Fort Collins and the Larimer County Fair

Fort Collins Images is back! After a 16 month hiatus, I’ve returned to share more vintage images of the Fort Collins, CO area, starting with this great 1889 advertising trade card for the Larimer County Fair.

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1889 Larimer County Fair Advertising Card (5 ¼” x 3 ¼”)

As near as I could find by searching the online Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection, the Larimer County Fair started in Fort Collins in 1880. It was run by the Larimer County Agricultural and Mechanical Association from 1880 through 1883, incurring over $4,000 in debt. To salvage the fair, the Larimer County Fair Association was re-organized in March 1884, funded by the sale of stock shares bought by “some of the most prominent farmers, horse men, cattle men, sheep men, fruit growers and manufacturers in the county, all of whom [were] successful and well-to-do business men.”

The Association quickly established a fairgrounds, approximately where Poudre Hospital is today, and began to expand the program and prizes to include horse racing, live stock competitions, and displays of agricultural and mechanical products. They decided to hold a fair in 1884 and renumbered it as the “First Annual Fair of Larimer County.”

It was a four-day fair, starting on September 24, 1884, and included some special contests like a five-dollar gold piece to the “prettiest baby under 15 months of age.” According to the October 2, 1884 Fort Collins Courier, the fair was a huge success, attracting almost 6,000 people over the four-day period.

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1889 Larimer County Fair Advertising Card Reverse Side

The Association ran the fair for a few years but after 1891, it seems to have stopped. A Fort Collins Courier article, dated December 16, 1897, reported that the Association had “passed out of existence” and that after paying all their bills, they “had $2.14 to divide among the stock holders.”

Organizers tried again in 1912, reviving the fair in Loveland where it continues to this day as an event at the Ranch, on I25 just north of Crossroads Boulevard.

I’ll share a few more early advertising trade cards, related to Fort Collins, in my next post.

Alabaster Art Shop & the Church at Owl Canon

Late last year, Barbara Fleming wrote a column for the Coloradoan on the alabaster business in the Livermore, CO area. (I’ve placed a link to her article at the end of this post.) Her column reminded me that I had a couple of images of an alabaster art shop. It took some time to put it all together but I’m going to share them with you today. I knew nothing about the art shop and had trouble finding someone who could help, and then there was the mysterious old church.

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Charles E. Roberts’ Alabaster Art Shop, Laporte, Colo, c. 1932. Photograph by William Sanborn.

The image of the Alabaster Art Shop and the old automobiles and gas pumps are interesting in themselves but then there is the church in the background. The church dramatically raised the interest of the card.

One of the joys of historical research, at least for me, is tracking down someone who knows something about an unusual image. This image proved tougher than most. I finally sent the image to the Livermore Woman’s Club and asked if they knew anything about the art shop or the church. A few years ago, the Club wrote a book on the area, entitled Among These Hills: A History of Livermore, Colorado, and I hoped they might recognize the church. Kathy Packard was nice enough to send the request to their membership and I was finally able to connect with Tom Peden, a local who knew a good deal about the art shop and the church. Tom even had a website with information on the art shop. (I’ve placed a link to his website at the end of this post.)

First I’m going to focus on the art shop and then I’ll tell you what I was able to find out about the church. Most of the information on the art shop comes from Tom and I hope I got it right.

Charles E. Roberts started at least two limestone quarries, one in Ingleside, Colorado and one in Rex, Colorado. Limestone was used in the processing of sugar beets. He ran the quarries from around 1913 until he retired around 1930. The 1930 census shows a Charles E. Roberts with an occupation of merchant of a general store in Livermore, CO. The store was probably the combination art shop and store in this image, which at the time of construction, was on the road from Fort Collins to Laramie, WY. The the license plates on the automobiles in the photograph are also form the 1930s. You can see that Charles sold alabaster art, Aztec curios, soft drinks, and of course, gasoline. Below is a later image of the shop, circa 1940.

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Charles E. Roberts’ Alabaster Art Shop at Owl Canon on the Laramie Highway, Laporte, Colorado, c. 1940. Photograph by William Sanborn

In this image, the buildings are a little bigger and the church is gone. Unfortunately, there isn’t any way to date this card except that it postmarked 1942, so the image was taken before then.

Tom remembers that the road to Laramie was rerouted in 1952. This store was abandoned and the owner at that time, Napoleon Martinez, built a new store on the rerouted highway. Tom thinks that the buildings in these two images were abandoned and slowly deteriorated. He believes they were burned down in the 1980s. Now let’s move on to the church.

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Church at Owl Canon Enlargement, c. 1930

The information on the church in the early photograph was even harder to track down. Tom had some memories of it that he shared with me and, fortunately, the Catholic Archdiocese Denver had some records of the church. Neither thinks the church was ever named, so I’m calling it the Church at Owl Canon,

Tom remembers that the church was built on land owned by Charles E. Roberts in the mid-1920s. Roberts was still running the limestone quarries and was looking for a place for his mostly Hispanic workforce to worship. Tom thought that Roberts donated the building and land to the Catholic Church.

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Workers at Ingleside Quarry, Ingleside, CO, c. 1915. Photographer is unknown.

Karyl Klein, Archivist, Archdiocese of Denver, kindly searched their records and confirmed that the Roberts’ family donated the land to Bishop Tihen in 1930. Bishop Tihen served as Bishop of Denver from 1917 until 1931. Father Trudel, pastor of Holy Family Church in Fort Collins, CO, often worked with the migrant community and probably preached there on occasion.

Once the limestone quarries closed, the land was too far from Fort Collins and, it appears, the church was abandoned. The church records show that the land was deeded back to the Roberts’ family in 1948.

Tom thinks that the church was moved from the site and re-purposed. That must have happened prior to 1942, since it isn’t in the postcard with the 1942 postmark. Where it went and what it was used for remains a mystery.

Here is the link to Barbara Fleming’s article, “A Little Known Local Resource.”

Here is the link to Tom Peden’s website, “Owl Canon.”

Next week I’m going to share images of the Fort Collins’ sugar beet plant.

The Mitchell Oil Well Fire of 1924

As you can see from the title, this isn’t a Windsor, CO Part 2 post as promised. I have an eBay bid later today on a great Windsor image and decided to postpone the Windsor post, hoping I win the auction. Instead, here are some images of one of the biggest events in the Fort Collins area in the 1920s.

A few months ago, I started the story of the oil fields north of Fort Collins in a post entitled “The Oil Bonanza of the 1920s.”

“At 4:00 AM on Armistice Day (November 11), 1923, a ‘terrifying noise’ announced that Union Oil had brought in the first well in the area called the Wellington Dome. The Discovery Well, located between Fort Collins and Wellington, Colorado, was called by the local newspapers ‘one of the largest wells ever struck.’

“The Wellington Dome oil field was large, spreading from Terry Lake in Fort Collins to north of Wellington. Prosperity seemed assured. The newspapers predicted that the population of Fort Collins would grow from 9,000 to 50,000 by 1928.”

By mid-1924, the Union Oil company was drilling more test wells, trying to get a handle on the size and quality of the oil field. Two of the test wells seemed very promising – the Whitaker Well and the Mitchell Well.

The progress of the two wells was followed by newspapers across Colorado. Here’s an example of a “status report” from the Routt County Sentinel on July 18, 1924:

“In northern Colorado, the Wellington field is believed to be just on the verge of a strike. Oil is said to be standing 500 feet deep in the Whitaker well . . . and a huge gusher is predicted within a week. . . . The well is down to a depth of between 4,180 and 4,200 feet. The Mitchell well is down 4,170 feet and seepage oil is standing several feet deep in the hole.”

The Whitaker Well, “Over the Top,” 1924

The Whitaker Well lost the race by three weeks or so. It came in on August 7, 1924. However, it was the first well to pay off to investors as reported in numerous Colorado newspapers in October 1924.

“Turning oil into gold became a reality when the first royalty checks ever issued at Fort Collins were sent to holders of royalties in the Whitaker well by the Union Oil Company of California. The company recently had sold seventy-eight barrels of oil from the well to a local concern, for which the sum of $117 had been received. Checks to several holders of parts of a one eighth interest in the well accordingly were sent.”

The Mitchell Well Gasser, 82,000,000 cu. ft. a day. 1924.

The Mitchell Well came in earlier, on July 19, 1924, at a depth of 4, 210 feet. It was a large well, throwing 82 million cubic feet of gas into the air every day. A well that comes in with gas is called a “gasser.” Union Oil knew the well contained gas and had poured millions of pounds of water down the hole to hold down the gas as the drilling continued. Newspapers reported that the workmen nearly drowned when the well “blew in,” scattering water for hundreds of feet around the well.

The Mitchell Well Gasser Close-up. 1924

Crews immediately started trying to cap the well but the situation worsened when the cap valve broke, forcing the gas through a smaller opening and increasing the pressure.

The July 23, 1924 Steamboat Pilot reported, “Blowing in of the gasser was a signal for thousands of curiosity seekers to appear Sunday, and the countryside for miles around was a mass of slowly crawling automobiles. . . . The great, black spout is visible for ten miles.”

An uncontrolled gas well is a dangerous thing. Any spark can turn the cloud of gas into an enormous torch. That’s just what happened on Wednesday afternoon, July 23, 1924. Below are two photographs of the inferno.



Mitchell Well Burning, July 23, 1924.

No one seems sure of the cause, but one theory is that as they were trying to remove the broken cap, a spark from a hammer ignited the gas. Seven workmen were injured and flames could be seen from the tops of the buildings in Fort Collins. The well head was located on the ranch belonging to Joseph Mitchell. I think his ranch house is shown on the right side of the photograph. His house was only 1,000 from the well and Mitchell had to evacuate his family until the well was controlled.

Mitchell Well on Fire, Wellington, Colo., July 1924

The blaze was a spectacle, especially at night. Fort Collins newspapers reported, “Soft drink stands and hot dog lunch counters have sprung up and are being patronized by the crowds.” Immediately, Union Oil began to gather the equipment and forces it needed to extinguish the fire.

The fire occurred just at the time that explosives were beginning to be used to extinguish well fires. Not being sure of the new “technology,” The Steamboat Pilot, in a long article on the fire published on August 20, 1924, described the mix of attacks used by Union Oil. First, going old school, they gathered 13 high pressure boilers and three large pumps and hoses to send steam and water onto the well head to reduce the oxygen necessary for combustion. Prior to explosives, this was the combination used to put out well fires. This method took a week or more of effort to control a blaze. Then, going new school, they brought in a group of explosive experts in their asbestos suits. See the image below.

Asbestos Suits for Fighting Fire. Mitchell Gas Well Fire, c. August 1924

As near as I can determine, this is a very early photographs of fire fighters in asbestos suits. I couldn’t find any information on the group of firefighters. Of course, we know today how dangerous asbestos suits were for them, maybe more dangerous than the fire.

According to the Steamboat Pilot article, the team placed a charge of dynamite (other newspapers said it was a 40-pound charge of nitrogelatin) on a two-wheeled cart and shoved it directly against the casing head using a long section of pipe. The theory was that the explosion “blew out the candle.” As the charge was exploded the contents of the boilers and the hoses were turned on the well casing to keep it cool while a new cap was installed. Here’s how the pilot described the results:

“Under the three-form attack, the top of the huge jet of flame that for nights had illuminated the country for many miles around burned for a moment red at the top, then [faded] out. Soon after, the blaze began dying down at the bottom and, as the jets of steam cut off oxygen from the surrounding air, the flame seemed to slip from out of the sky to the ground and soon was extinguished.

“[The] company, who had planned the last fight against the flames were unable to believe their eyes. [They] waited, fearful that the heat of pipe or tools around the well might start the conflagration anew, but when it dawned that the long fight had at last been won a shout went up from all about. Whistles blew, auto horns tooted, bells rang and men laughed and shouted until tears came to their eyes. They had seen a dragon killed, seen the mind of men triumph at last in what looked to be an unequal and unending fight.”

The Mitchell Well fire was extinguished on August 14, 1924, over three weeks after the fire started.

Drilling in the Wellington Dome area was heavy through 1926 but then production began to drop. By 1930, the industry had faded from public notice. Instead of reaching 50,000, Fort Collins population stood at 11,500 residents.

Depending on my auction success and shipping times, next Sunday I’ll return to Windsor or post images of the earliest Fort Collins’ trolleys, the Interurbans.

The Oil Bonanza of the 1920s

At 4:00 AM on Armistice Day (November 11), 1923, a “terrifying noise” announced that Union Oil had brought in the first well in the area called the Wellington Dome. The Discovery Well, located between Fort Collins and Wellington, Colorado, was called by the local newspapers “one of the largest wells ever struck.”

Wellington Dome Oil Well c. 1924


While probably not a photograph of the Discovery Well, this is an image of one of the many wells in the Wellington Dome during that period. The caption on the card is hard to read. Looking at it closely, I believe it reads, “Union Oil Gas Well. Larimer Co. Colo. Empress Kodak Shop, Fort Collins, Colo.” The wells came in as gas wells and then, over the course of a few days or weeks, oil would begin to flow.

The Wellington Dome oil field was large, spreading from Terry Lake in Fort Collins to north of Wellington. Prosperity seemed assured. The newspapers predicted that the population of Fort Collins would grow from 9,000 to 50,000 by 1928. Business was booming. Spectators rushed in as shown in the following image:



Businessmen Heading to Fort Collins from Union Terminal in Denver c. 1924

This image probably ran in an early 1924 Denver newspaper, with the caption: “Two groups of Denver businessmen – just a comparatively few of a company of 500 – waiting at the Union Station for a train to the bonanza, the Fort Collins and Wellington oil fields.”

Fort Collins wasn’t prepared for the surge of visitors. Hotel space was in short supply. One of the first hotels to respond was the Northern Hotel. I’ll show their response on Sunday, with the next post “Northern Hotel – Part 2.”

A more complete post on the northern Colorado oil fields will follow in the future, suffice it to say that the bonanza was short lived.