Morgan County covers 1,294 square miles of the South Platte valley and the Great Plains northeast of Denver. It is bordered by Weld County to the north and west, Logan and Washington Counties to the north and east, and Adams and Washington Counties to the south.
The county has a population of 28,360. Fort Morgan, the county seat, is the county’s most populous city, with 11,451 residents. Other communities include Brush (population 5,463), Hillrose (264), Hoyt (165), Log Lane Village (873), and Wiggins (893). Many of these communities were established in the early 1880s, while Fort Morgan began in the 1860s as an army camp built to protect white travelers from Native Americans on the Overland Trail. Morgan County was organized in 1889.
Today, the county is heavily agricultural, with some 750 farms irrigated by water from the South Platte River. True to its long history as a transportation corridor, several major thoroughfares run through Morgan County today, including Interstate 76, US Highway 34, and State Highways 144, 52, and 71. Western Sugar Cooperative operates a sugar factory in Fort Morgan, one of the few remaining factories from Colorado’s sugar beet boom of the early twentieth century.
From around AD 1000 to 1400, members of the Upper Republican and Itskari cultures occupied parts of northeast Colorado, including present-day Morgan County. These semi-sedentary people fished, farmed, and hunted buffalo, living in earth lodges and crafting distinctive ceramic pots. While they were apparently able to thrive in northeastern Colorado for nearly three centuries, it appears that environmental pressures—most likely drought—caused them to gradually abandon the region. There is little evidence of their presence in the area by the mid-fifteenth century.
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the rapid expansion of the Lakota displaced a number of other tribal groups from the northern plains, including the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Kiowa. These groups filtered south onto the plains of Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado.
By 1790 the Kiowa had moved onto the plains from the mountains of Montana. The Cheyenne and Arapaho, meanwhile, had been migrating westward from their homelands in the upper Midwest since the early eighteenth century. By 1800 the Lakota had forced both the Cheyenne and Arapaho out of present-day South Dakota. The Cheyenne and Arapaho followed the buffalo herds across the plains, living in portable, cone-shaped dwellings called tipis. During the notoriously harsh plains winters, they found shelter near bluffs and in cottonwood groves along the river bottoms. While the Cheyenne rarely left the plains, the Arapaho made a habit of venturing into the mountains during the spring to hunt game in the high country.
Overland Trail and Fort Morgan
Anglo-American traffic across the Colorado Plains increased during the 1840s with the organization of the Oregon Territory and the California Gold Rush of 1849. In response to this incursion, Plains Indians sometimes harassed or stole from wagon trains, and many whites began to fear these attacks as they crossed the plains. In 1851 the federal government sought to make the westward journey safer for white travelers with the Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed by leaders of the Cheyenne, Lakota, Arapaho, and other Plains Indians. The treaty acknowledged Native American sovereignty across the plains, and each group would receive annual payments in exchange for guaranteeing safe passage for whites and allowing the government to build forts in their territory.
The Overland Trail in what became Colorado was an Indian path that the Army developed into a stagecoach route in 1858, the year of the Colorado Gold Rush and the founding of Denver. Relations between Colorado’s Native Americans and the US government deteriorated after the gold rush in 1858–59, with the latter pursuing an agenda that sought to strip away Native Americans’ rights to the land. In 1861, the same year that Congress established the Colorado Territory, the Treaty of Fort Wise relegated the Cheyenne and Arapaho to a small reservation in eastern Colorado between the Arkansas River and the Smoky Hill Trail. It was on that reservation, along Sand Creek in present-day Kiowa County, that Col. John Chivington and the Third Colorado Volunteers slaughtered some 150 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho—mostly women, children, and the elderly—in 1864.
The massacre at Sand Creek prompted violent retaliation from Native Americans throughout the next year, especially along the Overland Trail. Julesburg in present-day Sedgwick County was burned, as were dozens of ranches and homesteads. In response, the US Army re-routed the Overland Trail, sending it northwest to Fort Collins at the present site of Fort Morgan. To protect the new cutoff route, the US Army built Camp Tyler (soon renamed Camp Wardwell) in 1864. In 1866 the mud-and-log post was renamed Fort Morgan, after the late Col. Christopher Morgan, who died that year without ever visiting Colorado. In all, nineteen different companies from eleven regiments, including some former Confederate soldiers who had sworn allegiance to the Union, served at the fort. After the Medicine Lodge Treaty of October 1867, most of Colorado’s Cheyenne and Arapaho were relocated to present-day Oklahoma. Fort Morgan was abandoned that winter—what prompted its abandonment is still not known—and in 1868 the post was closed and its buildings auctioned off. Native American resistance on the Colorado plains ended in 1869 with the Battle of Summit Springs.
Both the Union Pacific and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q) Railroads laid tracks through present-day Fort Morgan on their way to Denver in 1882, increasing the value of the surrounding land. Ranchers were already taking advantage of the fertile prairies along the South Platte when Abner Baker, one of the original settlers of the Union Colony (the precedent of today’s Greeley), platted the town of Fort Morgan in 1884. Envisioning an agricultural community similar to the one he helped found fifteen years earlier, Baker completed Fort Morgan’s first irrigation ditch that year. He also owned a general store at 200 Main Street. Fort Morgan’s railroad depot arrived in May 1884. “By 1886,” writes local historian Jennifer Patten, “Main Street included a restaurant, a bank, a hotel, a drug store, a confectionary store, a livery, a barber shop, and a number of hardware and dry goods stores.”
Meanwhile, the town of Brush developed out of a cattle-shipping station along Beaver Creek, a tributary of the South Platte east of Fort Morgan. Established in 1883, Brush was named after Jared L. Brush, an influential rancher in early Colorado who nonetheless never lived in the town that bears his name. One of the most important early organizations in the community was the Presbyterian Church, founded by Denver evangelist Hugh Rankin in 1887.
Morgan County, named after the earlier fort, was carved from Weld County in 1889. Both Fort Morgan and Brush vied for county seat. Fort Morgan had the higher population at the time—488, to Brush’s 112—and had the railroad connections, so it received the honor.
Water from the Platte was Fort Morgan’s lifeblood, and the population grew to 634 in 1900. But the real population boom came during the next decade, after the Great Western Sugar Company opened factories in both Fort Morgan and Brush in 1906. By 1910 Fort Morgan had 2,800 residents; Brush had 997.
The communities of Hoyt and Wiggins also began developing in the early 1900s. The Hoyt family had originally homesteaded an area about fifteen miles southeast of Fort Morgan in 1884. By the early twentieth century the town had a number of businesses and a school, which was rebuilt in 1918 and still stands today, serving as the Hoyt Community Center. Wiggins, meanwhile, was established as the Burlington Railroad’s Corona depot in 1882 and grew with the arrival of homesteaders who founded the Long Meadow community in 1906. The town was named after one of John C. Frémont’s scouts, O. P. Wiggins. Today, the part of Wiggins to the north of the railroad tracks is still technically named Corona.
Sugar Beets and New Arrivals
The 1890 census of agriculture reported “almost innumerable canals and ditches” in Morgan County, noting that for the last several years, diversion and a dry period had left the river channel “nearly if not quite dry.” The diverted water irrigated 2,643 acres of grain crops and 2,823 acres of alfalfa. Those numbers would prove modest in the years ahead, as the sugar beet boom arrived and changed both the agricultural and social landscape of Morgan County.
In 1899 Colorado had little more than 1,000 acres planted in sugar beets, but by 1929 the crop covered 209,835 acres. That year 19,324 of those acres were in Morgan County, and factories in Brush and Fort Morgan had been turning raw beets into refined sugar for twenty-three years.
Moreover, the last three decades saw many Germans from Russia migrate to Fort Morgan, Brush, and other cities across the plains to work in the beet fields. They knew the beet crop well from their homeland, and it did not take long for German Russians to embed themselves in Morgan County communities. German Russians in Brush, for example, built the Immanuel Congregational Church.
But despite their work ethic and importance to the region’s major industry, the immigrants were not always well-received. This was especially true during World War I, when anti-German sentiment ran high in Colorado and across the country. In Fort Morgan, German students were kicked out of class, some Germans were not allowed in restaurants, and businesses posted signs demanding that Germans not speak their own language. By the 1920s, when some fifteen different nations were represented in the Morgan County population, a resurgent Ku Klux Klan showed its disdain for Catholics and nonwhites by burning crosses in Fort Morgan, Brush, and the small community of Orchard.
As more German Russian families came into farm ownership, beet farmers in Morgan County and elsewhere in Colorado increasingly began recruiting Mexican laborers to work the fields. This new group of immigrants again met with hostility from locals, even their employers. Under contracts signed with beet farmers and companies, many were forced to live in groups of shacks that locals referred to as “Mexican colonies.” Businesses put up signs reading “White Trade Only.” Although Morgan County was hardly unique in its poor treatment of Mexican immigrants, Mexican workers in Fort Morgan were apparently treated so badly that in 1945 a Mexican consul was compelled to write the mayor of Fort Morgan railing against their treatment.
Although they often looked down on immigrant beet laborers, Morgan County residents benefitted greatly from their work. Not only did farm values increase almost immediately after the sugar factories opened, but piles of discarded beet tops made excellent fodder for livestock, leading to the growth of feedlots in Morgan County. The boom also provided money for the development of arts and culture. For instance, capital from the local sugar industry helped make the fortune of banker Charles W. Emerson, who built the Emerson Theatre while serving as mayor of Brush in 1916.
Sugar beet farming drove Morgan County’s economy until the Great Western Sugar Company went bankrupt in 1985. The Brush factory closed, but the Fort Morgan factory remains operational today, owned by a farmers’ cooperative formed in 2002.
Today, Morgan County remains one of the state’s most important agricultural counties. Its 212,569 head of cattle rank third among the state’s sixty-four counties, and Morgan County is one of the state’s top producers of corn. County farms also produce significant crops of wheat, melons, hay, and vegetables.
Demographically, Latinos, who began arriving in larger numbers during the sugar beet boom of the early twentieth century, now account for 31 percent of the Morgan County population. Fort Morgan has also resettled more than 1,000 Somali refugees as of 2013. Beginning in 2005, Somalis came to Morgan County to work at the Cargill meat processing plant in Fort Morgan. In the wake of their arrival, Morgan Community College’s Adult Education staff helped found OneMorgan County, an organization dedicated to promoting community cohesion amongst immigrant populations. OneMorgan County assists immigrants of all backgrounds in obtaining a variety of services, including employment, legal, health, and youth and family services.
Despite countywide efforts to integrate immigrant and refugee populations, intercultural tension still occurs. In January 2014, white and Latino applicants to Cargill’s Fort Morgan plant were among those who received a total of $2.2 million in back wages when the company settled a race-based discrimination suit out of court. In January 2016 the company again made headlines when nearly 200 Muslim employees of East African descent stayed home from their jobs at Cargill’s Fort Morgan plant, accusing management of curtailing their prayer time. The company, which had traditionally allowed workers to pray during breaks, fired some 150 of the workers, but then allowed many of them to reapply for their jobs.
Economically, the Cargill plant remains Morgan County’s top employer, accounting for 2,091 jobs. Farm processing and medical facilities account for the bulk of employment in the county, with the Leprino Foods dairy plant providing 340 jobs, the Western Sugar cooperative’s plant employing 225, Colorado Plains Medical Center providing 267 jobs, and East Morgan County Hospital employing 206.