An Agricultural History of Littleton : 1860's to 1920's

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1860's

In the 1860s, despite the Indian threat, grasshopper invasions, and water problems, pioneer farmers settled and stayed in the valley beside the South Platte. Richard Little was already there, but Joseph Bowles, Lewis Ames, Peter Magnes, John McBroom, John Lilley, and others came to play their considerable parts, and by the end of the 1860s, more than fifty farms spread along the banks of the river near what would become Littleton.

Fred Smith farm on the west side of Broadway
Fred Smith farm on the west side of Broadway, extending across what is now Caley Ave. Date unknown.

Major crops were wheat, corn, oats, rye, and barley. The Rough and Ready Mill was successfully grinding wheat flour and shipping it to Denver and mountain towns. Orders were coming from points east. Garden produce such as onions, corn, melons, pumpkins, cabbage, squash, potatoes, and other vegetables was finding its way to the Denver market. Fruit trees and berries had been tried and were flourishing. Peter Magnes introduced sugar beets, and Isaac McBroom had a major bee colony which produced well when droughts did not dry up blooming plants. Irrigation was from wells or short ditches and was confined primarily to areas immediately along the river.

Corn was harvested with corn knives, and husking was done by hand. In the early part of the decade, farmers used wooden walking plows or those drawn by oxen. Horses replaced oxen as domesticated feeds replaced wild hay and grass for stock feed.

Other important livestock were sheep, hogs, chickens, turkeys, and goats for dairy products. By 1868, however, farmers and ranchers had turned to raising cattle, many of the Durham breed. Much work was still done with hand implements because any new machinery commonly in use in the East and Midwest had to be hauled across the plains to Denver by wagon. Among the first settlers, farming knowledge was passed on by word of mouth and example. In 1863 the Colorado Agricultural Society was organized, and the first agricultural fair was held in 1866. The 1860s saw the transition from subsistence farming to the growth of cash crops which remained important into the twentieth century.

1890's

Dave J. Crockett farm 1890. Harvest is probably onions.
Dave J. Crockett farm, 1890. Harvest is
probably onions.

Farming and life in Littleton was markedly different in the 1890s from thirty years earlier. Some of the same field crops were used, but on a much larger scale. Hard red winter wheat had been introduced in 1874. It required different planting methods that included deeper drilling than spring wheat to protect the seed, and rows running east and west to catch the snow and allow winds to drift the dirt around the plants.

Completion of the High Line Canal in 1882 brought irrigation to the open prairie east of the South Platte. In the decade from 1895 to 1905, most of the major irrigation systems along the Valley had been constructed. New crops of alfalfa, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and sugar beets were possible and quickly became important. East of Littleton the area called "Pickle Town" (Pennsylvania Street south of Orchard) developed into truck farms. Their produce was delivered to the Merry Canning and Pickling Factory, established by Charlotte and Avery Gallup in downtown Littleton. Orchards reached their greatest number in the 1890s when the Gallups and the Stark Brothers had about 15,000 fruit trees covering the present Woodlawn area. Littleton was considered the beekeeping capitol of Colorado.

Many more cattle were raised than sheep, but most farms also had some hogs. Fred Bemis brought Colorado's first herd of registered Jersey cattle to Littleton in 1884. In response to the growing dairy industry, The Littleton Creamery opened.

Several railroads served the town by the 1890s and brought new farm inventions to the West. Steel plows and wagons replaced wooden ones; steam tractors became fairly common on large farms. Colorado Agricultural College was started in Fort Collins in 1879, but it would be forty years before its studies had much effect on Littleton farmers.

1920's

By the 1920s the fifty-two mile long Arapahoe County was recognized as having two parts as different as night and day. The "East End" practiced dry-land farming; the "West End," including the Littleton area, was almost entirely irrigated. Two local granges existed: Grand View, in the East Quincy/South University/Pickle Town area, and Columbine, which had organized in 1905 in the Littleton Town Hall. "Kanred" winter wheat was brought into the county in 1920, and 6,000 overall acres were planted. But market prices were so low that little profit resulted that year. "Calico" corn, a mixed variety, had been in general use, and by the end of the decade was still the best one for the plains.

The new county extension agent from the college in Fort Collins helped organize local Farmers Cooperative Unions to improve marketing ability. One was formed in Littleton in 1921 with ninety members. At that time the only other active farmers' organization was the Farm Bureau; Littleton had ten members, and Grand View had twelve. Community fairs began to be held across the county.

The county extension agent tried to persuade farmers that only through livestock would they succeed. This paid off in the "West End," and in the twenties Littleton was considered "The Pure-Bred Livestock Center of the West." Irrigated pastures of sweet clover and tame grass were added. In 1922 Littleton herds showed at the Kansas City Royal Stock Show and the International Stock Show in Chicago. Breeders took leaflets along to call attention to Littleton. Soon the Littleton district was called "The Whiteface Boulevard of the West," and boasted the leading herd of shorthorns as well as six nationally recognized herds of Herefords. One herd of milking shorthorns grazed within the corporate city limits. There were also numerous herds of Holsteins, several herds of hogs and pure-bred sheep, one of American saddle horses, and numerous flocks of pure-bred poultry. One of these was the flock of Mammoth Bronze turkeys owned by Clarence "Turkey" Brown and his wife, north of Littleton.

Attempts to organize the livestock breeders into one body had little success, but a Platte Valley Truckgrowers Society was formed, and about twenty men joined. A county Beekeepers Association cooperated with the college in some hive management. Some individual members possibly owned more than 2,000 colonies. The furrow drill was introduced and generally accepted, and in the "East End" pinto beans had some success. Farmers there were urged, however, to have more livestock and fewer cultivated crops--to "farm less acres and do it better."

A fierce demand for killing prairie dogs led the extension service to sell poisoned grain to farmers at cost and to demonstrate how to use it. Neighboring counties did the same, and in a few years the animals were virtually eradicated.

Pascal celery and Valencia onions seemed to be the leading truck-farm crops. Several thousand trees were planted as a start on creating windbreaks.

As the decade ended, the Federal Farm Board had told the Extension Service to actively enter cooperative marketing work with farmers, and the buzz word became "Co-Operatives."

Bibliography

Colorado State Grange History. 1874-1975. Denver, Colo.: Colorado State Grange. Patrons of Husbandry, 1975.

Littleton Museum. Photographic Archives.

____. Vertical File: "Biography--Bemis."

____. Vertical File: "Exhibit Records, 1983. Littleton--The Changing City."

____. Vertical File: "Gallup Family."

____. Vertical File: "Towns and Places--Pickle Town."

____. Staff Reference Notebook. "Life In the South Platte Valley. Land, Wages, Transportation, Crops, Livestock, Agricultural Methods and Implements, Architecture in the 1860s and in the 1890s."

McQuarie, Robert J. and C. W. Buchholtz. Littleton, Colorado. Settlement To Centennial. Littleton, Colo.: Littleton Historical Museum and Friends of the Littleton Library and Museum, 1990.

Tedmon, Allyn H., Arapahoe County, Colorado, Extension Agent. Annual Plans and Reports. Littleton, Colo.: United States Department of Agriculture. Arapahoe County, Colorado, Cooperative Extension Service, 1921-1930. (Located at office of County Director, Arapahoe County, Colo., USDA Extension Service, 5804 South Datura Street, Littleton, Colo.)

Photographs courtesy of the Littleton Museum unless otherwise noted. To order copies, contact the museum at 303-795-3950.

 

Compiled by Doris Farmer Hulse

Updated May, 2017