Fort Morgan is a city of about 12,000 people along the South Platte River, about seventy miles northeast of Denver. It is part of the high plains region that an early explorer, Major Stephen Long, called the “Great American Desert.” As the center of a robust agricultural area, Fort Morgan was chosen as the county seat of Morgan County in 1889 because of its connection to the railroad and relatively large population. Today it is a regional destination for professional services, shopping, and a variety of social and cultural events.
Stage Stop and Fort
After the discovery of gold in the Rocky Mountains in 1858, stagecoach lines became more important within Colorado. The location of modern Fort Morgan was considered a traveler’s junction because it was where the South Platte River Road split. One route led southwest toward Denver, and the other led west into the mountains.
The Overland Stage Company’s stop was near the future site of Fort Morgan. By 1859 the station, known as Bijou Station, hosted tens of thousands of travelers as they passed through this area. The Fort Morgan military post began as a camp near the stage stop in 1864. It was tasked with protecting mail routes and wagon trains from American Indians, especially the Cheyenne and Arapaho, who had occupied northeast Colorado since the early nineteenth century. Originally known as Camp Tyler, then Camp Wardwell, the fort was later named for Colonel Christopher Morgan of the armycavalry. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Morgan died in a Civil War battle in Missouri in 1866, without ever traveling to the area named after him.
Violence between Indians and whites in Colorado reached a fever pitch after US troops slaughtered hundreds of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho women, children, and elders at Sand Creek in November 1864. The next year, hundreds of Confederate prisoners were moved to the military camp at present-day Fort Morgan, and they built many of the structures that became the fort. But just a few years later, most of the Cheyenne and Arapaho had been forced out of Colorado via the Medicine Lodge Treaty. Its purpose fulfilled, Fort Morgan was decommissioned in 1868. It was located near what is now the Interstate 76 exit on Main Street, but today nothing remains of the structure.
By 1882 the Union Pacific and the Burlington & Missouri railroads ran north and south of Fort Morgan, but there was no stop in town until at least two years later. By 1884 and with a great deal of negotiation by Abner Baker, tracks were laid and the stop in Fort Morgan built by the Burlington & Missouri railroad. Known as the Ensign stop, it encouraged travelers to stay in a city beginning to bustle with development.
After the Homestead Act of 1862, ranchers joined the travelers and soldiers near present-day Fort Morgan, but there was still no formal town. In 1884 Wisconsin native Abner S. Baker, who had initially moved to Union Colony (present-day Greeley) in the 1870s, established the town of Fort Morgan. In Baker’s original town plot, Fort Morgan was bound by Lake Street on the east, Railroad Avenue on the south, Deul Street on the west, and Platte Avenue on the north.
Fort Morgan’s early years were difficult, as raising the first crops in a dry climate proved harder than many thought. As it was in Baker’s former town of Greeley, irrigation was essential for the new town’s growth. The Bijou Irrigation Land Company, founded by Abner Baker in November 1884, was contracted to build the necessary ditches and reservoirs. Local ranchers have been raising cattle since before Fort Morgan was founded and benefited greatly from the new irrigation practices.
Agricultural production also followed, and within a few short years, downtown Fort Morgan would boast a twenty-room hotel, general store, carpenter’s shop, blacksmith, and candy store. Downtown was composed of mostly one-story brick buildings. There were wooden sidewalks along Main Street, where businesses like Louis Kinkel’s butcher shop and Mrs. Christie’s Millinery advertised their wares.
In addition to founder Abner Baker, one of Fort Morgan’s prominent early citizens was George Warner. Warner was known as a promoter and developer of Fort Morgan. He worked for several canal and ditch companies, and in 1895 published a pamphlet, “An Oasis in the Desert,” which emphasized the area’s agricultural opportunity and encouraged people to move there.
In September 1884, Lyman Baker, Abner’s brother, founded the town’s first newspaper, the Fort Morgan Times, which still serves the community today. The first issues of the Times were printed in a small shed on Lyman Baker’s property. The publication later moved to Main Street.
Schools were also a priority in early Fort Morgan. The Abner S. Baker school was built in 1895 (although it wasn’t named for Baker until later). This particular school building is still in use today. Kate Baker Clatworthy, wife of downtown shopkeeper and postmaster W. H. Clatworthy, distinguished herself as the first president of the school board. She was also a member of many local organizations, including the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
W. H. Clatworthy’s hardware store supplied newcomers with everything they needed to start their farms and ranches. Clatworthy would later serve as the mayor of Fort Morgan in the 1890s.
Similar in stature to the Clatworthys were J. P. Curry, owner of the first hotel in town, and Louis and Anna Kinkel, who owned Kinkel’s butcher shop. Local women found loving maternity care in the first maternity home, located in Ivo Dyar’s home on Sherman Street. Dyar’s efforts would later lead to the opening of Fort Morgan’s first hospital in one of the Great Western Sugar factory dormitories in 1923.
Sugar Beet Industry
In 1906 the Great Western Sugar Company built a large factory on the north side of Fort Morgan, one of several factories built in rural Front Range towns that would serve as hubs for surrounding sugar beet farmers. Built by the Riter-Conley Manufacturing Company, this million-dollar facility opened on December 26, 1906. In mid-January 1907, Great Western held a large celebration called Sugar Day. The event offered tours of the factory, candy pulling, carnival booths, and free lunch for attendees.
The factory became the economic engine for the region, and local farmers were encouraged by Main Street businessmen to grow sugar beets. It is estimated that growers were paid a total of $1 million for their first crop in 1906. Within two years of the factory’s opening, the population of Fort Morgan increased by 2,500, and the value of farmland skyrocketed.
The company shuttled approximately 865 German Russian immigrants from Nebraska for the harvest season. The families often worked together in the fields. At first, they lived in modest housing provided by the factory, but eventually many families bought their own farms. They also founded churches and social clubs that emphasized their conservative values and strong work ethic.
As German Russians transitioned to farm ownership, Great Western began employing Mexican immigrants in its factory, and beet farmers recruited them to work in the fields. Great Western offered low-interest loans to Mexican immigrants to purchase land and farm beets. These immigrants established a Latinx community near the factory that flourished until the Great Depression. As of 2016, 40 percent of Fort Morgan residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, and many can trace their roots to the early push from Great Western Sugar to employ Mexican workers.
Between 1900 and 1920, taxes from the booming sugar beet industry helped Fort Morgan build a city park, waterworks, electric plant, and sewer system. The city also added a city hall, a courthouse, and the Carnegie Library. In 1910 the city erected a new building for the post office, which had operated out of the backroom of the Clatworthy general store.
During the Great Depression, jobs became scarce around Fort Morgan and farmers struggled because of poor harvests from Dust Bowl conditions. Great Western Sugar continued production, but the demographic of who farmed for them changed as a decreased demand for foreign workers meant many of the Mexican families were deported back to Mexico. Morgan County commissioners slashed their salaries in an effort to lower costs and retain employees.
One of the most notable residents of Fort Morgan in the 1930s was big band leader and famed composer Glenn Miller. Born in Iowa in 1904, Miller and his family settled in Fort Morgan in 1918. Miller rose to fame as a band leader in the late 1930s and was one of the most popular recording artists at the time.
During World War II, a Civilian Pilot Training Program opened a school in Fort Morgan. As many as 200 cadets arrived to train by May 1942. The school offered a preglider training program near the current high school and the current site of the Fort Morgan Airport. However, after several fatal crashes, the Fort Morgan program closed in 1943.
Postwar Fort Morgan was a community seeking progressive growth and increased services for residents. On February 5, 1952, years of fundraising and organizational efforts came to fruition when the Fort Morgan Community Hospital opened. Within the first two years, the facility served approximately 1,500 patients, including the delivery of 421 babies. Another progressive effort began in 1964 and bore fruit in 1969, when the state approved an operating budget and appointed the first president of Morgan Community College. That same year, the Fort Morgan Heritage Foundation raised money for a new library and museum complex in City Park.
After World War II, the instability of the Great Western Sugar Factory spurred local interest in raising cattle. By 1966, Fort Morgan had attracted a beef-processing plant called Fort Morgan Dressed Beef. This plant encountered many problems and closed. Three years later, the facility reopened under the new name of American Beef Packers, but by 1975 this company was bankrupt, too.
In 1976 a consortium of local feeders known as Morgan Colorado Beef bought the facility and reopened it. Under their leadership, the company expanded, hired more employees, and increased production and sales. In the late 1980s, Excel, a subsidiary of Cargill, obtained the facility and decided to expand it.
In the early 1990s, Leprino Foods also announced plans to build and then expand a facility in Fort Morgan to make cheese and whey products. Leprino Foods is one of the largest suppliers of cheese globally. The Fort Morgan Times estimated that the facility would produce as much as 15 million pounds of string cheese a year. The facility employed 85 people and was completed in 1994.
The cityscape of Fort Morgan has changed over the years. Many of the brick storefronts have been covered by more modern building materials, but some historic structures remain. Fort Morgan also currently has four houses—including the former home of George Warner and J. P. Curry—and two other structures listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, Fort Morgan prides itself on its agricultural roots and diverse populace. Sugar beets are still cultivated and processed at the only operating sugar factory in Colorado. Cargill is one of the largest employers in Morgan County; it was the largest employer of first Mexican and Central American workers and currently Somali and other East African immigrants. Leprino foods employs approximately 350 workers and continues to produce quality mozzarella and string cheese among other products.
The city’s footprint has expanded, and new development, including more retail space and a new city complex, is a priority for the town.