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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

History of the Pawnee Grassland

October 11th, 2014 · No Comments

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Reading a novel is t​he best way to appreciate the colorful history of Weld County, Colorado, which includes the Pawnee National Grassland that Sharon and I visited for three days​ in September​. That novel is James A. Michener’s epic saga Centennial, originally published in 1974 and reissued just last year.

In 1936, well before Michener published any of his more than 40 books, he moved to Greeley, Colorado, the county seat of Weld County, which includes what is now the Pawnee National Grasslands. He went there to study at Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado) and graduated the next year with a master​’​s degree​. Then, he taught social studies at Colorado State’s College High until 1941.

Raised in Pennsylvania, Michener fell in love with the West during his years in Greeley. “For the first time I caught the fire and the fury that characterizes life in the West,” he ​said​ as quoted in Robert V. Hine’s The American West: A New Interpretive History. “A new type of man was being reared in the West. He was taller, ate more salads, had fewer intellectual interests of a speculative nature, had a rough and ready acceptance of new ideas, and was blessed with a vitality that stood out conspicuously to a stranger from the East.”

Michener captured that fire and fury in Centennial, which made ​famous ​the Pawnee Buttes, the prime landmark​s​ of the grassland. Except ​that ​in the book he called them “Rattlesnake Buttes,” mentioning them 68 times.

​For example, w​hen he describes the settling of the grassland a century ago, he has the developer and promoter tell his prospects that “‘The free land extends in every direction, but I​’​​ll tell you frankly, if I was choosing, I​’​d take one of those half-sections in the northeast sector, up beyond Rattlesnake Buttes.’” These buttes tower about 350 feet over the plains at an altitude of 5,375 feet.

The Pawnee Buttes in Midday

The Pawnee Buttes in Midday

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On a greener summer day a little over two years ago, however, I stood ​at​ the overlook and captured a more inviting scene:

The Pawnee Buttes at Sunset

The Pawnee Buttes at Sunset

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The developer and promoter in Centennial that I mentioned above was trying to attract settlers ​to​ what Michener​’s book​ called “Line Camp” 93 ​times. In real life this was the town of Keota. ​A century ago 140 people lived there, but only five people, probably oilfield workers, live there now, all of them, I think, in mobile homes.

​Downtown Keota Today​

Downtown Keota Today

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​Keota may mean “the fire has gone out” in an Indian language. If that’s a correct translation, it is certainly an appropriate name for this ghost town.​ What Michener called “the fire and fury” sadly went out of the lives of these and other settlers of these high plains during the Dust Bowl years, about 1931 to 1939. Many forlorn building remain as a testament to their failed efforts.

​​Some Trees Still Live at this Boarded Up Home

Some Trees Still Live at this Boarded Up Home

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Here Only a Chimney, a Tree, and Cattle Remain​

Here Only a Chimney, a Tree, and Cattle Remain

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​​Here They Once Shot Baskets

Here They Once Shot Baskets

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​​The best way I know to appreciate the grit and determination of the people who remain on the land here is to read the novels of another great writer, Kent Haruf. He set all five of his novels ​in the fictional town of Holt, which he based on the northeastern Colorado town of Yuma, Colorado, where he lived in the early 1980s. His third novel, Plainsong, deservedly became a bestseller.

“​F​rom simple strands of language and cuttings of talk, from the look of the high Colorado plains east of Denver almost to the place where Nebraska and Kansas meet,​” wrote Verlyn Klinkenborg​ ​in The New York Times, ​”​Haruf has made a novel so foursquare, so delicate and lovely, that it has the power to exalt the reader.​”​

You can well read Michener for the history of the place. But read Haruf to appreciate everyday people who he writes about with dignity and respect. These are the folk who survive in the difficult world of Colorado’s high plains.


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