Prowers County covers 1,644 square miles of the Great Plains and Arkansas River valley in southeastern Colorado. The rectangular county is bordered to the north by Kiowa County, to the east by the state of Kansas, to the south by Baca County, and to the west by Bent County. Prowers County has a population of 11,954. More than 7,800 live in the county seat of Lamar, in western Prowers County on the south bank of the Arkansas, at the intersection of US Highways 50 and 385. Other communities include Holly (pop. 1,048), Granada (640), Wiley (405), and Hartman (110), as well as the smaller unincorporated communities of Bristol, Carlton, and Kornman. In eastern Prowers County, US Highways 50, 400, and 385 converge in Granada, while State Highway 89 runs south from Holly.
Prowers County was formed in 1889 and named after John W. Prowers, an early rancher in the area. Once the hunting and wintering grounds of many nomadic indigenous peoples, the Prowers County area officially became part of the United States in 1803. In the late nineteenth century, the arrival of railroads led to the development of agriculture and towns. In the twentieth century the county became an important center of the sugar beet industry, centered on the factory in Holly. During World War II the county was the site of Granada Relocation Center, also known as Amache, one of ten internment camps that held Japanese American citizens for the duration of the war. Today, Prowers County is one of the most productive agricultural counties in the state.
Colorado’s lower Arkansas River valley has a long history of human occupation. 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 banks. Spanish explorers trekked into what is now southeastern Colorado in the sixteenth century, but they only made it as far as the Purgatoire River, an Arkansas tributary that meets the main river west of Prowers County.
By the 1720s the Comanche used the power of the horse to drive the semi-sedentary Plains Apache from the Arkansas River valley. At this time the Prowers 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 massive horse herds. They hunted bison and raided or traded with other Indian peoples and the Spanish for grains, weapons, and other supplies. In 1739 two French fur traders, the brothers Pierre and Paul Mallet, camped in the dense cottonwood stand near present-day Lamar known as Big Timbers. The brothers did some trading with Indians (possibly Jicarilla Apache or Comanche) and spent several days in the area before moving on toward Santa Fé.
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 in the Prowers 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.
Early American Era
In 1806 the American explorer Zebulon Pike traversed the Prowers County area as he followed the Arkansas River to the site of modern-day Pueblo. After 1821 the area was part of the Santa Fé Trail, a trade route that linked New Mexico and Missouri. In 1833 William Bent established a fur–trading post along the trail, about fifty miles west of the current Prowers County line. Bent’s Fort, as the post was known, 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 droughts wracked native communities and the buffalo herds began to dwindle. William Bent demolished his fort in 1849 and moved it farther down 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, in which the current area of Prowers County was included as part of a larger Huerfano County. That same year the government also brokered the Treaty of Fort Wise, which sought to confine the Cheyenne and Arapaho to a small reservation in eastern Colorado. The reservation included parts of present-day Prowers County. In 1862 the Homestead Act offered the Indians’ land to white settlers, 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.
In 1868 John Prowers, a former employee of William Bent, set up a farm in Boggsville, in present-day Bent County. Prowers went on to serve in the territorial legislature and, after Colorado became a state in 1876, the state legislature. Owing to his commitment to breeding quality cattle stock, Prowers became one of the most successful ranchers in southeast Colorado. In 1861 Prowers married Amache, the daughter of the Cheyenne chief Ochinee. He began acquiring cattle in 1862, and by 1881 his herd numbered more than 10,000. Prowers expanded his ranch by buying prime grazing land along the Arkansas from the half-Indian children of prominent local whites; the children were awarded the land after the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864. Prowers died in 1884, but his son, John Jr., continued the family’s ranching business.
Prowers was far from the only cattleman in the area. Hiram S. Holly, owner of several quartz mills in the Rocky Mountains, bought 1,300 cattle and set up his ranch in what is now eastern Prowers County in 1871. To get around the Homestead Act’s 160-acre limit, Holly made deals with cowboys to file for claims on the surrounding land and turn them over to him. By 1881 Holly had thirty miles of waterfront land on the Arkansas and 15,000 head of cattle. The Holly Ranch became a headquarters for employees and local trading, and a community developed around it that would eventually become the town of Holly.
Settlement and Development
In 1873—as the herds of Prowers, Holly, and other ranchers roamed the Arkansas Valley—the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fé Railroad (AT&SF) arrived in what is now Prowers County. That year the railroad established Granada, east of the town’s current site, and after a few weeks its population had grown to nearly 375.
The arrival of the railroad brought an end to the days of the cattle drive, as cattle could now be freighted across the country. By the mid-1880s the Arkansas Valley Land Company had acquired the Holly Ranch and expanded it to 2.5 million acres. But huge cattle losses during intense blizzards in the winters of 1885–86 and 1886–87 nearly wiped out the entire cattle industry in southeast Colorado.
Meanwhile, the railroad had initiated a land rush in the Arkansas Valley, as homesteaders and town builders sought to carve out their piece of what was expected to be a highly productive area. The AT&SF had hoped that Granada would host a land office for the boom, but when Granada’s developers rejected their proposal, the railroad and its partners turned to successful Kansas real estate promoter I. R. Holmes. In 1885 Holmes identified a site for a new land office on the south bank of the Arkansas River, along the AT&SF tracks and between the sprawling Prowers Ranch and the A. R. Black Ranch.
Holmes named the site Lamar, after then-Secretary of the Interior L.Q.C. Lamar. The site’s only problem was that the nearest train station was located on Amos R. Black’s ranch four miles away, and Black would neither allow the station to be moved nor sell the land around it. Holmes and his partners remedied this by tricking Black into boarding a train to Pueblo on the afternoon of May 22, 1886. While Black was gone, a work crew arrived at his station overnight, detached the building from its foundation stones, hauled it back to Lamar, and reinstalled it there. When Black returned, his train stopped at the newly relocated station, and the infuriated rancher had to make his own way home.
By the end of its first week of development, Lamar had a general store and lumber yard, as well as several saloons and land offices. After two months it had more than 100 residences, a restaurant, and a newspaper, the Bent County Register (later renamed the Lamar Register in 1889).
The year 1886 was a busy one for what would become Prowers County. As Lamar developed, the towns of Carlton and New Granada—on the site of present Granada—were founded, and the Wild Horse Creek community, a group of homesteads, was established near present-day Holly. The small community of Bristol built up on a homestead established by George Stabe in 1887. Families also began to develop the land around Lamar. The Wiley area, for example, began as a collection of homesteads north of Lamar in the late 1880s and grew consistently throughout the 1890s. The post office there went through several names, including Martynia and Empire Valley, before it became Wiley in 1907.
With the development of Lamar and other towns in southeastern Colorado, it soon became necessary to break up Bent County into smaller counties. In 1889 the state legislature shrank Bent County to its current size, dividing the rest of the land into Prowers, Otero, and Kiowa Counties, as well as parts of present Cheyenne and Lincoln Counties.
The Lamar Board of Trade sought to ease any concerns about farming in the county in its 1892 pamphlet “Prowers County, Colorado: Its Advantages and Attractions.” Like other booster literature of the day, the pamphlet described its subject in Edenic terms, calling Prowers County’s segment of the Arkansas “the most fertile valley in America” and “the great American garden.” For any reader anxious about finding quality land without adequate water, the pamphlet reassuringly stated that “in this country nearly all the lands have water rights attached.” It also provided a brief overview of the county’s many irrigation ditches, including Lamar’s Bed Rock canal, the Amity canal, and others.
It is not known whether Salvation Army officials read the Lamar Board of Trade’s pamphlet, but the organization nevertheless had a similarly rosy outlook for Prowers County. As part of its plan to fight poverty by organizing farm colonies for the urban poor, the Salvation Army established Fort Amity, six miles west of Holly, in 1898. Between thirty and thirty-five families made up the colony’s initial residents, and the population expanded over the next decade to include Mexican, Japanese, and Mormon families, as well as several dozen orphans brought from New Jersey in 1901. Eventually, however, the small size of its family farms, along with salty soil caused by improper drainage, brought an end to the colony in 1910.
Meanwhile, the Holly Sugar Corporation was formed in 1905 and built a beet processing factory on the west end of Holly later that year. The Holly factory, one of several built along the Arkansas in the early twentieth century, helped catapult the valley into the booming sugar beet industry. Holly’s factory got off to a bit of a rough start, as disgruntled Japanese workers dynamited the building in 1906 a day after they were fired; surprisingly, no injuries were reported, and the company quickly repaired the factory and resumed operation. Initially, Japanese and German-Russian laborers worked the beet fields. As those workers transitioned into farm owners, beet farmers began employing migrant Mexican workers, some of whom made permanent homes in the county.
By 1910 Prowers County had grown to a population of more than 9,500, and local farmers and ranchers had erased any doubts about the county’s agricultural promise. Nearly 1,000 farms covered more than a million acres, including 5,520 acres of sugar beets, the area’s newest cash crop. The county’s farm property had a cumulative value of more than $13 million. While war and economic troubles loomed ahead, Prowers County residents had built a solid foundation that they hoped would endure throughout the next century and beyond.
For most people in eastern Colorado, the 1920s was a prosperous decade, a bountiful run-up to the hardship of the market crash in 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. But for many in southeastern Colorado, the hard times began with a cloudburst in early June 1921. Inundated by heavy rains in the Pueblo area from June 2–5, the Arkansas River surged out of its banks in one of the most devastating floods in Colorado history. While the city of Pueblo bore the brunt of the flood, the deluge continued downriver. The river in Lamar began to rise about 4 am on June 5, destroying buildings, bridges, and farmland. Altogether, the flood killed hundreds of people and caused more than $25 million in damage from Pueblo to the Kansas state line. Rebuilding began almost immediately; by July 1, workers had already repaired the railroad bridge at Lamar, and crews were busy rebuilding the town’s other bridges.
The flood devastated agriculture in the county, as the number of farms dropped from 1,469 in 1920 to 1,194 in 1925. Then, Prowers County was hit hard by the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The number of farms reporting crop failure skyrocketed from just 178 in 1929 to 1,133 in 1934. As banks and farms failed, many residents left to make a new start elsewhere. More than 2,400 people left the county between 1930 and 1940, most of them looking to make a new start elsewhere.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the US government began relocating Japanese Americans, especially those on the West Coast, to inland concentration camps. One of these facilities, the Granada Relocation Center, was built just southwest of Granada in June 1942. The 10,500-acre facility held a peak population of more than 7,500 Japanese American citizens. Initially, detainees’ mail arrived through the Granada post office, but there was so much mail that the center had to create its own post office and name. It was named Amache, after John Prowers’s Cheyenne wife.
Amache residents lived in military-style barracks with rudimentary furnishings and ate together in cafeterias. The camp featured a hospital, schools, churches, men’s and women’s clubs, a movie theater, and other amenities, and detainees were allowed to run their own cooperative businesses that served the camp as well as residents from local communities. In January 1945 the detainment order expired, and most detainees left the facility by October. Amache officially closed on January 27, 1946, after its buildings were auctioned off. The Amache site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 18, 1994. It was designated a National Historic Landmark on February 10, 2006.
While the internment of loyal Japanese American citizens demonstrated an ugly side of the World War II era, the revived demand for agricultural products allowed the Prowers County economy to rebound after two dismal decades. The value of all crops grown in the county rose from just over $1 million in 1940 to more than $5.3 million by 1945, and the county population reached an all-time high of 14,836 by 1950.
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 Prowers County, where between 1950 and 1970 the number of farms dropped from 1,126 to 669, and the average farm size increased from 887 acres to 1,379 acres.
Economics and politics were not the only forces to re-shape the Prowers County landscape after World War II. On June 18, 1965, the Arkansas flooded again; this time, instead of Pueblo County, Prowers County was the hardest hit, as the deluge killed 6 people, injured 150, and damaged more than 1,300 structures. The National Guard was called in to help rebuild and relieve dislocated families. Afterward, the towns of Holly, Grenada, and Lamar worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to upgrade levees on the Arkansas, in hopes of avoiding a similar catastrophe.
In June 2015 the Prowers County Historical Society hosted a Fiftieth Anniversary observance of the 1965 flood, in which survivors shared memories of waking up to torrents of water in homes, crowding into surviving buildings, and watching the currents carry away cars, propane tanks, feed bunkers, and other elements of their livelihood.
Today, Prowers County remains one of Colorado’s most productive agricultural counties. Its herd of more than 102,500 cattle is the sixth-largest out of all counties in the state, and the county is one of the top ten producers of sorghum, poultry and eggs, hogs and pigs, and vegetables (including melons and potatoes). The agricultural trends that began after World War II are still unfolding in Prowers County, as the average farm size increased by 200 acres between 2007 and 2012.
The county also remains prone to natural disasters, including floods, droughts, and damaging storms. The most destructive weather event in recent decades came in March 2007, when a tornado ripped a two-mile swath of destruction through Holly. The storm killed two people, injured eight, and leveled forty-eight buildings.
Though it is the most important industry, agriculture is not the only job provider in Prowers County. The healthcare and social assistance industry, anchored by Prowers Medical Center in Lamar, provides more than 800 jobs, and the county’s retail industry adds another 650–700.