furthermore, because of their isolation, often residents were willing to pay premium prices for foodstuffs. Grand Valley produce included wheat (flour), hay, oats, and vegetables. [54] In the Grand Junction vicinity, farmers, denied access to the east until construction of the Roan Creek Toll Road, turned their attention to the San Juans. Gunnison, Silverton, Ouray, and Durango all appealed to area farmers as potential markets. Otto Mears's system of toll roads made these camps accessible and since a number of Grand Junction's first settlers came from the San Juans, it was natural for them to be interested in those markets. [55]

The 1882 growing season, first for farming in much of the area, witnessed farmers busily at work on many problems. As earlier mentioned, they started construction of the first irrigation ditches that same year. Also, many searched for marketable crops. The mining camps needed all types of produce to feed the people and livestock. Early farmers attempted to meet all these demands by growing a wide variety of crops. Hay, oats, corn, wheat, rye, and vegetables occupied the newly plowed fields. This multiple-use practice was continued into the latter 1880s but was totally replaced by 1890 with single crop cultivation in the irrigated portions of the Grand Valley. [56]

The same year that the first crops were planted near Grand Junction, Elam Blaine, pioneer in that town, brought the first fruit trees into the Grand Valley. In so doing he introduced crops that were well suited to the environment, adaptable to irrigation, highly marketable and good cash crops. Blaine's peach and apple trees proved successful, [57] and soon orchards sprang up along the Grand River spreading from New Castle west to the Utah line.

News of Blaine's bountiful harvests spread. In 1883, D. S. Grimes of Denver was so impressed with the area's fruit potential that he purchased 2,000 acres and established a tree nursery. [58] All types of harder fruits were experimented with, however, pears, apples, cherries, and plums proved most popular with farmers. During the 1880s, peaches gained widespread acceptance, so that by 1890, these were the primary fruits of Grand Junction. [59]

At the same time that Grimes was setting out his nursery, William E. Pabor visited the area and envisioned orchards covering the valley. He originally came to Colorado as secretary of Horace Greeley's Union Colony at Greeley, Colorado, where he worked closely with Nathan C. Meeker, later of the White River Ute Agency. Both men believed in the state's agricultural potential, especially through irrigation. In the fall of 1883, Pabor, as agent of Denver's Colorado Loan and Trust Company, visited the Grand Valley. Travelling west from Grand Junction, he located promising lands on which to found a town and set out orchards. [60]

Upon returning to Denver, Pabor undertook the promotion of an orchard settlement in the area he had visited. He penned pamphlets outlining the region's possibilities. The brochures spoke of a mild climate, vast lands open for filing, adequate water supplies and numerous markets. His analysis indicated there could be acres of peach and other fruit trees, the production of which could easily be sold to San Juan miners. These customers were named due to their proximity and easy transportation via the Denver and Rio Grande and/or wagons. [61]

All this promotional effort reached a climax the next year when Pabor returned to the Grand Valley and proceeded to found the Fruita Town and Land Company. This organization purchased 520 acres of land and enough water rights to irrigate the tract, thereby offering potential residents a package of both commodities. The first fruit trees were set out during the summer of 1884 and by 1886, they were bearing crops. By that latter year, a five acre plot, with orchard, sold for $500. While costs were high, the promoters countered this by promising returns of $600 to $800 an acre. [62]

Publicizing the Grand Valley's fruit growing potential became a full-time livelihood for many individuals from the mid-1880s until 1910. Their basic arguments were based on the claims of wealth and prosperity available to anyone who would buy a few acres of orchard land (with water) and harvest the crops. By 1905, reports of income averaging $3,200 from eight acres of peaches were common throughout the valley from Silt, Colorado, west to Loma or Fruita. [63] Land companies, such as the Antlers Orchard Development Company of Silt or the Reed Investment Company printed these claims as did numerous Chambers of Commerce or Boards of Information. [64] Additionally, many of the towns sponsored fairs such as Peach Days, Apple Days, Strawberry Days and so on to boost fruit cultivation. [65] At many of these celebrations local producers entered contests, won awards and had their products sent off by the promoters to serve as exhibits at national conventions and fairs. Often these same crops were photographed and the pictures were used in publicity brochures. [66] All these activities were aimed at increasing demand for Grand Valley fruit as well as attracting new farmers to the area.

The promoters' efforts succeeded and once relocated, the prospective orchardist faced many choices as to what he should raise. The early years witnessed the spread of peaches, apples, and pears but as the twentieth century approached other fruits were experimented with. Plums, cherries, various types of berries, melons and even almonds were cultivated in an attempt to find new cash crops. Certain areas specialized in specific kinds of produce. [67] During the 1880s and 1890s, orchard acreage steadily increased as more people came to west-central Colorado. The majority of fruit farms were small because of the large amounts of capital and labor required for fruit raising. [68]

As the industry grew and the Grand Valley's reputation for fine produce spread, farmers undertook to identify and open new markets. The mining camps continued to be important but during the 1890s, with established rail service and increased production, the Denver and east slope markets were also penetrated. As mining activity decreased after the Panic of 1893, the old steady customers no longer required as much produce. [69] After 1900, national fruit exchanges opened to Grand Valley producers and New Yorkers, Chicagoans, and others enjoyed Colorado peaches, apples, cherries, and various fruits. [70] The boom reached its height in 1906, as both acreages and prices peaked before entering into a period of decline. However, no one in the region recognized this trend at the time and optimism remained high. [71]

Throughout the boom, fruit producers not only searched for new markets but also for innovative methods of selling their crops. Starting in 1891, with the Grand Valley Fruit Growers Association, farmers voluntarily formed cooperative marketing organizations. It was felt that by joining together not only could better prices be achieved by controlling the supply, but also, favorable shipping and warehousing rates would be granted them. [72] Over the years many such cooperatives were organized and disbanded in an effort to secure better sales conditions either through marketing or by supporting the construction and operation of canneries. [73]

While marketing was the major emphasis of Grand Valley's fruit co-ops, they also served two additional functions. The Grand Valley Fruit Growers Association sponsored tests on different varieties of trees for weather resistance, bearing capacity, quality, and vitality. Furthermore, the members worked through the organization to control the quality of exported fruit. The group also served as a convenient way to organize pest eradication projects. [74]

After marketing, in the farmer's priorities, next came the control of pests and diseases. Codling moths and other insects did considerable damage to fruit buds as well as to mature crops. Growers turned to spraying for controlling these infestations. The chemicals used were oil-based and generally proved effective. However, with passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, regulations concerning the presence of substances on fresh fruit went into effect. The sprays used on Grand Valley orchards were banned thus forcing producers to find new control methods or thoroughly wash each piece of fruit before it was shipped. The costs involved proved great and some area growers decided to discontinue production or shift to other crops. [75]

Other problems also plagued west-central Colorado orchardmen during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One of these was the weather. While the surrounding mountains usually protected the trees from the most severe meteorological changes occasionally devastating snows or rains swooped into the valley and caused damage. These storms were rare occurences compared to the instances of hard freezes during spring months. After a few bad experiences, farmers adopted smudging and orchard heaters as ways to protect the young fruit trees from cold weather. In the early 1900s heaters cost between 15 and 50 cents each and the oil costs for one night's operation on a typical fruit farm of eight acres was approximately $2.50. [76] The buds and trees also were vulnerable to wildlife. Deer found them to be particularly good scratching posts in addition to providing a food they liked. Farmers were forced to shoot the animals or run them off. [77] If the trees were successfully protected through spring and summer, fall brought new problems for fruit growers.

Harvest time in August or September was in many ways the most critical for production. Most types of fruit grown in the Grand Valley had a very short prime harvest season. Peaches especially had to be picked quickly or they became unshippable, in some cases even falling off the trees. An entire crop could be lost within 24 hours. Apples were more durable and could be picked as much as two days after they were ready. This led to an uneven labor demand throughout the season with minimal numbers of workers utilized during spring and summer, but large crews needed at harvest time. Women, children, and anyone else available was pressed into service at harvest to get the crop out of the orchard and ready to ship. Migrant workers were occasionally hired but during the period from 1881 until 1920, large families supplied the majority of labor needed to harvest and pack the hundreds of rail cars of fruit shipped from Grand Valley farms each year. [78] The orchardman's last problem came in preparing the produce for transportation to distant markets. He had to pack it in such a way as to assure that it arrived in palatable condition. Again time was crucial, the "keeping time" of various fruits differed but none were indefinite. Cooperative loading docks were constructed by many of the fruit growers associations to meet the deadlines. [79] Harvests tested not only the area's labor capacity but also that of the railroads. At such times as many as 100 cars were loaded each day. To meet this demand both the Denver, and Rio Grande and Colorado Midland leased extra locomotives from other lines and hoarded refrigerator cars. [80]

fruit pickers
The annual fruit harvest in the Grand Valley provided a cash crop that was important for agricultural development. Photo by Museum of Western Colorado

All these problems, as well as the high costs of irrigation, meant that farmers had to get good prices for their crops in order to survive. As production expanded before 1906, demand kept ahead of supply in most years, however, at approximately that point in time demand leveled off while the supply continued to increase. This drove prices down. Farmers failed to understand this marketplace change but rather blamed the associations for mishandling their trusteeship. This was logical because in years of good prices these same associations took credit for the high returns. Therefore it stood to reason that they were at fault for low price yields to producers. [81]

Some area residents understood the supply and demand relationship and started calling for local canning plants in an effort to avoid glutting the market by processing and withholding part of each year's crop. Such a solution also would be a way to profitably use over-ripe fruit. [82] In 1905, the valley's first cannery was built at Palisade by the local growers association. Soon others sprang up throughout the valley from Palisade to Fruita. [83]

These actions did not halt the downturn in prices and by 1908, local orchard land values were slipping at an alarming rate. This continued until 1915, and the outbreak of World War I. Again, as with the livestock industry, wartime demand came to the Grand Valley's rescue. The events in Europe temporarily halted the decline but by 1920, fruit growers entered a new cycle of depression. [84]

The Grand River floodplain from Silt to Loma was foremost among western Colorado fruit growing regions; the cultivation of these crops was also attempted elsewhere. During the 1890s Henry Butters, stockman and agriculturalist, tried to grow an orchard in the Roaring Fork Valley. His efforts met with little success. [85] There was no evidence of extensive attempts at orchards in the Eagle Valley.

While the fruit market was peaking in the early 1900s, some area farmers recognized the problem of over-supply and its relation to low prices. They started looking for new crops so as to diversify their operations. Alfalfa, vegetables, grain, and livestock were all looked to as solutions. Also, many thought that the same lands that grew fruit could be used simultaneously for another product by planting it between the tree rows. [86] Among these experiments, sugar beets became the crop to capture most farmers' attention in west-central Colorado.

Beet sugar cultivation dated to the time of Napoleon I of France and by the late nineteenth century it had spread across much of western Europe as well as the United States. [87] During the 1890s, Utah and Nebraska developed embryonic sugar industries. West-central Coloradans followed this progress with interest. Sugar beets were a staple cash crop and as such appealed to area farmers. The cash generated would help cover irrigation costs involved in raising that crop. Also, once processed the beet tops and pulp were saleable as high quality livestock feed. Furthermore, many fruit growers experimented with raising beets between the tree rows, however, this eventually proved unworkable. [88] As early as 1887, Henry R. Rhone started beet culture on a test basis. His work produced crops high in sugar content. At approximately the same time other farmers tried growing sugar cane but with little success. [89]

Rhone's efforts gave Grand Valley beet proponents information to use in their arguments. Men such as George Crawford or Edwin Price, both Grand Junction boosters, set out on a propaganda campaign to encourage sugar beet production and possibly convince some company to build a refinery at that town. [90] By 1892, these boosters, joined by C.F. Mitchell, had sold the Oxnard Beet Sugar Company of Grand Island, Nebraska, on the idea of a plant at Grand Junction. Consummation of the deal depended upon valley farmers agreeing to raise a minimum of 5,000 acres of beets. With the fruit boom well underway local crop raisers were reluctant to support the project and Oxnard opted not to build the plant in Colorado. [91]

The plant proposal's failure did not dampen the spirit of area beet promoters. They continued to encourage farmers and made numerous visits to the Utah Beet Sugar Company facilities at Lehi, Utah. The Coloradans used the Utah operation as an example of what was possible for Grand Junction. All beets grown in western Colorado, at the time, were marketed to the Lehi factory. Production remained small, however. [92]

Charles E. Mitchell of Grand Junction became the premier booster of beet cultivation in the Grand Valley during the 1890s. He argued that the area was ideally suited for a plant because of the locally available coal, lime, and water. Also, adequate transportation was available via the Denver and Rio Grande or Colorado Midland. [93] High fruit prices and the uncertainties of national tariff policies on sugar imports defeated many of Mitchell's attempts until 1898. [94]

With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War and Cuban disruption in that year, the United States' sugar supply was interrupted. These events led to a re-evaluation of beet sugar as a source of sweeteners and aided Mitchell's work. In February, 1898, Mitchell and C. N. Cox, along with other Grand Junction business leaders, founded the Grand Valley Beet Sugar Company. This organization's purpose was to attract outside investors to build a factory in the valley. Their efforts focused on Denver and the eastern slope, as well as locally. [95] To further their cause, Mitchell and Cox prevailed upon Mesa County's commissioners to guarantee at least $350,000 or 1 percent of cost of building a plant in that county. [96] Elsewhere, at Glenwood Springs and other towns throughout the region, merchants anxiously waited to see what success the Grand Junction forces would have. [97]

sugar beet factory
The Grand Junction sugar beet factory was the first such plant in Colorado and stimulated the Grand Valley's leadership in beet sugar. Photo by Museum of Western Colorado

Grand Valley
Grand Valley, Colorado, in 1916, appeared to be a prosperous town where agriculture was dominate. Photo by U.S. Geological Survey.

Cox and Mitchell's sales campaign paid off in Denver by late 1898. Charles Boettcher, founder of Ideal Basic Industries, John F. Campion, Leadville-Denver mining promoter, and others listened to the arguments and were convinced. On January 3, 1899, the Colorado Sugar Manufacturing Company filed incorporation papers with Colorado's Secretary of State. Organizers included Boettcher, Campion, as well as mining engineer Eben Smith, J. R. McKinney, and J. J. Brown, husband of the "Unsinkable Mollie" Brown. The corporation was to build a beet sugar factory at Grand Junction. [98]

At that time the beet sugar extraction process was fully automated. The Grand Junction plant design called for a daily capacity of 8,000 pounds of sugar needing only about 100 workers and staff to operate 24 hours a day. The facility was built by E. H. Dyer and Company of Cleveland, Ohio, who had previous experience with such jobs. They also built America's first successful factory at Alvardo, California. The Colorado plant was finished over the summer of 1899, and in November, the first beets were processed. Cox, long-time Grand Junction sugar promoter, was hired as manager. [99]

Grand Junctionites reacted to the plant with mixed feelings. The town council voted the company perpetual water rights for eight million gallons of water per day as well as donating 1,500 acres as a plant site. The Grand Junction Business Men's Beet Growers Association was founded to encourage farmers to raise that crop and to aid immigrants. All this to assure an adequate supply of raw material for the factory. [100] However, the intrusion of Denver capital into this Western Slope enterprise led to criticism of the "Queen City" and a general uneasiness amongst locals. [101]

When the Colorado Sugar Manufacturing Company factory opened in November 1899, it became the state's first beet plant. [102]

The corporation had hoped to sign contracts with farmers for 5,000 acres to be planted in beets, however, in 1899, only 260 agrarians entered into such agreements with total acreage of 3,500. Boettcher supplied the seed which was some of the finest in the world, having been imported from his native Germany. Optimism ran high through the summer of that year but by fall it became obvious that all was not well. Delays in plant construction and problems with machinery set-ups led to a late opening. This, coupled with a smaller than expected harvest disappointed many, including the financiers. [103]

With the new year, hopes again soared on both sides of the Rockies. Farmers planted more beets and signed more contracts. Problems during the growing season, such as pests, led to another small harvest and losses to the company were greater than the preceding year. In November, one year after opening, the plant shut down and was put up for sale. [104]

An inadequate labor supply proved to be the single greatest limiting factor on the expansion of Grand Valley sugar raising. Cowboys and farm hands refused the backbreaking work of thinning and pulling beets so growers hired children 11 to 15 years old as field workers. When this labor pool dried up, Mormons, German-Russians, Chinese, and Native Americans all were tried. Eventually, in 1916, Mexicans were brought in from Mexico by the Holly Sugar Company as contract laborers. Some members of this last group decided to stay and become permanent residents of the Grand Valley. [105]

While solutions to the labor problem were being sought, the Grand Junction factory changed hands several times. Unable to find buyers, during 1901, Colorado Sugar Manufacturing Company backers closed the plant and the next January the courts appointed receivers. [106] In April the company was reorganized. From that point on, the corporation tried to cajole and then threaten farmers to produce beets but with little success. By November, 1902, the company again was in the hands of receivers. [107]

Wyoming financiers bought the plant the next year. They also secured title to 3,800 acres of land and founded the Western Sugar and Land Company. The Western Company's progress was slow but steady from 1903 until 1916, as more and more farmers took up beet raising to replace their orchards. That year Holly Sugar bought out the Grand Junction corporation and operated that factory and others on Colorado's Western Slope until 1929. Holly management decided, at that time, to close the Grand Junction facility because of its small capacity and consolidate its operations at Delta. [108]

Sugar beet activity centered itself in Grand Junction but farmers throughout west central Colorado contributed to the post-1900 development of that agri-business. The first two decades of the twentieth century were a period of rapid expansion of sugar beet cultivation all over Colorado. Many promoters equated the state's agricultural future with the success of sugar beets and this feeling was shared by people along the Grand Valley, [109] especially by area land and water companies. One of these, the Wilcox Canal Company, headquartered at Parachute, Colorado, had tried since 1893 to interest settlers in lands along the Grand River between that town and Rifle. The promoters met with little success and found themselves financially limited until 1910. At that point, with the beet boom under way, Wilcox backers attracted the attention of Arthur Havemeyer of the American Sugar Company. He and his family were the leaders of the United States sugar industry at the time and had vast sums of money at their disposal. [110]

Arthur Havemeyer visited the Rifle area and was impressed with what he found. He envisioned fields of beets stretching along much of the Grand River's northern bank from Rifle west to Parachute along with a sugar refinery at Parachute. The Havemeyer family invested heavily in the Wilcox Canal Company. They had plans designed for irrigating 8,000 acres around Sharrard Park, west of Rifle. This land was not yet farmed. [111]

To convert blueprints into reality, the Havemeyers hired William R. Lacy as their chief engineer. To reach Sharrard Park from the headgate near Rifle, miles of ditches had to be built and a tunnel bored through Webster Mesa. Raising water from river level to field elevation required large pumps that were constructed utilizing a unique water driven turbine mechanism. Lacy performed his job well, completing the entire project by May, 1912. The Havemeyer-Wilcox Canal included 27 miles of watercourses, the tunnel and a pumphouse, a forebay, syphons, headgates and protectors, as well as considerable concrete lining. The land was purchased and construction completed for slightly less than half a million dollars. [112]

On May 10, 1912, Colorado Governor John F. Shaforth dedicated the irrigation system in the midst of great fanfare. Banquets were held, speeches made, and promises of a great new day flowed almost as freely as the congratulations. [113]

Opening of the canal produced hopes for the area's residents, however, these were soon dashed. Heavy winter snows in the mountains and a warm spring led to severe floods along the Grand River during June. On the twelfth of the month, the flood crest reached Rifle and washed away the headgate, flooding the entire system and permanently damaging the pumps. [114] The Grand Valley Irrigation District purchased and attempted to reconstruct the facilities but failed. Because of this Sharrard Park was never reclaimed or settled. [115] The Havemeyer-Wilcox effort was among the largest of its type in Colorado and typified the fact that by 1910 most easily irrigatable land was previously claimed.

The Havemeyer-Willcox Canal was one of the boldest ventures in the state for providing water to beet fields. In 1980 all that remained was this pumphouse. Historic American Engineering Record Photo by F. J. Athearn

The Forebay structure of the Havemeyer-Willcox Canal is what remains today. Historic American Engineering Record Photo by F. J. Athearn

Settlers who could not obtain land near one of the region's many reclamation systems turned to the higher mesas and parks in an attempt to eke out an existence through dryland farming. Areas such as Orchard Mesa or Collbran felt the first plowshares of dry land farmers in west-central Colorado but eventually came to have artificially supplied water. [116] The dryland farmers needed large tracts of land to practice their expertise because as much as three-quarters of each farm lay fallow in any given year. Crops were rotated from field to field so groundwater could accumulate. These farmers lived each year on the brink of catastrophe should rains not come or if unusually hot summers or hail storms occurred. These people grew potatoes, corn, small grains, especially crested wheat, or anything else they could. [117] By 1910, Glade Park and Unaweep were centers of this type of agriculture. Many of these folks drifted back and forth between farming and ranching looking for economic survival. [118] They were the most vulnerable to any changes in market conditions.

All west-central Colorado agri-businessmen struggled to survive and succeed either through dry farming or irrigation. The search for a dependable cash crop, first fruit and later sugar beets was the key factor in regional agricultural development. Not until 1915, and the increased demands of World War I, did farmers enjoy true prosperity. During the war $1 million a year was generated by Grand Valley fruit growers while sugar beets contributed $1.3 million annually to the region's economy. [119] The war led to new lands being cultivated and more intensive use of older fields. But prosperity was short-lived and when the post-war depression arrived in 1920, farmers were especially hard hit. [120]

Farming was the economic backbone of the area's western reaches between 1881 and 1920, much as mining was the key further east in west-central Colorado. The sod-busters peopled the land more densely than their predecessors and because these farms were family operations they demanded things not seen as necessary by the miners or cattlemen. Also, due to the commercial nature of area agriculture, these people were consumers of goods and services not needed by subsistence farmers on other similar frontiers. The marketing techniques used by fruit growers such as cooperatives and canneries combined with the mercantile and other needs of these farmers encouraged town growth and development in parts of the region as much as mining or tourism did elsewhere.

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Last Updated: 31-Oct-2008