The story of how lambs came to be fattened in Fort Collins is one that most local historians know. One source of the story, maybe the original source, is an article from the Fort Collins Courier, January 27, 1898: “A Comprehensive Paper on the Lamb Feeding Industry, by Senator James C. Evans of Fort Collins.” Evans was a Colorado State Senator from 1895 to 1901. Here is an abbreviated version of his story.
In the fall of 1889, some 2,500 lambs were bought in the extreme southern part of Colorado with the intention of shipping them to feed yards in Nebraska and fattening them for the spring market.
“They were caught in the great October storm of that year. For two weeks the lambs were held without food except such as was afforded by a few pinion trees cut down for them to browse. When the railroads were opened to traffic, they had lost a number [of lambs] from exposure and starvation and the balance were so weak that [the owners] feared to start them on their journey by rail to Nebraska.
“Almost as a last resort they decided to shop them to Fort Collins, in the northern part of the state, where alfalfa could be obtained at a reasonable price and there attempt to feed them under what the owners considered would be very adverse conditions. The lambs reached Fort Collins about the middle of November and were placed upon a generous diet of alfalfa hay. They recovered rapidly from the effects of their two week fast.
“It is interesting to note the reception given these lambs by the buyers on the Chicago market. The first shipment was sold in March. They brought $5.05 per hundred weight when the top of the market was $5.75. But the last two shipments brought $6.25 and $6.40, the extreme top of the market, and buyers were inquiring if there were more Fort Collins lambs to come.
“This was the beginning of the lamb feeding industry in Colorado.”
Apparently, an alfalfa rich diet was better than the Nebraska corn rich diet and the climate of northern Colorado was ideal for alfalfa. The 2,500 lambs of 1889 grew to 193,000 lambs fed in Larimer County in 1897. According to Evans, Larimer County was feeding “one-fourth as many head of sheep as are being fed in the entire state of Nebraska, the great corn feeding state of the west.”
By 1909, Fort Collins was looking for a way to celebrate its two major industries, sugar beets and lamb feeding. F. C. Grable, an early land and water developer, wrote a letter to the Fort Collins Weekly Courier that read, “Let us have a real old-fashioned barbeque – call it lamb’s day or sugar day. Other towns around us are doing such stunts, why can’t we?”
On September 29, 1909 the first Lamb Day celebration was held in Fort Collins to let the world know about the Northern Colorado lamb feeding industry. Below are some images of the first Fort Collins Lamb Day.
The barbecue was set up in the 200 block of West Oak Street, behind what was then the courthouse and is today the Fort Collins Museum of Art. Two hundred lambs were put on to roast. Beef, bread, pickles, and fruit rounded out the menu. One article warned that” if you are a vegetarian, you will find it interesting to look on while your neighbor eats.” By the end of the day, 3,000 loaves of bread had been sliced and served.
Volunteers from all over the town were involved in the production, including all the butchers in Fort Collins. The college provided 300 students, all attired in white aprons, as servers.
People came into town by wagon and by train. Special trains were added for the expected crowds. Nine hundred feet of serving tables were lined up in a square around the cooking area and customers entered the line from all four corners. People lined up early and by the end of the feast some 8,000 people were served. A message on the back of one postcard said, “Enough lamb was roasted to feed the entire population of Fort Collins,” really true since the population of Fort Collins was 8,210 in 1910.
Of course, the event consisted of more than food. One of the big attractions was the Denver Post Boy’s Band, who entertained the crowd all day.
The Denver Post Boy’s Band was, at that time, the most famous band in the Rocky Mountain area. They played at most big events, including the 1908 Democratic National Convention in Denver. Getting them to play at the Fort Collins Lamb Day was a big coup and probably added to the crowd. Just before food service started, the butchers, armed with cleavers and saws, marched into the serving area led by the Boy’s Band.
Automobiles were all the rage in 1909 and every major event incorporated them into the festivities. For the 1909 Lamb Day, a parade of decorated automobiles was held at five o’clock. The parade, shown here on College Avenue, south of Mountain Avenue, used most of the cars in Fort Collins, mostly decorated with flowers but a number of cars sported a “Mary Had a Little Lamb” theme.
The building at the left side of the image is the First National Bank and the YMCA is the large building in the center rear with the large chimneys. The YMCA was opened to women and children as a place to rest between events and was crowded between the automobile parade and the fireworks display, which ended the day.
As soon as the 1909 Lamb Day event was over, planning began for an even bigger 1910 event.
The city thought the 1909 event “was as near perfection as such celebrations could be” and decided that no major changes should be made. The lamb barbeque would remain the major drawing card, they called it the “headliner,” but they would add a couple of extra events – some street attractions and a second parade called the “Industrial and Farmer’s Parade.”
The Industrial and Farmer’s Parade kicked off at 2 pm, before the barbeque was over. The cities fathers saw it as a unique event and a chance for the areas farmers to show off their farms and their products. Cash awards were given to the best floats representing the farm and its products as well as to the best draft horse teams, beet hauling rigs, and even the best load of hay.
The decorated automobile parade was again scheduled for 5 pm but a hail storm forced the cancellation of the auto parade.
The program achieved its goal of becoming even bigger. On September 22, 1910, an estimated 15,000 people lined up for the lamb and other fixings. Here are a few images from the 1910 affair.
Newspaper articles of both 1909 and 1910 mention the chief cook, Tom Herron. In promoting the 1910 celebration, the Fort Collins Weekly Courier announced, “Tom Herron will roast the lambs for the barbeque. This is sufficient guarantee that the meats will be done to a turn.” Tom was black, unusual in a town with a very small black population. Assisted by his wife who was his chief lieutenant for both 1909 and 1910, Herron oversaw a large crew of cooks.
Herron was the originator of the plan used to roast the meat. Instead of pits, he devised the above ground kilns, four of them, each 40 feet long. The fires were started at 7 pm the night before and by 9 pm the roasting was in full swing. As the lamb quarters were finished, they were moved to warming kilns, where they were kept hot until ready to serve. It took until 11 am the next day to complete the roasting of the 14,000 pounds of lamb.
Even the town fathers must have been surprised at the 1910 turnout. People came in on special trains from Cheyenne, WY and even from Denver, CO. Some surrounding towns, like Wellington, CO, closed all their stores to attend. By the end of the day, the city estimated that they served some 15,000 people, almost twice the population of Fort Collins.
The high cost and effort to run the 1910 Lamb Day ended the celebration. Much smaller Lamb Day celebrations would occur, usually coupled with some other event or targeted to a particular group of people. For example, the 1911 Lamb Day event was held at Lindenmeier Lake and sponsored by the Fort Collins merchants, with farmers and their families as their invited guests. The city-wide Lamb Day celebrations were over.
For the next few months, I will be teaching a class. During this period, I will only do a Sunday post. Next Sunday’s post will feature images from the Delatour Boy Scout Ranch.