Formed in 1911, Crowley County covers 800 square miles on Colorado’s southeastern Great Plains near the Arkansas River. It is bordered to the north by Lincoln County, to the east by Kiowa County, to the south by Otero County, and to the west by Pueblo County. A heavily agricultural county, Crowley County has a population of 5,823. More than 1,000 live in the county seat of Ordway, at the intersection of State Highways 71 and 96. Other communities include Sugar City, Crowley, and Olney Springs.
Crowley County was formed in 1890 out of a need for an administrative center that would serve residents of then-Otero County who lived north of the Arkansas. The county area was once the hunting and wintering ground of many native peoples, including the Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. After the removal of these peoples in the late 1860s, white ranchers arrived, and town builders followed with the railroads that were built through the Arkansas Valley in the 1880s. Crowley County became a significant producer of melons, sugar beets, and other crops during the twentieth century, and today it is one of Colorado’s top producers of cattle and sorghum.
Colorado’s lower Arkansas River valley has a long history of human habitation. The river became the aquatic anchor for nomadic Paleo-Indian, Archaic, and Formative-period peoples who followed the massive bison herds across the plains. Limited agriculture along the river began during the formative period (1000 BC–AD 1450) and continued through the arrival of the Jicarilla Apache in the seventeenth century. The Jicarilla, or Plains Apache, were a semi-sedentary people who cultivated gardens of corn, beans, and squash along the river bank. Spanish explorers trekked into what is now southeastern Colorado in the sixteenth century, but they only made it as far as the Purgatoire River, a tributary of the Arkansas just southeast of today’s Crowley County.
By the 1720s the Comanche drove the semi-sedentary Plains Apache from the Arkansas River valley. At this time the Crowley County area was in the heart of an expanding Comanche territory that ran north and south between the Arkansas and Cimarron Rivers, and stretched from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the west to what is today south-central Kansas in the east. The Comanche built their empire, known as Comanchería, on the backs of horse herds. They hunted bison and raided or traded with other Indian peoples and the Spanish for grains, weapons, and other supplies. The Comanche occasionally clashed with the Arapaho, another nomadic plains people who arrived north of the Arkansas in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Other native peoples frequenting the Crowley County area by the nineteenth century included the Kiowa and Cheyenne. In 1803, while still under Comanche control, the area was claimed by the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
From Fur Traders to Ranchers
In 1806 the American explorer Zebulon Pike traversed the Crowley County area as he followed the Arkansas River to modern-day Pueblo. In 1833 William Bent established a fur-trading post on the Arkansas near present-day La Junta, southeast of what is now Crowley County. Bent’s Fort, as the post was known, lay along the Santa Fé Trail and turned the Arkansas Valley into the hub of the nineteenth-century fur trade. At Bent’s Fort, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and later Comanche Indians swapped bison hides for weapons and other supplies. The regional fur trade prospered until the mid-1840s, when epidemics and drought wracked native communities and caused the buffalo herds to dwindle. William Bent demolished his fort in 1849 and moved it farther up the Arkansas, where he hoped to continue trading with Native Americans.
The Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59 brought thousands of white Americans to the Rocky Mountains, leading to the development of supply towns such as Denver and Old Colorado City. In 1861 the US government established the Colorado Territory and brokered the Treaty of Fort Wise, which sought to confine the Cheyenne and Arapaho to a small reservation in eastern Colorado. In 1862 the Homestead Act offered the Indians’ former land to whites, who began setting up farms and ranches near the territory’s young cities and along the stagecoach lines that guided immigrants across the plains. In 1867 the Medicine Lodge Treaty led to the removal of the Cheyenne and Arapaho to present-day Oklahoma.
These events set the stage for the development of ranching in present-day Crowley County. In 1875–76, around the time Colorado became a state, a stagecoach stop named Spring Bottom Station operated near present-day Olney Springs. The station was named for a natural spring that flowed out of a nearby bluff. Ranchers such as John Cowden and George Dennis grazed herds near the station, driving them north to market in Denver. Ranching continued into the 1880s, when the railroads arrived and spurred the development of what would become Otero and Crowley Counties.
The Missouri Pacific Railroad (MP), formerly the Pueblo & State Line Railroad, laid track through present-day Crowley County in 1887 on its way to Pueblo. The railroad set up a water tank near the spring that supplied the old Spring Bottom Station, and the town of Olney Springs developed around the tank in 1887. In 1889 the fledgling town became part of the newly established Otero County. The town of Ordway, named after local homesteader and Denver businessman George N. Ordway, was established in 1890.
In 1889 irrigation investor Theodore C. Henry began construction on the Colorado Canal, a ditch that diverted water from Bob Creek, a tributary of the Arkansas, to farmland in what is now southern Crowley County. Henry quickly sold the canal to the Colorado Land and Water Company, which set up its headquarters in Ordway. By 1892 former ranchers and new homesteaders were setting up farms on newly irrigated land. Early crops included melons, alfalfa, and sugar beets. The Colorado Canal eventually irrigated some 56,000 acres in what is now southern Crowley County.
The irrigated farmland around Ordway made the town into a commercial hub, and it incorporated in 1900. By then the town featured a grain mill and elevator, a Methodist Episcopal church, a saloon and pool hall, and a lumberyard. The First National Bank of Ordway and a newspaper, the Ordway New Era, opened for business in 1902. One of the largest farms near Ordway was the Boston Farm, a 5,400-acre operation that featured a twenty-five room farmhouse built with eastern capital. The farm was the first mail stop in the Ordway area, and many of the horses raised there were shipped to South Africa, where they served the British Army. After 1910, the Boston Farm began to be broken up and sold as smaller farms.
In 1899 the National Beet Sugar Company established Sugar City as the site for its new beet processing factory. The factory was completed in 1900, and in June of that year Sugar City incorporated. By October it was the fastest-growing town in Otero County, featuring two hotels, five general stores, two brothels, five saloons, a casino, a pool hall, ping pong parlor, a race track, and a newspaper, the Saccharine Gazette.
As the beet factory hummed in Sugar City and Ordway served a growing number of farmers and ranchers, the formation of a separate county became an increasingly logical proposition. The increase in commercial activity north of the Arkansas necessitated more trips to the Otero County offices in La Junta, but a lack of bridges turned those routine business trips into arduous, time-consuming journeys. The state legislature rejected the formation of a new county in 1909, but in 1911, with the help of state senator John H. Crowley of Rocky Ford, the legislature established Crowley County. After a bitter fight with Sugar City, Ordway was named county seat. The county’s first courthouse was built in 1915.
Meanwhile, the Colorado Farm and Livestock Company had staked out a town about five miles west of Ordway around 1910. The town was named Bradbury until January 1913, when it was officially renamed Crowley in honor of the senator. Crowley became another agricultural hub—by 1919 it featured a hay mill, canning factory, beet dump, stockyard, and three storage sheds for the local melon crop. The community of Numa, which boomed along with the railroad in the early twentieth century, played a similar role, hosting a beet dump and melon storage sheds. Near the railroad siding at King Center, about a mile east of Olney Springs, apple orchards thrived until blight wiped them out in the 1930s. By 1930 Crowley County had 328,000 acres, or 63.5 percent of its land, under cultivation. This included more than 14,000 acres of alfalfa, 10,000 apple trees, 9,000 acres of corn, 5,700 acres of sugar beets, and 3,000 acres of melons.
Like many other counties in eastern Colorado, Crowley County saw a number of significant changes over the course of the twentieth century. The rise of automobile use ended the boom era of the locomotive; agricultural development began to outpace the water supply; a Great Depression and Dust Bowl dealt severe blows to the county economy; the sugar beet factory closed; and ongoing modernization of agriculture made it more difficult for small- and medium-sized farms to stay afloat.
The town of Crowley incorporated in 1921, just as it attained peak relevancy. The town had two grocery stores, two general stores, and two pool halls, as well as a two-story hotel, bank, and a movie house. The town thrived for about another decade or so, until the Great Depression and Dust Bowl hit in the 1930s. As they did to so many other counties, both events hit Crowley County hard. The number of farms reporting crop failure jumped from 242 in 1929 to 474 in 1934, and the Colorado Canal often ran dry.
However, as early as 1931—before the worst effects of the drought and the Dust Bowl—it was clear that agricultural development in Crowley County had outpaced the local water supply. In 1935 the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company completed a $2 million trans-mountain diversion system that carried water from the west side of the Continental Divide, near the town of Twin Lakes, to the Arkansas River. The new water source kept Crowley County farms producing until the 1970s.
During World War II, German POWs helped harvest the Crowley County beet crop, and Japanese families that had been relocated from California moved in with friends or relatives in the county. A plaque at the Heritage Center in Crowley pays tribute to the county’s sheltering of Japanese families, who were viewed with suspicion during the war years.
The county economy took another hit in 1966, when the Sugar City beet factory closed. Meanwhile, the agricultural industry was in transition, not only in Crowley County but across the nation. The decades following World War II saw innovations in agriculture, including machinery and chemicals that allowed for larger yields. Combines, fertilizers, pesticides, and other new farm inputs allowed for larger farms, but they also encouraged the consolidation of farmland by those who could afford those inputs. This trend is reflected in Crowley County, where between 1950 and 1970 the number of farms dropped from 490 to 309, and the average farm size increased from 858 acres to more than 1,400 acres.
In the 1970s, Crowley County farmers sold their Twin Lakes Reservoir water rights to the Crowley County Land and Development Company, which then sold the rights to Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Pueblo West, and Aurora—all growing cities along the Front Range. The water rights were sold on the condition that the municipalities plant native prairie grasses on the de-irrigated Crowley County land, but contractors botched the seeding effort, so much of Crowley County remains barren today.
The loss of the sugar factory and water rights in the 1960s and 1970s took a heavy toll on the Crowley County economy. By 1978 the town of Crowley—once a thriving agricultural hub—had just three businesses.
Crowley County’s diminished agricultural potential in the late twentieth century necessitated a shift back to ranching, the area’s earliest enterprise. Today, Crowley County raises a total of 91,193 cattle and calves, the seventh-largest herd in the state. It also has the eighth-largest sorghum crop in the state at 998 acres. Most of the county’s jobs are in the public administration and healthcare/social services sector.
Culturally, the Crowley Heritage Center was able to get the town’s 1914 school building listed on the Colorado State Register of Historic Properties in 1993. Today the building serves as a community center, hosting weddings, reunions, and other events.