One popular vision of Colorado presents a region of open spaces where a lone man rides into the setting sun. He is strong, silent, and through individual effort manages to save the girl, bring in the cattle, and haul the “bad guys” off to jail, all before the credits roll. This is the individualist Colorado where each resident pulls him or herself up through their own efforts.
Another ideal appears in old photographs seen in exhibits in local historical societies. In these pictures a group of families stands around a partly finished home or barn, proudly showing off the results of their communal handiwork. They are another side of Colorado, a communitarian place where important endeavors come from the combined labors of like-minded neighbors. Both images form part of the story of settlement in our state. To these, a historian might add others including ethnic, urban, and industrial Colorados. None of these exists in isolation but are interdependent, often existing in the same space.
Community is the glue that holds society together. As such, the idea of community reaches into every aspect of our history. This section of the Colorado Encyclopedia might, at first, seem like a broad mixture of people, places, and events. But each in its own way contributes to our greater understanding of the pivotal role community plays in Colorado.
Colorado is a blend of rural, urban, and suburban settlements. The bulk of our population centers along Interstate 25, from the Wyoming border on the north to New Mexico on the south. The Front Range’s largest cities are, from south to north, Colorado Springs, Aurora, Denver, and Fort Collins. Pueblo is the largest city in the south-central region. Surrounding each major city are communities we call suburbs. Some came into existence as cities grew, while others are cities in their own right that have residents who commute to jobs in the urban core.
Beyond the urban core are the many smaller cities that dot our countryside from border to border: Trinidad in southern Colorado, Burlington on the Eastern Plains, Alamosa in the San Luis Valley, Durango in the southwest, Grand Junction in the west, and Aspen in the mountains. Additionally, we have many small towns, ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand residents nestled into our landscape. Finally, there are the scattered farms and ranches that each comprise no more than a few families. These areas are centers of community in Colorado.
Our journey into learning about Colorado communities begins with some basic ideas. First, communities are both diverse and homogenous. The parts make up the whole but they do not always do so smoothly. Members live by political, religious, and cultural rules that most people agree to follow. On the other hand there are other, less clear expectations of how we are all going to live together. These can change over time as notions about culture or politics evolve. New group members bring in their own expectations, meaning that in this sense community is negotiated. For it to function we need to have some common understandings and the flexibility to work out our differences.
Boom, Bust, and Survival
Colorado’s first communities were nomadic, consisting of people who lived in portable dwellings and moved to find food. These indigenous communities, such as the Ancestral Puebloans of Mesa Verde or the Ute, Arapaho, and Cheyenne of the mountains and plains, were made up of small groups of extended families who developed a very rudimentary system of keeping order as they struggled to survive and build families. They did not have permanent homes, but they had permanent homelands. Later nomadic groups included Hispano sheepherders who seasonally grazed sheep in the high country or the cowboys who tended cattle in cow camps or small ranches in mountain valleys, plateaus, or on the plains.
As these people settled down, they built various kinds of dwellings, including the multi-story stone villages of the Ancestral Puebloans, the log cabins of early miners, or the sod houses of homesteaders on the plains. One thing that many of these settlements had in common was that fortune did not always smile on the inhabitants. Most likely due to climatic and social shifts, Mesa Verde became a ruined village that now supports another kind of community: a National Park Service site with resident park staff and numerous visitors. Many of Colorado’s mining towns became ghost towns, abandoned to nature’s ravages and to the curious gaze of visitors arriving on four-wheelers, on foot, and on cross-country skis. Homesteaders often found themselves defeated by either the harsh climate of the plains—which challenged the notion that “rain followed the plow”—or by a railroad that decided to bypass their communities.
Over time, though, some of these communities became small towns. They tended to be homogenous, usually with a common ethnicity and people interrelated by birth and marriage. San Luis (1851) and Guadalupe (1854) in the San Luis Valley are examples of some of the oldest Hispano towns in our state. Their families are descendants of the earliest Spanish-speaking residents of the land grants created by Spain, beginning in the 1600s.
For many years the town of Keota, on the plains of Weld County, was a typical example of farming and ranching communities around the state. It was where country people came to shop, see a doctor, and sell their products to middle-men who came in on the local branch of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy rail line. Now it is a ghost town, brought down by drought, unfavorable markets, and loss of the railroad. The railroad abandoned those tracks in 1975; the town died shortly thereafter. All around the state there are other towns like Keota that existed because of the boost that the railroads gave to mining or agriculture.
Other towns, however, managed to survive hard times. Craig in north-central Colorado is a coal mining town that also has nearby ranches, a thriving downtown, and a community college. Leadville, in the Central Rockies, survived both a disastrous crash in silver prices in the 1890s and a downturn in molybdenum prices in the 1980s. Its illustrious residents included Horace, Augusta and Baby Doe Tabor, as well as J. J. and Margaret Brown. During World War II the temporary community of the Tenth Mountain Division of the US Army trained nearby at Camp Hale. Troops still train in the mountains around Leadville. Modern Leadville survives by being home to a branch of Colorado Mountain College and the National Mining Museum and Hall of Fame. Nearby ski areas draw additional visitors and residents, and the annual burro race between Leadville and Fairplay recalls mining history and brings in outdoor enthusiasts.
Still other small towns grew up into cities, sometimes with the help of a state or federal agency. Lamar, far out on the Eastern Plains, is one of many towns with community colleges; Durango has Fort Lewis College, while Golden, once a contender for state capitol, is home to the Colorado School of Mines. Grand Junction has Colorado Mesa State University; Alamosa has Adams State University, and Greeley—perhaps Colorado’s biggest cow town—has the University of Northern Colorado, which is still the main teachers’ college in the state. Cañon City, Sterling, and Buena Vista have prisons. Cortez, in the southwestern corner, relies on tourists coming to see Mesa Verde National Park.
Like many other states in the American West, Colorado’s large cities also owe a good deal of their growth to state or federal institutions. Military installations have been especially important to Colorado Springs, which is home to the US Air Force Academy, Peterson Air Base, NORAD in Cheyenne Mountain and Fort Carson Army Base. Boulder has the main branch of the University of Colorado, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Bureau of Standards. Pueblo has the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo as well as a branch of Colorado State University (CSU), whose main campus is in Fort Collins. The Denver metropolitan area is home to the largest group of federal agencies outside of Washington, DC, including the veterans’ hospital and a major federal courthouse (the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals). The National Archives Denver Branch is in Broomfield, the Federal Center is in Lakewood, and Buckley Air Force Base is in Aurora.
The newest must-have jobs, however, are not in government but in technology. Google is a major employer in the Front Range. Its workers tend to be young, well-educated migrants from other areas of the United States. These institutions contribute to Colorado having a highly educated population. Business and industry contribute to community growth. Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and the Ball Corporation have all brought in jobs requiring a variety of highly educated workers. If you look at working-class jobs, in Golden you see the impact that Coors Brewing Company and its subsidiaries have made there. Coors founder Adolph Coors helped make Golden a center of the national brewing industry. Oil and gas production are major employers around the state, swelling large and small towns with largely male, heavily transient workers.
Historically, mines, railroads, packing plants, farms, and smelters employed immigrant workers. The gold and silver mining era brought the Irish to Colorado. They settled in Denver, Leadville, and later in the Cripple Creek district, forming social groups such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Industrial enterprises such as coal mining and smelting drew many other Europeans, such as the Cornish, Welsh, Poles, and Slovenians. These groups worked in steel and box factories, rail shops, and packing plants in Globeville and South Pueblo. These immigrants lived in ethnic enclaves that resembled the neighborhoods of Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and other Midwest industrial cities. Though they did not always get along, industrial workers did share the hardship of the workplace, which led them to join unions and oppose exploitative management. The diversity and solidarity of Colorado’s miners was on display in the tragic Ludlow Massacre of 1914, when Italian-American, Mexican-American, Greek, and Anglo-American coal miners were killed by state militia in the aftermath of a strike.
Meanwhile, the labor-intensive sugar beet industry drew Japanese and Germans from Russia (Volga Deutsch), who built communities near the beet processing plants in places like Fort Collins, Brighton, and Fort Morgan. Today, Colorado’s industrial and agricultural economies rely on other newcomers from many different world regions; communities of Somalis or Mexican immigrants now staff the packing plants in Fort Morgan and in Greeley, while Mexicans and Central Americans work on many of the state’s farms and ranches.
Many of Colorado’s industries have, over the years, drawn specific groups of either immigrant or native ethnic groups. Adolph Coors and his contemporaries at Zang or Tivoli Brewing originally hired Southern German Catholics to work in their breweries. This led to Germans settling close to work in ethnic enclaves such as the Auraria neighborhood in Denver or in Golden. Hard rock mining drew English, Irish, Welsh, and Cornish immigrants. The miners of the Cripple Creek district banded together to organize the Western Federation of Miners, a union that supported members in good times and bad.
Other Types of Communities
When people refer to communities, they generally do so in the macrocosmic sense. They think cities, towns, and villages. But we also need to consider communities as microcosms. They can be at their most powerful when they organize as small groups at the grass-roots level. The most influential are the intentional communities created around common religious, ideological, and political beliefs. Groups that come together because of a common interest in literature, art, sports, science, or exploring the outdoors can also have meaningful impacts on individuals and societies.
Colorado has many religious and spiritual groups, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Pagans, and people who are non-believers. Religion is both personal and social, but what most have in common is the creation of a community for their followers. They build churches, temples, mosques, and places in the open air to practice their forms of worship. Some sponsor schools, while others build hospitals and other organizations that give back to society.
The Methodists created Colorado Seminary, which later became the University of Denver, Colorado’s first institution of higher education. The brainchild of Colorado’s second governor, John Evans, it opened in 1864. A group of exiled Jesuit teachers created the College of the Sacred Heart in 1877, which became Regis College in 1921, then Regis University in 1991. Other religious schools followed, including the Presbyterian Westminster University in present-day Westminster. It opened in 1908, but within a decade most of its students went off to fight in World War I. The evangelical Pillar of Fire Church took over the Westminster campus and opened its own college there in 1920. It has been Belleview Christian School since 1926. Pillar of Fire originally allied with the Ku Klux Klan but repudiated its alliance in 1997. Colorado’s most recent private, evangelical university is Colorado Christian University.
Several lay and religious groups also developed hospitals to serve the state’s growing population. These became intentional communities of their own, with doctors, nurses, and other staff working together to save lives. One of the earliest efforts was the Arapahoe County Hospital, a county-run institution that opened its doors in 1860. In 1873 the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas, opened St. Vincent’s Hospital, which became St. Joseph Hospital in 1876. The Episcopalians, under Bishop John Spalding, created St. Luke’s Hospital in 1881. The Presbyterians followed suit with Presbyterian Hospital in 1926. Around the state there were numerous tuberculosis sanatoria, including National Jewish, the Swedish National Tuberculosis Sanatorium, the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society, and the Woodmen Hospital in Colorado Springs.
Another effort was led by the Poor Sisters of Saint Francis Seraph of Perpetual Adoration, who came to manage the Union Pacific Hospital in 1883 and then later created St. Anthony Hospital in 1884. The Sisters spread out and founded hospitals around Colorado, including many in mining camps.
Spiritual groups have also created living communities in Colorado. Shambala, in the mountains near Boulder, is a Buddhist retreat. The Sunrise Ranch near Loveland or the Sonrise Mountain Ranch in the Big Cimarron River valley of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado are Christian communities. These centers have both permanent and transient populations who have a common spiritual focus. They are, in many ways, utopian communities.
In the post–Civil War era, Greeley, Longmont, and Fort Collins began as utopian farming communities. Intent on building sober centers of commerce, religion, and culture—as opposed to the debauchery-ridden mining camps—the planners of these communities carried the same spirit as people earlier in the 1800s who drew from Transcendental philosophies to create their ideal communal spaces in the “Burnt Over District” of Upstate New York, in Western Massachusetts, and the Midwest. They were trying to escape from a post-war industrial society by recreating a way of life they perceived as less complicated and conflicted. Working together—in direct opposition to the Western individualist myth—early residents of Greeley, Longmont, and Fort Collins developed irrigation systems that not only sustained their communities but became models for other towns in the American West.
A century later another kind of utopian community came out of the spiritual and social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s. Groups wanting to retreat from the troubles of a war-torn, politically volatile world created these intentional communities. These idealists, often described as the “counterculture” or “hippies,” built Libre near Gardner and Drop City near Trinidad. Libre failed and became a ghost town, but a few residents still call Drop City home. Life at Drop City focused on creating art. Some historians of the counterculture consider it the first of the twentieth-century American rural communes.
Human-made Challenges to Community
Communities can be disrupted by a variety of events. Natural disasters, distrust among various groups, racism, business decisions, and government policies have all challenged community survival and cohesion. Sometimes people persist and rebuild, sometimes not.
National and international wars drew community members away from their homes, families, and jobs. That required a reshuffling of human and other resources. Eventually, as group members returned, they reestablished some semblance of the old order. Sometimes when people did not return, the town failed. This happened at Dearfield in Weld County after World War I. Once a thriving, all African-American farming town, the lack of young men to farm during the war and the drought of the 1930s sealed Dearfield’s fate. In Dearfield, as in Keota, descendants of the original residents have worked to preserve the memories of their town, and some even return for family reunions.
During the early stages of our state’s history, Euro-Americans forced First Nations people out of their traditional hunting, trading, and living areas. As early as the 1860s, treaty tribunals began to isolate American Indians on reservations far away from their homelands. When the people resisted, things could end badly. Perhaps Colorado’s darkest example of this was the September 29, 1879, Ute attack at the White River Ute Agency in northwest Colorado. After Indian Agent Nathan Meeker pushed the Utes to give up their culture and become farmers, the Utes revolted against Meeker, killing him and ten of his colleagues. They took women and children hostage. Nearby, the Utes defeated federal troops at the Battle at Milk Creek but were soon forced to make peace. In the end the Utes at the agency lost their Colorado land claims and the government removed them to Utah.
Prejudices also appeared in other ways. The Denver race riot on October 31, 1880, nearly destroyed the city’s Chinatown. Contrary to the expectations of the rioters, the Chinese remained to rebuild their community. In the 1890s the American Protective Association attempted to exclude Catholics and some immigrants from participation in the private and civil life of Colorado. From the 1910s to the late 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) attempted the same discrimination, focusing on Jews, Catholics, African-Americans, and many immigrants. During the 1920s when KKK members held many offices in state and local government, they attempted to pass laws limiting access to public jobs for members of these minority groups. In the 1920s KKK members in the state assembly ordered University of Colorado President George Norlin to fire all Jewish faculty, but Norlin declined. This simple act led to a sense of community in the University of Colorado system that has continued today. In the 1930s, Governor Ed Johnson instituted draconian deportation plans for Mexican immigrants that also caught up members of the Mexican-American community. In these cases more level-headed leaders stepped in and blocked the most egregious attempts to segregate and exclude our community members.
Up to the 1960s redlining limited where African-American families could buy homes, forcing them to remain in neighborhood enclaves such as Denver’s Five Points. The Civil Rights movement in Colorado tackled that form of discrimination, opening many neighborhoods to a more diverse set of neighbors. Park Hill in Denver was one of the first to become integrated. The case of Keyes v. the Denver School District #1 began in the Denver courts in 1969. By 1973 the case had reached the US Supreme Court. Bussing to create an integrated school district brought violence to Denver and sent whites flying to the suburbs. Lakewood, for instance, incorporated in 1968 to allow white people to flee Denver and live in a community without bussing. By the end of bussing in 1995, the number of white students in Denver Public Schools had dropped by more than 50,000. By 2016 more white residents were moving back into the city, but the schools were still primarily filled with minority students.
Conclusion: Complicating Communities
The goal of this essay has been to complicate the seemingly straightforward idea of community by showing how very complex and nuanced Colorado’s communities actually are. Most people think they know how to define community. What this essay has begun, the articles in this section will flesh out as each adds another layer to the stories of Colorado’s people, places, ideas, and events.