Mesa County is situated on 3,341 square miles of the eastern Colorado Plateau in western Colorado. The county is named for the wide, flat-topped mountains within its borders. The Spanish called such mountains mesas—meaning “tables.” The county’s largest mesa, Grand Mesa, rises more than 11,000 feet and sprawls 500 square miles over the county’s eastern reaches. The county is bordered by Garfield County to the north; Pitkin and Gunnison Counties to the east; Delta and Montrose Counties to the south; and Grand County, Utah, to the west.
Mesa County is famous for its fruit orchards, located in the sunny western portion of the Colorado River valley (also known as the Grand Valley) along with Grand Junction, the county seat and largest city on Colorado’s Western Slope. The county has a population of 146,723, most of which is concentrated in and around Grand Junction. The city is home to 59,899 residents, more than a third of the Mesa County population. The remainder is mostly spread across neighboring Clifton (19,889), Redlands (8,685), Fruitvale (7,675), and Orchard Mesa (6,836), and nearby Fruita (12,646) and Palisade (2,692). Smaller towns include Loma, Mesa, and Whitewater. The county’s two major roadways, Interstate 70 and US Route 50, parallel its two major rivers: the Gunnison, which flows into the county from the southeast, and the Colorado, which enters the county from the northeast. Both rivers and both highways converge in Grand Junction. The Grand Mesa Scenic Byway (State Highway 65) bisects the county’s northeastern section.
Beyond the Grand Valley in the northwest, Mesa County is sparsely populated and dominated by public lands, such as the Colorado National Monument, the Dominguez and Escalante National Conservation Area, the McInnis Canyon National Conservation Area, and the Uncompahgre and Grand Mesa National Forests. In addition to Grand Mesa, prominent geological features include Piñon Mesa, the Uncompahgre Plateau, Horse and Bald Mountains, and Glade Park.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Paleo-Indians lived in the Mesa County area as early as 11,000 BC. Between AD 700 and 1200 the area was home to members of the Fremont culture, a semisedentary people who grew crops such as maize and squash in addition to hunting and gathering. By 1300 the area became the homeland of the Ute Indians, who would remain the dominant group until their removal by the US government in the 1880s.
The Mesa County area was home to two distinct bands of Utes: the Parianuche, or “Elk People,” and the Tabeguache, or “the people of Sun Mountain.” The Parianuche spent their summers hunting game in the high country, including Grand Mesa, and wintered in the Grand Valley. The Tabeguache roamed the Uncompahgre Plateau and wintered along the Gunnison River between present-day Grand Junction and Montrose. The Utes were skilled hunters, subsisting on large game such as elk and mule deer, and they also gathered an assortment of berries and roots, including the versatile yucca root. By the late seventeenth century, horses acquired from the Spanish helped the Utes travel faster and farther.
A treaty in 1750 between the Utes and the Spanish, helped along by decades of trade, guaranteed safe passage for the Spanish through Ute lands. In 1776 the Spanish friars Francisco Domínguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante were the first Europeans to enter the Mesa County area. Their expedition sought to establish a trade route through southwest Colorado that would link Santa Fé with Spanish missions in California. Although the friars failed to reach California, they gathered information on the terrain, resources, and people of what would become southwest Colorado. This information proved invaluable to New Mexicans and eventually Americans. The northern section of what nineteenth-century Americans would call the Old Spanish Trail followed Domínguez and Escalante’s route through the Mesa County area.
American trappers and traders began appearing in the Mesa County area after 1821, when Mexico won its independence from Spain and opened trade with the United States. In 1828 the Mexican government granted trapper Antoine Robidoux license to establish Fort Uncompahgre on the Gunnison River, near the present-day Mesa-Delta County line. The fort became the hub of a bustling regional fur trade, serving as a base for as many as twenty trappers—Kit Carson among them—and featuring one of only two general stores west of the Continental Divide. The fort never managed to offer full protection from Native Americans, and the fur trade had already declined significantly when the Utes burned the post down in 1844.
Exploration and Conflict
In 1853 Captain John W. Gunnison led the first American exploration party through present-day Mesa County. Like Domínguez and Escalante nearly eighty years before, Gunnison’s expedition sought to establish a crucial commercial route to California—this time it was for a transcontinental railroad that would link California and the west with the rest of the United States. And like the Spaniards, he failed—the party made it to eastern Utah before it was ambushed by Paiute Indians, who killed Gunnison and all but four members of his expedition.
Subsequent events brought far more than explorers into Ute country. The Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59 brought thousands of white Americans—miners, farmers, ranchers, and businessmen—into the Colorado Rockies. The gold rush led to the organization of the Colorado Territory in 1861. A treaty with the Utes in 1863 gave the United States the Front Range and Middle Park in exchange for annual payments and the retention of Ute sovereignty over the western third of the territory.
But white ranchers and prospectors kept pushing west. Another treaty in 1868 gave the Utes dominion over Colorado’s Western Slope. In 1879 Utes near the White River Indian Agency in present-day Rio Blanco County revolted against Indian Agent Nathan Meeker, killing Meeker and ten others. The event provided the final impetus for driving the Utes off the Western Slope entirely; by 1882 most Utes in the area of present-day Mesa County, including the Parianuche and Ouray’s Tabeguache, were forced to live on reservations in Utah, ending their centuries-long reign over the Colorado Rockies.
The Utes were still leaving when the first permanent white settlers arrived in present-day Mesa County. O. D. Russell, J. Clayton Nichols, and William McGinley followed the Gunnison River to its confluence with the Colorado in September 1881, taking care to avoid the remaining Utes, and staked claims. The Mesa County area was then part of Gunnison County, and back in the county seat of Gunnison, George A. Crawford—a former town builder and governor-elect of Kansas—planned to exploit the situation created with the evacuation of Indians. He set out for the camp established by Russell, and on September 26, 1881, he chose a townsite. Grand Junction, named for the confluence of the Colorado (then known as the “Grand River”) and Gunnison Rivers, was founded that year and incorporated the next. Mesa County, along with Delta and Montrose Counties, was cut from Gunnison County on February 14, 1883.
In its first year, Grand Junction was supplied by wagons from Gunnison or Fort Crawford, near present-day Montrose. But the town had its first store by December 1881, first hotel—William Green’s Grand Junction House—by January 1882, and its first school later that year. Also in 1882, a number of sawmills—including the Rice Brothers’ on Piñon Mesa and A. M. Sawyer’s on Roan Creek—helped supply the young town with lumber, and water from the Grand River began flowing through the first irrigation ditch.
The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad arrived in March 1883. Crawford had sold half of the town company’s stock to the railroad in exchange for its promise to build a depot and servicing stations. Along with the irrigation ditches, the railroad’s arrival in Grand Junction was a crucial part of the rapid takeoff in Mesa County agriculture that occurred between 1890 and 1910; the fruit crops of the Grand Valley could now be shipped to hungry miners in the mountains and elsewhere.
In 1899, with Grand Valley farmers already harvesting bountiful crops of peaches and apples, Mesa County boosters successfully lobbied for the construction of Colorado’s first sugar beet factory in Grand Junction. The factory remained in operation until 1929, as the nexus of sugar beet cultivation had by then shifted to the South Platte and Arkansas River valleys.
In the early 1880s—at the same time the Utes were being removed from the Gunnison, Colorado, and Uncompahgre River valleys—Anglo-American horticulturalists and prospective farmers noticed the growth of wild berries and other fruit-bearing flora in the region. William E. Pabor and others opined that the dry, sunny climate of the Western Slope valleys would, with sufficient irrigation from the rivers, be ideal for growing fruit. In 1883 Pabor and Elam Blain planted the first fruit trees in the valley, including peaches, cherries, plums, and apples. The development of irrigation, the appetites of miners in mountain towns, and the arrival of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in 1883 set the stage for an agricultural boom in the Grand Valley.
By 1910 more than a million trees stood on 20,000 acres of fruit orchards in the valley, watered by massive irrigation projects such as the Grand Valley Project and Orchard Mesa Canals. The Highline Project was another ambitious canal project involving a series of dams and ditches designed to irrigate some 50,000 acres at the base of the Book Cliffs north of Grand Junction; it was completed in 1918. By spreading the wealth of river water, these projects augmented the development of small towns such as Fruita, Orchard Mesa, Palisade, Clifton, and Loma. While each of those towns has a history of fruit production, perhaps no two towns represent the promises and pitfalls of the Mesa County fruit industry better than Fruita and Palisade.
Homesteaders began settling the area of Fruita around 1882, but the town was not organized until the fruit-farming proponent William Pabor organized the Fruita Town and Land Company in May 1884. Pabor was a veteran of another agricultural venture, the Union Colony on the plains north of Denver, and envisioned a similar community several miles downstream from Grand Junction.
Apple and pear orchards were planted around the turn of the century, and the Chamber of Commerce promoted the industry by working to have Fruita’s produce on display at fairs across the country. After two decades of booming fruit production, a lethal combination of seasonal frosts, codling moths, grower ineptitude, and salty soil caused by overuse of irrigation water destroyed the apple and pear orchards. By the mid-1920s, peach trees, which were not affected by the codling moth, were planted in East Orchard Mesa and Palisade to replace the lost apple and pear trees. Fruita’s agricultural base shifted from fruit to potatoes, sugar beets, and wheat.
The fertility of the soil in the Palisade area was first tested in 1882 by John P. Harlow, who grew vegetables for his wife’s restaurant in Grand Junction. The cliffs to the north and east of the area blocked winds and helped keep Palisade several degrees warmer than other surrounding areas; this did not go unnoticed by the area’s first orchardists. Before irrigation ditches were dug near the turn of the century, J. L. Oliver and William and Frank Berger had to haul barrels of Colorado River water to their orchards. Palisade, named for the towering cliffs that protected its orchards, was founded in 1895 and incorporated in 1904.
Local inventions throughout the early twentieth century, including a bottom-opening picking sack, an oil-burning "smudge pot" that protected fruit from frost, and de-fuzzers, propelled Palisade to the pinnacle of peach production. By 1945 the orchards around Palisade held 852,566 trees, and growers shipped about a million bushels of peaches annually from 1940 to 1961. The United Fruit Growers, a marketing group formed by George Bowman in 1923, still serves Palisade peach farmers today.
Large-scale herders—including the Kimball Brothers, the YT outfit, and the Smith brothers—introduced the first cattle herds to the county in 1882. They quickly realized that Grand Mesa offered some of the best grazing land in the country. After the railroad arrived, livestock raising became big business in Mesa County; stockyards developed in Appleton, De Beque, Grand Junction, and Whitewater, and by 1920, more than 50,000 cattle grazed on upward of 44,000 acres of alfalfa and hay. The Mogensen Slaughter House near Fruita operated from 1920 to 1945.
The cattle wranglers were followed by sheepherders in the 1890s, but before herds of either animal could freely graze the Grand Mesa area, predators such as wolves, mountain lions, and bears had to be eradicated. Wolves were wiped out first, their destruction aided by the rapid decline in elk and deer that came with the county’s initial settlement. Resourceful mountain lions hung on, preying not only on cattle and sheep but also horses. As proof of the threat they posed to the livestock industry, the first large tourist attraction in Western Colorado was likely the De Beque Lion Hunt, in which participants helped fund and accompanied parties that hunted the animals. Government bounties on lions, bears, and other predators also helped expedite their destruction.
After Grand Mesa’s predator populations were cut down, stockmen set their sights on each other. As was common throughout Colorado’s Western Slope at that time, Mesa County’s sheepherders and cattlemen squared off in ugly range wars. Jealous cattleman drove herds of hundreds or thousands of sheep off cliffs and harassed or shot shepherds; the lack of witnesses and the remote setting of these crimes meant that many went unpunished. These conflicts ceased only after the Forest Service acquired Grand Mesa in 1924 and after the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 required ranchers to buy permits that limited both the number of animals they could raise and the amount of land they could graze on.
Hub of the Western Slope
Over the course of the twentieth century, the success of surrounding farmers and ranchers turned Grand Junction into a hub of commerce and culture, and the city’s population grew each decade. The Durham Stockyard was already operating for six years by 1900. By 1920 the city’s population had grown to 8,665, and over the next decade Grand Junction gained another 1,500 residents in addition to a new courthouse, the Avalon Theatre, and an extension campus of the University of Colorado that eventually became Colorado Mesa University.
City Market opened the first large supermarket on the Western Slope in 1939. Canneries, the first of which was built in 1911, kicked into high gear in the 1940s to supply Mesa County fruit and vegetables to soldiers during World War II. Major airline service began in 1946 with Monarch Airlines, which later became Frontier. By the 1950s, a number of wholesale firms, including Biggs-Kurtz Hardware and the Independent Lumber Company, centered their regional operations in the city. The regional uranium boom also brought hundreds of jobs, and the city hosted a secret uranium refinery that operated from 1943-45.
In the 1960s, the city’s rich balance of business and culture was enhanced by the expansion of downtown shopping districts and infrastructure, and Look magazine recognized Grand Junction with one of its “All America City” awards. The Museum of Western Colorado became the twenty-eighth museum to be accredited by the American Association of Museums in 1971, and in the 1970s a short-lived oil shale boom brought additional prosperity. In the 1980s, grape growing in neighboring Palisade gave rise to a new industry—wine tourism—and today Grand Junction advertises itself as “Colorado Wine Country.”
After the turn of the century, most of the people in Mesa County had come from Kansas, Arkansas, and especially Iowa. Indeed, so many Iowans came to Mesa County and Grand Junction and Palisade that the two cities held an annual festival called “Iowa Days.” But over the years Mesa County acquired many different hands, most of whom came to raise the county’s profitable orchards and farm fields.
The sugar beet industry brought many new arrivals to the county. At first, children between the ages of eleven and fifteen were hired to do the backbreaking work of harvesting beets. But then, as in other parts of Colorado, German Russian immigrants—who had experience cultivating beets overseas—supplied the bulk of Mesa County’s beet field labor during the early twentieth century. In 1916 the Holly Sugar Company—the third owner of the beet factory in seventeen years—began contracting with Mexican laborers to work the Grand Valley beet fields. The Grand Junction plant closed in 1929, but many of the Mexican immigrants who came to work in beet fields became permanent residents; some likely found work in the fruit orchards.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, labor for the burgeoning fruit industry was supplied locally. The industry kept the Mesa County economy stable during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when families came from as far away as Missouri to pick peaches. The labor shortage of World War II was remedied by German and Austrian prisoners of war, who had to meet individual quotas of seventy bushels of peaches per day. These immigrant groups were always augmented by young people from the surrounding community, and by the 1980s many of the fruit pickers were migrant Mexican laborers. Ultimately, the demand for agricultural labor produced by the sugar beet and fruit industries in the twentieth century brought a number of different cultures and individuals through the upper Grand Valley, resulting in more diverse communities.
Grand Mesa, the largest flat-top mountain in the world, was formed when ancient lava flows hardened over a core of older rock, forming a layer of basalt hundreds of feet thick that protected it from the erosion that wore down the surrounding area. For hundreds of years, the Utes climbed to the top to hunt elk and deer and gather all kinds of useful plants. After the Utes were removed from the area, ranchers coveted the mesa for its fertile grazing grounds, and hunters for its abundance of large predatory game. Of all the big-game hunters who trekked up Grand Mesa, Teddy Roosevelt was the most famous; the newly elected president bagged three bears on a hunting trip in 1905.
To the loud protests of county residents who wanted to continue their unrestrained usage of its resources, Grand Mesa was included in the Battlement Mesa Reserve, formed in December 1892. Under Theodore Roosevelt’s administration in 1908, the Battlement Mesa Reserve became the Battlement National Forest. In 1924 the forest was renamed Grand Mesa National Forest, and today it is administered—along with the Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests—by a regional supervisor’s office in Delta.
Another federal initiative during this period was the establishment of Colorado National Monument in 1911. The monument encompasses thirty-two square miles of towering, red-rocked cliffs and canyons southwest of Grand Junction. The spectacular landscape was carved by millions of years of water and wind erosion; thus, its rock formations are vertical geologic timelines, with rocks at the foundations dating from nearly 1.7 billion years ago. The monument’s creation can be mostly credited to John Otto, the trailblazer who moved to Grand Junction from Missouri in 1906 and fell in love with the landscape to the southwest. He began carving his own trails and scaling the sheer and imposing formations, which he called “monuments.” Many tourists who climb and hike in the monument today follow trails that Otto carved mostly by himself.
Thanks to its productive orchards and vineyards, sunny climate, and an abundance of public land, Mesa County has developed a robust tourism industry. Each year, thousands of outdoor enthusiasts use the Grand Junction area as a base as they hike, mountain bike, rock-climb, fish, raft, and camp on nearby public lands. Thousands more tourists pick peaches on the county’s 1,800 acres of peach orchards and sample wine at its twenty-two vineyards.
The 2012 Census of Agriculture ranked Mesa County as the top fruit-producing county in the state and within the top 5 percent of all fruit-producing counties in the nation. Mesa County also ranks third in the state in production of eggs and poultry.
Although agriculture has in the past provided some degree of insulation for the Grand Junction economy during broader regional downswings, the recent crash in natural gas prices has hurt the city’s efforts to replace nearly 3,000 jobs lost in the economic downturn of 2008. The growing tourism industry—bolstered by the highly touted orchards and vineyards—may provide some relief, as the city collected more tax revenue from lodging in May 2014 than it did in any year since 2008.