Greeley’s first depot. AI-0006, City of Greeley Museums, Permanent Collection.
In the March 27, 2020 article in the Greeley Tribune, Greeley Mayor John Gates recognized the severity of the novel coronavirus pandemic and wholeheartedly lent his support to Governor Jared Polis’ stay-at-home order. This put me in a reflective mood, as this wasn’t the start I and others had envisioned on the eve of Greeley’s 150th anniversary. There was a cartoon in the April 4, 2020 Greeley Tribune with a caricature of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, with dog Toto in a basket over her arm, brandishing a bottle of hand sanitizer, and nearby, rolls of toilet paper stockpiled under a table. Frantically clicking together the heels of her red shoes, Dorothy pleads, “THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE NOT-AT-HOME.” A funny cartoon that made me contemplate how Americans, many now sheltering in place, feel the imposition of being sentenced to home. Home, however, was a precious place to Greeley’s founder, Nathan Cook Meeker 150 years ago.
On April 6, 1870, representatives of the Union Colony of Colorado purchased land between the confluence of the Cache La Poudre and South Platte Rivers for the utopian agricultural and temperance community named Greeley, in honor of Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune and Mr. Meeker’s former boss. Meeker’s speech prepared for Greeley’s first anniversary appeared in the April 4, 1871 Greeley Tribune. Meeker spoke of his travels as a New York Tribune correspondent during the Civil War and later as its agriculture editor. Near Dongola, Illinois, where he farmed and wrote from 1857 – 1866, Meeker said that “we had the ague [fever] about half of the time.” Meeker revealed, “While traveling, I made it a point to see if I could find a place to which I could remove with my family where it would be healthful, where we could send our children to school, and my wife could go to meeting, for during all our residence in that country [southern Illinois], we did not send the children to school, and my wife went to meeting but once, and then it was in an ox wagon.”
Meeker spoke favorably of his family’s new home in Brooklyn, New York, but of New York City, he said, “Still, there was a great inequality for we were surrounded by rich and fashionable people, the location being in the vicinity of the great city, where almost everyone went in and out daily either on business or pleasure, and having been born and brought up in the west [Ohio], and being imbued with its spirit, the same old search for a home still went on. The opportunities for searching were of the most favorable kind, for my profession took me into every part of the country, including the Southern States and the Territories.”
Several members of Mr. Meeker’s family suffered with respiratory ailments and his second child, George Columbus Meeker, died on April 26, 1870 in Evans, CO of tuberculosis, a common respiratory disease nicknamed the “white plague.” Meeker was constantly obsessed with finding an affordable and healthy location (clean air, a temperate climate, fertile soil, abundant water and natural resources, with people of “good society”) to establish a permanent home for his family.
As I write this from home, I am reminded of T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem, The Waste Land. The poem opens with the words, “April is the cruelest month. . . .” and in light of the coronavirus pandemic, these words have a painful resonance as I know thousands have died, many are ill, the global economy is reeling, and the noose has tightened around each and every individual and his/her work and routines in an effort to flatten the curve of this terrible pandemic.
For members of the joint-stock colonization company (Union Colony of Colorado) who arrived in Greeley in April and the months following, this area was dubbed “the Great American Desert.” With buffalo grass and cacti it looked like a waste land, but would soon be transformed into the “Garden Spot of Colorado,” via the diversion of water from the Cache la Poudre River into an expansive network of irrigation ditches and canals. Within months, Greeley became a town. People were anxious for social interaction, but meet ups were problematic in a town that prohibited saloons and billiard establishments. Meeker suggested that people form clubs and organizations to find camaraderie and share their common interests. The Greeley Lyceum and Farmers Club and many others were established in 1870.
Social distancing because of extremely cold weather had kept people indoors in the winter of 1870, and Mr. Meeker noted this in his article, “Lounging Spaces”, in the Dec. 28, 1870 Greeley Tribune. Meeker gave a lengthy evaluation of various Greeley establishments where people would be welcome to socially congregate within reasonable limits: “Now that the cold weather is over and building and businesses are brisk again, it may be of use to make a statement of the chances there will be several places in town, for spending a few hours if we should have another cold snap.” Meeker visited 20 places –two hotels, the printing and colony offices, two millinery shops, a barber shop, hardware, implement, and dry goods stores, and fruit, vegetable and meat markets. He commented on how many chairs each place had (generally none to four), if a “good fire” in the stove kept the premises warm, if there were newspapers and other reading materials available, and if one was allowed to smoke. He noted that, “About the best place for fires will be found in the two blacksmith shops, but there are no seats except on the anvils, and these might be wanted all of a sudden.” In 1870 there were two blacksmith shops in Greeley, Evan Rea and J. E. Billings blacksmithing and wagon making shop on Walnut Street near Madison (site of the Mad Cow Restaurant today). Master mechanic, Alphonso Dow’s New Colony Blacksmith and Wagon Shop was “on Walnut Street, near the livery stable.”
In the final analysis of appropriate and comfortable “lounging spaces”, Meeker awarded the top prize to only one place, HOME. This is what he said: “There is one other place which ought to have everything that can be desired; the stove is warm, there are plenty of chairs, some even with rockers, and there are books and papers, and first-rate company, and at night, a lamp to read by, and a bed to sleep in, which, on the whole, is the best place in town, or in the world, and it ought to be patronized more.”
Of the 737 individuals who were members of the Union Colony, 147 were from either New York City or New York State. They arrived in Greeley by train, and many of those talented Easterners established the traditions of music, theater, art and culture here. My mind drifts daily to the coronavirus situation in New York City and I’m reminded of the iconic 1977 Bee Gees song, Stayin’ Alive”:
We can try to understand
The New York Times effect on us
Whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a mother
You’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’
I’m a-stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
As the pandemic continues, may you proudly patronize your home, protect yourself and others within its familial walls and halls, and practice generosity towards the homeless and those in need. Find peace in your home and in yourself, like Mr. Meeker did when he noticed and took comfort in the amenities of his $6,000 two-story adobe home at 1324 9th Avenue in 1870. I like the Harold S. Kushner quote: “Do things for people—not because of who they are or what they do in return, but because of who you are.”
As we leave our Greeley homes (if we are lucky enough to have a home, as many in our community don’t), we know that we will very quickly be “homeward bound.” The refrain from Paul Simon’s Homeward Bound 1966 song tumbles through my mind:
I wish I was homeward bound
Home where my thought’s escaping,
Home where my music’s playing,
Home where my love lies waiting silently for me.
Today I walked up to 1324 9th Avenue and read the inscription beneath the bronze bust of Greeley’s founder, Nathan Cook Meeker. It appeared in the first edition of the Greeley Tribune, November 16, 1870 and Meeker’s thoughts remain relevant and inspirational today as a testament of community perseverance these past 150 years:
“Two classes of events are presented in our colony life, one class
is connected with the affairs of individuals, which, even by those
concerned, are quickly forgotten. It is doubtful if a history of
these days, as affecting individuals, ever will or can be written—
it is doubtful whether it would be of any benefit if it were
written. Another class of events can be readily recorded—these
relate to the progress and growth of the colony. Individuals may
rise or fall, may live or die, property may be lost or gained, but
the colony as a whole, will prosper, and the spot on which we
labor, so long as the world stands, will be the center of
intelligence and activity.”
In 1870s, the Union Colonists in Greeley adapted to and survived many hardships, including droughts, blizzards, four locust plagues, crop failures, typhoid, and the ever-present semi-arid environment that required them to find and divert water from miles away for themselves, their crops, and their livestock. The spread of the novel coronavirus has created a global crisis that requires courage, creativity, and compassion. Greeley’s 21st century citizens are “pandemic pioneers” as everyone adapts to restrictions, survives hardships, and like Nathan Meeker 150 years ago, patronize HOME and discover its blessings, both small and large.
And finally, we know that in the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s adventures ultimately took her to the place she longed to be: HOME. Nathan Meeker found here a beautiful “location that is well watered” with the majestic Rocky Mountains rising from the fertile plains. We are all looking for that “Over the Rainbow” place now, where “troubles melt like lemon drops” and everyone’s dreams come true. With Greeley’s intelligent, resourceful and active citizens, Greeley will continue to be a community that successfully confronts challenges and realizes its dreams.
Happy Anniversary, Greeley!
Peggy A. Ford Waldo, Development Curator
City of Greeley Museums
April 6 (at HOME), 2020