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Colorado – The Northeast Corner, From Ft. Morgan to Julesberg – 1

May 6, 2016
Woman looking for petrified wood along the South Platte River at Ft. Morgan. (She told us that she finds a fair amount)

Woman looking for petrified wood along the South Platte River at Ft. Morgan. (She told us that she finds a fair amount)

1.

“Why are you going there.”

“There” is the northeast corner of Colorado, north and east of Ft. Morgan to just past Julesberg where Colorado turns into Nebraska. Neither of our daughters could imagine why we would want to vacation there, little more than a way station in Colorado’s northeast corner that connects to I-80 in Nebraska and from there points east. We joked how we’d invite the girls to join us just to see how they might “politely” reject our offer.

But then, I’d have a hard time myself, explaining why it was we decided to pick that particular corner of the world for our enjoyment. I suppose several factors came into play:  it wasn’t a typical tourist destination. I simply didn’t believe there was “nothing” there…although exactly what life was like there – both past and present – was not so obvious to tease out. Still, we figured…what the heck…let’s go and check it out.  Its history – both human and geological interests me, especially the history of the flood of early Euro-American settlement in the area in the 1860s and how it impacted – decimated would be a more accurate term for it – the existing native populations.

How many times have we driven past Sterling and Julesberg on I-76 in the northeast corner of Colorado on our way to I-80 in Nebraska and points east? A hundred? More? My estimate is that it is somewhere between a hundred and a hundred and fifty times given that we often went to Eastern Nebraska, central Iowa (when Molly was at Grinnell) and western Illinois (when Abbie was at Knox College) at least twice a year and often more often than that over a period of 47 years. Who knows?

On those trips, how many times did we stop at Sterling, Julesberg or the small towns – more aptly called villages – Merino, Iliff, Ovid, Sedgwick – in Logan and Sedgwick counties? That’s easy. Once more than a decade ago, on a trip with Nancy and two  friends, we passed through Sterling and Julesberg, heading for Sidney, Nebraska, site of the original Cabella’s, but didn’t stop. I had to shake my sagging memory to remember that I did visit Sterling once in the distant past, sometime in early 1975. It was to attend the trial of Gary Garrison, Crusade for Justice activist who indicted for bombing the Boone Paint Store in Denver. (1)

As for Merino, Iliff, Ovid, Sedgwick – I have no memory of stopping at any of them to explore  or wanting to. From the highway, the whole northeast corner appeared almost desolate, only a place to get through as fast as possible, hopefully without getting ticketed by either the Colorado or Nebraska state patrol, on our way to Western, Nebraska (near between Wilber and Fairbury) or Nebraska City (45 miles due south of Omaha on the Missouri River) from where hailed the Fey and Lange families, Nancy’s relatives.

2.

Still, by itself alone, the geological history is interesting, compelling even.

Once – millions of years ago – it was the western part of that great inland sea that separated the eastern and western parts of North America, marking the area for so long. Even without much imagination, driving through the area, the undulating hills of the High Plains give the shape of what was once the sea bottom, coming clearly into view mile after mile. Should be no surprise that in this area whose seething conservatism includes bedrock hostility to “Obama Care” and Darwin’s theory of evolution that some of the most dramatic fossil sea creatures are continually discovered here. As the earth here and there spits up bits and pieces of past worlds, thousands, millions, tens of millions, billions of years ago.

There are different ways to get a feel for the lay of the land.

For a start, a visit to Denver’s Museum of Nature and Science. For the region’s more distant past – and now we’re talking not just tens but hundreds of millions of years – the Prehistoric Journey exhibit is as good a place as any to start as are the different exhibits on the region’s flora and fauna, some dedicated to mountain life, others to nature’s world of the high plains.

There have been many books written on the climate, nature of the region of which I will recommend only two – both rather dated, both excellent in their ways. The first Paul Johnsgard’s The Platte: Channels of Time (published in 1984). The second, Wallace Stegner’s elegant biography of John Wesley Powell, Beyond The Hundreth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West. I suppose anything written by Edward Abbey, be it The Monkey Wrench GangDesert Solitaire or his essays would also help.

Me, in 2003, standing by the marker of the 100th Meridian just west of Cozad, Nebraska

Me, in 2003, standing by the marker of the 100th Meridian just west of Cozad, Nebraska

The “hundred parallel” is the longitudinal  meridian 100° west of Greenwich is a line of longitude that extends from the North Pole across the Arctic Ocean, North America, the Pacific Ocean, the Southern Ocean, and Antarctica to the South Pole. It cuts directly through the state of Nebraska essentially cutting the state in two, on its journey skirting the town of Cozad, Nebraska.

East of the 100th, as Powell presciently understood, there is enough rainfall so that irrigated water is not needed for agriculture. West of the 100th, including all of Colorado with its drier climate, farming can only be successfully pursued using irrigated waters from the regions rivers and its underground reservoir, the Ogallala Aquifer. Without massive and continued infrastructural federal government there is no way that the region could be anything but sparsely inhabited by humans…as it was by Native Americans.

Given that the eastern plains of Colorado falls well within the area to the west of the 100th, it should not be surprising that today, Colorado’s northeast corner is a dry, semidesert region without much water except along the roads close to the South Platte. Nor should it be surprising that much of the state’s economic politics, if one scratches the surface, hinges around water – who controls it, who uses it, who has it and who as run out. Needless to say, given the pace of development in these parts, water is being consumed – much of it wasted – to an impressive degree. More on that later.

As a result, the Colorado’s eastern plains are not known for their vibrant colors. Still, in springtime there is a little color, but that is about it. As the harsh sun and higher temperatures, steadily in the 90s and often above 100 degrees Fahrenheit scorch the region, what little green that sprouted in April and May most often turns to brown by early July. But making life livable are the areas along the South Platte and its tributaries where towns and farms tend to huddle and congregate. That river, the southern branch of the Platte River rolling down from the Rockies, south and west of Denver, flows northeast through “the mile high city” where it joins up with Cherry Creek coming down from high hills to Denver’s southeast. The South Platte then extends northeast to Greeley, where meeting up with the Cache le Poudre, itself coming down from the mountains. Then the river turns sharply to the east through a barren country to which it gives sustenance.

Several hundred miles to the northeast, just outside the city of North Platte Nebraska, the South Platte merges with its northern brother, the North Platte, whose journey starts in northern Colorado, surging north into Wyoming; its northern thrust climaxing in Caspar, it turns southeast till it finally embraces the South Platte. Near North Platte, the two meet, cutting the state of Nebraska in half until the merged Platte empties into the great Missouri River. By that time, the Platte River basin and its tributaries cover a good part of Wyoming, the entirety of northeastern Colorado east of the Rockies and essentially all of Nebraska from the far west to Omaha.

Without its flowing waters – “a mile wide and an inch deep” as it was described, this northeastern corner of the state would be little more than a desert. In fact, in terms of annual rainfall, it is desert, or close to it. Wheat, corn and sugar beets are grown there, cattle and sheep are raised in large numbers given sustenance through river irrigation and drilling into what is left of the Ogallala Aquifer.(2)

3.

Religious and political conservatism are the order of the day, although once upon a time, in the late 1890s, Colorado’s eastern plains – along with Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma – was the home of what was probably the country’s first broad-based anti-corporate, labor-farmer political alliance called the Populist Movement. It might appear difficult to reconcile the fiery anti-corporate speeches – against the railroads and banks – of that time with the Logan and Sedgwick County’s current bedrock conservatism, but then – facts are stubborn things, no? And the traces of history, it seems, can never be entirely purged or forgotten, can it?

Native Americans learned early on – much better than its more recent inhabitants, how to live in a kind of symbiotic relationship with what Nature had to offer on the High Plains of Colorado. If the archaeological evidence is any indication, they did so for nearly ten thousand years. Tumbling down along the eastern flanks of the Rockies into Colorado (and points east) early Colorado humanity, referred to in the literature as Paleolithic man,  first hunting ancient mammoths to extinction on the plains and in the mountains of Colorado.

Although it is not entirely clear as to whether the mammoths were victims of climate or over-hunting, it appears that the latter at the very least contributed to their demise. The remains of mammoth hunts can be viewed in Wray, Dent and places along the foothills of the Rockies, as far South as Lubbock Texas. All appearances suggest these early hunters overdid it, and being successful, human populations increased, more animals with their slow reproductive cycles were wiped out.

Julesberg, Buffalo

Julesberg, Buffalo

A trophy head of a buffalo stares out a visitors in the lobby of the Julesberg, Colorado welcome center just off of I-76, a frequent stopping point for people driving from Denver to Nebraska and back; I stare back at it uncomfortably, well aware that my presence in the state is connected to its demise. A memory of a long era now history. One of the smaller towns north of Fort Morgan was originally named Buffalo – as it was near a common South Platte buffalo crossing. But symbolically perhaps, it changed it name to Merino – the name of a breed of sheep imported to Colorado from Spain. Buffalo out, Merino sheep and long-horned cattle in. In some ways it sums up the sea change that took place in a few years on the Colorado High Plains so that today, the only place to see a buffalo – is as a trophy on an interstate rest stop.

The archaeological record suggests that after losing mammoths as their a key element of their food supply, the way that buffalo were hunted was quite different, one might even say more environmentally sensitive. There are numerous sites that suggest this, but none as elaborate nor as systematically studied as what is called the Olsen-Chubbock site. A 8500 year old bison site, discovered in the 1950s by Jerry Chubbock (described in the research as “a keen amateur archeologist”) and his associate Sigurd Olsen, excavated by the University of Colorado’s Joe Ben Wheat and written up in the 1967 edition of Scientific American, it proved to be a gold mine of information on how early humanity lived, if not thrived on the High Plains.  (3)

Bison hunting on the High Plains lasted at least 9000 years. Native peoples did not wipe out the bison in the way they had the mammoths. From all appearances, they developed complex systems of both animal and plant preservation, killing only what they needed to live on, changing living places so that the bison herds could regenerate their numbers and the fragile grasses could grow back as well. In this system, the South Platte River was a key feature as bison would make annual treks to and across the river.

Jerry Chubbock at his museum in Genoa, Colorado giving my friends and me quite a show of old tools and how they were used

Jerry Chubbock at his museum in Genoa, Colorado giving my friends and me quite a show of old tools and how they were used

No one knows the exact number of bison in America at the time of Euro-American conquest, but a 25-to-30 million figure is a conservative estimate, most of which were systematically wiped out in a twenty-five year period from around 1850 to 1875 in one the most ferocious inter-species genocides in the history of the planet.

(To be continued)

______________
1. Garrison’s arrest was a part of a legal jihad against the Crusade for Justice at the time which included 12 court appearances for 15 individuals. See, Vigil, The Crusade for Justice, pp.301-305. Garrison was acquitted.

(2). If spread across the U.S. the aquifer would cover all 50 states with 1.5 feet of water. If drained, it would take more than 6,000 years to refill naturally. More than 90 percent of the water pumped is used to irrigate crops. $20 billion a year in food and fiber depend on the aquifer.

(3). For a readable, yet detailed analysis of the site read Joe Ben Wheat’s article, at the link above. Another side note. In September 2008, a small group of close friends of recently deceased Scott Keating made a trip to the museum at Genoa, Colorado where Keating had asked that some of his ashes be buried. The museum was owned and operated by Jerry Chubbock, whose name I recognized as one of the discoverers of the site famous to all Colorado archaeologists. Appreciated at being recognized, Chubbock responded by putting on a show for us – bringing out old tools the use of which we had to guess for close to an hour. Chubbock died a few years ago, the museum was closed down. 

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2016 7:32 am

    My number one reason to go to Sterling is to visit my wonderful daughter, my number two reason is all the beautiful places to walk the granddogs: Pioneer Park, North Sterling Resevoir, Dune Ridge & my number three reason is the fantastically good Chinese Buffet: Bamboo Garden on Main & 12th St. I always tell anyone I meet up here in the mtns who came in from Nebraska that when they are driving back to Nebraska it is worth it to stop in Sterling for lunch.

    • May 6, 2016 7:42 am

      Sandra…thanks. We (My wife and I) liked Sterling a lot. I haven’t written about our impressions of it yet, but will. We saw that Chinese buffet – but have not had particularly good experiences with Chinese restaurants in some other small towns (in Kansas and Nebraska) and didn’t venture in. But on your recomendation, we will next time, and I am pretty sure there will be a “next time”. Briefly what we liked – the library – really nice and the chain saw sculptures there, which was rather cynical about when I first read them were stunning…and the Overland Trail Museum – excellent local history. We talked about going to the North Sterling Reservoir but didn’t get there. Instead we looked for the site of what is called the Battle of Summit Springs – and we did get there, although it was poorly marked and missed the marker at the site. Best, Rob P.

      • May 6, 2016 8:04 am

        Yes indeed the Overland Trail Museum is wonderful & they frequently host educational events. Meantime, next time I highly recommend Bamboo Garden & North Sterling Res.

  2. Sarge Cheever permalink
    May 9, 2016 3:09 am

    wow–you’re covering everything—

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