Greeley has always stood out as having a unique history among Western towns. In some settlements, lawlessness prevailed, whereas morality reigned supreme in Greeley among the members of the Union Colony. That is not to say citizens of Greeley did not have occasional troubles to deal with.
One such problem which arose early in Greeley was the issue of farming versus grazing. Prior to the Union Colonists settling in Greeley, there were a number of ranchers and stockmen who allowed their cattle to graze the land freely. This practice directly affected the Union Colonists, who were hard at work on horticultural and agricultural pursuits in Greeley. Cattle would wander into town and graze on the vegetation. Citizens of Greeley became angered as they watched their dreams of agricultural prosperity turn to cud. Thus began the saga of the Union Colony fence.
A resolution between farmers and ranchers seemed out of the question, so the Union Colony farmers took it upon themselves to save their fledgling gardens and fields. The proposed solution was to erect 50 miles of fence around the 40,000 acres of land being ransacked by the free-range cattle, with two gates managing entrances and exists to the farmland and grazing grounds. Undoubtedly, this bold move widened the schism between ranchers and farmers in Greeley.
Fence construction was completed in May of 1871. Ranchers and stockmen were warned that heavy fines would be incurred for any of their cattle found grazing within the fenced boundary. A barn was designated as a pound for rogue cattle found in the fenced area. Ranchers, however, took advantage of the cattle pound, especially during the winter. Stockmen allowed their cattle to be impounded and fed at the expense of the farmers. They would later enter the pound and retrieve their cattle during a “cattle break” without paying their fines to the farmers.
The circumstances of one such cattle break in 1872 seem to have been ripped from the pages of an Old West dime novel. Record has it that, as cattle breaks increased in occurrence, gatekeepers were hired to monitor activities near the fence border and near the cattle pound. Ed Williams, an ex-Confederate soldier, was hired to keep watch over the pound. On a Sunday morning, Ed Williams was on guard when three masked ranchers raided the pound carrying guns. Williams, who said he was asleep, quickly fell under the suspicion of the Union Colonists for collaborating with the cattlemen. Fortunately, the cattle were rounded up and returned, putting an end to cattle breaks at the pound.
Eventually, environmental and economic factors put an end to the practice of open-range ranching, and farmers and ranchers began building positive relationships with one another. The fence was decommissioned and sold by the Union Colony in 1874 and thus ended the saga of the Union Colony Fence.
Today, agriculture, both farming crops and raising cattle, lies at the heart of the Greeley and Weld County economies. Looking back on events such as the infamous cattle break of 1872 reminds us how important these industries are today, and how fragile they were not so long ago.
Originally published in the Greeley Tribune on February 8, 2012
Written by Samantha Eads, former Assistant Curator of Education