This article was a finalist for the 2010 City and Regional Magazine Award in the photo essay category.
You notice the wind first thing here on the Plains, a stiff and relentless wind that whistles in your ears and brings tears to your eyes. You get used to it, though, just like you become accustomed to the pungent scent of feedlots and the sight of rusting farm equipment strewn about the countryside. It is not a classically beautiful landscape: Undulating fields of winter wheat, tall and spindly, roll like green oceans. Wooden sheds and old barns, long ago abandoned and increasingly arthritic, barely resist the urge to take a knee in flower-covered meadows. Trains chug and screech and bang in a symphonic clatter along miles of tracks that intersect nearly every paved road. And grazing cows dot the russet prairie, crouching in whatever shade they might find. It is not pretty, no—but it is authentic Colorado, and quintessential America.
There are two kinds of towns out here: small, and smaller. Like the surrounding geography, the towns themselves don’t look much different from each other at first glance. Each hamlet you pass—Amherst, Crook, Proctor, Holly, Cheyenne Wells, Yuma, Kit Carson, Towner, Wray—has a local newspaper, a liquor store, a post office, and a bar. But it’s the huddled masses of dilapidated buildings, places that 30 years ago served as cafes, shops, and markets, which now sit empty, windows broken and signs faded by the sun, that make a lasting, unsettling impression.
The past few decades have seen a steady decline in population in these parts. People can’t afford to live where there’s so little opportunity. The few folks that do mill about the towns know instantly that you’re not from around here because, well, they know everyone around here. Yet they still smile and wave. In Iliff, Vernon Stumpf slows his tractor long enough to nod a quick hello, and says that he cuts all the town’s grassy areas each week in the summer, mostly because he just likes doing it. Just outside of Jason’s Repair and Restorations auto shop in Sterling, Jason Morrow and his dog, Desmo, a skittish Rhodesian ridgeback who rides sidecar on Morrow’s chopper, remind you about the town’s Sugar Beet Days festival. Donald Oswald, a young-looking Kiowa County commissioner who’s been working to restore downtown Eads’ ramshackle storefronts for five years, tells you he gets more hootin’ and hollerin’ about his made-from-scratch pies than anything else. And Raymond Berges, a crusty farmer who’s lived near Julesburg for the past 70 years, carries on about the whopping cost of a new combine, the piddly price of wheat, and how the Democrats’ cap and trade regulations will up and kill the farming industry.
It’s a foreign vernacular to Front Range ears, ears that hardly ever hear—or really listen to—a word about a rural way of life that hangs on a handful of miles outside of Denver. We Front Rangers tend to reflexively turn our attention to the lofty peaks rising in the west, even though so much land unfolds to our east—a swath of fertile soil that spreads out into a vast levelness that yields corn, wheat, and cattle, and is home to thousands of farmers and ranchers and their families. Spend some time on the Eastern Plains, though, and you’ll realize that these folks are true Coloradans, the independent, vigorous, hardscrabble, outdoorsy, roughin’ it kind of people that the rest of us so often talk about being. And there are stories out here on the Plains, stories of hard work, sacrifice, family, ingenuity, and stubbornness, and stories of people who hold out an earnest hope for a future in this austere, forgotten landscape.
An orangey-pink sun sets against a navy sky, and for as far as my eyes can see, the shimmer of twilight glances off the land below as it rises and falls in a radiating series of small earthen mounds. It’s so strangely beautiful that blinking away even a second seems like a slight to Mother Nature’s handiwork—yet here is Rupert O’Neal, standing silent next to me, his head tilted back, his eyes closed.
He’s seen it all before: the dreamlike image of sunlight receding across the sand dunes south of his hometown of Holyoke, the scrub brush, yucca plants, and prairie grasses riding the wavy terrain of this unusual piece of land just a stone’s throw from Nebraska’s straightedge border. O’Neal knows these rolling hills, this soil, knows it like a child knows his own backyard. He’s dreamt of this property, imagined it, fantasized about it since he was a lanky teenager roaming the dirt roads in this farming community of 2,000.
O’Neal, you see, has always been a dreamer. When his mom was alive, she swore up and down that he’d been like that since he was a child—some dreams lasting a day, others a week, few making it more than a handful of months. Except this one. This dream was different.
The story goes that at 12 years old, Rupert’s younger brother Jimmy mentioned that the sand-hill terrain near Holyoke looked just like the rolling geography at St. Andrews, Carnoustie, and Turnberry—all storied British Open golf courses that Jimmy had seen on TV. Rupert’s young mind swirled, images of a rural golf course flashing before his eyes. He fell hard for the idea of creating his own piece of golf history right there on the sand hills—and never let it go.
Opening his eyes, O’Neal breaks the silence to tell me that this particular sunset ranks six out of 10 when compared with some of the skies he’s caught recently from our perch next to the first tee box. Staring west across fairway number nine, the 49-year-old owner of Ballyneal Golf and Hunt Club takes a sip from his glass, draws a deep breath, and lets out a slow sigh. The 700 acres spread out before us, the land that he fixated on for more than two decades, has been his for five years now. The ultra-exclusive private golf club he built atop his dreamland has been open for three.
He’s proud of the golf course and club—you could tell that even if he weren’t running his mouth about how great Ballyneal is, which he often does. Not that you can blame him—it’s near to perfect with its inviting bar, its cozy restaurant, its well-appointed rooms. It’s just that out here, in this humble part of the state, his confidence stands out among a plainspoken folk that altogether seem to lack O’Neal’s relentless bravado.
But maybe that’s what it takes to coax a dream into reality, especially in a place where dreaming big is often considered nothing more than a frivolous waste of time. Maybe brimming self-confidence goes a long way in convincing investors to buy into a cockamamie plan. Maybe an unequivocal certainty helps lure a first-rate architect to mold a lost landscape into links-style fairways and greens. Maybe the belief that you can succeed helps you pick yourself up after a brush fire tears through your property. Maybe a little faith in yourself—and a lot of faith in a childhood dream—helps you do things others say you cannot.
There were others, of course. Some locals thought “Rup” was crazy to sink more than $10 million into a venture that was apt to fail because of its location a little east of nowhere. The older farmers grumbled about unwanted change. Others weren’t pleased about having international high rollers in their midst. O’Neal wasn’t surprised by the reactions. He had expected them from the people in and around town, who he says fear anything new and different. He had counted on the blowback—and then, when it came, he ignored it.
It’s not that O’Neal doesn’t love Holyoke or the people who call it home. He’s chosen to live in the one-stoplight town most all his life. He still runs a farm and grows mostly corn on a wide tract of land that’s been in his family for 100 years. He and his wife, Claire, raised three kids here. He even did a stint on the town council a few years back. But it’s safe to say that O’Neal doesn’t fit in here.
That’s OK for now, because most people in Holyoke, even those not so fond of O’Neal, seem to understand that he was right about his dream. Arguably one of the best 50 courses in the world, Ballyneal has put Holyoke on the map in ways that being a sweet little agricultural town never would, or could, have. Ballyneal has infused energy, money, jobs, and new blood into this corner of Colorado. The club’s caddie program has even sent five local kids—kids who might otherwise never have seen a college campus—to the University of Colorado on scholarship. The same can’t be said of the prevailing farming industry.
What the farming industry does have that Ballyneal doesn’t is a product people need, and a long history. O’Neal says his club is strong financially, and that he needs only 26 more members to reach the club’s goal of 130. Yet, recent restructuring of debts and altering of investor stakes in his club suggest that although dreams may come true, they don’t come without hiccups.
O’Neal has been more than willing to weather the bumps along the way. His dream may seem out of place—an exclusive, expensive golf club surrounded by a blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth town—but Ballyneal doesn’t come off as snooty or formal; if anything the atmosphere is causal, easygoing, the kind of place you’d want to watch the sunset with a beer in hand. And that’s exactly the ambience O’Neal set out to create. For Ballyneal to appeal to the kind of person willing to shell out $70,000 for membership, the club had to be just the right amount of fancy, just a little highfalutin, just a bit out of reach. It had to be a little like the man who dreamt it up: different from nearly everything that surrounds it. —LBK
Standing here with Lupe Casias—on the edge of Main Street in this old railroad stop with its aging clapboard buildings—you might see an uncertain future. But look again, look out under the gunmetal sky, and see Sedgwick through her eyes.
That rickety church up on the right? Just needs a little paint job. That bar with the caving roof on the left? Just needs a little work to pretty it up. That collapsing building next to town hall? Well, I’ve gotta think about that one. Don’t worry, though, something good will come of it. There’s a toothy smile painted across Casias’ face as she says this, as if everything will be good and right as long as she believes in it.
Truth is, Sedgwick hasn’t offered much to believe in for years—decades, even—and that’s what makes Casias’ optimism a bit perplexing for folks who live in this 186-person town near the Nebraska border. In the 1930s, this was a thriving farm town of 550, with two banks, a meat market, a soda fountain, and a train that came twice a day, taking folks to and from Denver and Omaha.
Since then, Sedgwick’s fallen on hard times. First, it was Interstate 76, which was built in the 1960s and sent much of the interstate traffic blowing right on by. Then, as with the rest of the Plains, people stopped farming, sold their land, and moved away. The high school closed, the gas stations went belly up, homes were abandoned, weeds grew, buildings crumbled. Lots of folks moved to nearby Sterling, with its hospital and college and prison and government jobs. Eventually, this town hardly looked like a town at all.
Life hasn’t been easy for the people who stuck around. In 2006, the town’s 89-year-old, abandoned market-dancehall-theater collapsed on Main Street and took another building with it. A few months after that, when the buildings’ owner didn’t clean up the mess, someone hauled the brick to a nearby pasture and burned it. The fire brought a letter from the state, which fined cash-strapped Sedgwick $5,000 for an air-quality violation. A year after that, a man by the name of Patrick Woltemath was attacked at a heated town meeting and had his arm slammed in a truck door. And then there’s the perennially fouled-up water system, which once threatened to send contaminated water to every faucet in town. “Some days,” says Woltemath, now Sedgwick’s reluctant mayor, “I feel like we’re totally fucked.”
Lupe Casias doesn’t feel that way. She looks at this town, with its bar and liquor store and not much else, and sees a future. She’s 59, with dark hair and smoky eyes—the granddaughter of immigrants, some of whom settled just a few miles east in Ovid back in the 1940s.
Casias graduated high school in 1968, got married, raised two kids, got divorced, went to college, remarried, and spent three decades teaching immigrants’ kids how to speak English on the Front Range. She moved back to Sedgwick to save her second marriage. Casias and her husband bought the old bank at the end of Main Street for $49,000, then thought about turning it into a bed and breakfast. He’d raise horses, she’d teach school 45 miles away in Sterling, and they’d make a nice little life for themselves. They spent two years getting the old bank into working condition. Then one day her husband left.
For someone else, maybe that’d be too much to bear. But looking out from one of the old bank’s windows one day, she felt…empowered. It was then that she realized something—or maybe she realized something about herself. She’d come to Sedgwick to save a marriage. Now she was going to save a town.
She raised a few ceilings in the bank, oiled the wooden floors, and put in a new kitchen, with a gas stove. She cleaned the brick outside, fixed the leaky roof, planted some gardenias in pots outside. Soon, she turned that old bank into a functioning hotel – a town cornerstone, an example of what hard work and some hope can do.
Folks in Sedgwick started to take notice, especially the people across the street who owned the abandoned market, 14,000 square feet of dirt and pigeon droppings and old junk and Sedgwick history. Casias bought it for $1, fixed the roof, and made the building useable for the first time in 20 years. Sometime soon, she plans to turn it into a knick-knack store, maybe lure some people into turning off the interstate for a stop in her little town.
So why does she do it? Why all the work for something that might just up and die anyway? Casias says she doesn’t really know. Maybe she’s stubborn. Maybe she sees a way to change life in these parts. Or maybe she wants to save a part of herself. In her beat-up Toyota van, Casias drives outside of town to Jumbo Reservoir. She steers around brown-sand beaches and over the grass shoots poking from the earth. “When I was a little girl, every Fourth of July we’d pile into the back of Dad’s truck, and we’d come out here and jump into that water,” she says. “Ooooh, it was so cold.” And with that Casias wraps her arms around her body and closes her eyes. “But you couldn’t pull us out of there. We’d swim and splash, just the kids. At night, we’d have the worst sunburns, but we’d be so happy.” Her eyes open, twinkling at the memory.
And maybe that’s it, right there. When a town dies, it’s not about collapsing buildings or peeling paint or abandoned homes. It’s about the memories of the people who once lived in town—and the people who so desperately still want to. —RS
The wind is whipping up out front of Plainview School, sending a dusty cloud tearing through the parking lot and across County Road 71. Not that Garry Coulter notices. Lately, there doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day for the superintendent. There’s a leaky roof that needs mending, grant proposals that need finalizing, and an upcoming graduation ceremony for the school’s senior class. Then there’s the matter of Mr. Coulter’s impending retirement, something he doesn’t want to discuss, at least not right now.
Less than a month of school remains for the 86 children at Plainview, a 47-year-old school between the towns of Sheridan Lake (pop. 66) and Towner (pop. 41). Congratulatory signs are stuck on lockers that line the building’s high school wing—Kirby’s been accepted to Northeastern Junior College; Jason’s going to Colorado State University-Pueblo; Lauren will attend the University of Northern Colorado. The Knowledge Bowl team recently came in third at a meet in Pueblo, beating out other Plains schools; the trophy sits by the school’s entrance for now.
Outside, farmers are tilling the land in tractors that look like metallic dinosaurs wandering the horizon. It’s been a good year so far for the farms near town. Wheat prices doubled in the spring, past $8 a bushel, and a new family from Texas has just moved to town. Good news, all around. That is, until talk turns to Mr. Coulter, as it usually does. In Sheridan Lake and in Towner, folks want to know what’s going on with their 68-year-old superintendent.
When Coulter got to Plainview four summers ago, the district was a mess of low enrollment and sagging pride. The last small farmers who settled here had sold out to bigger ones; jobs dried up, and folks moved away. Kiowa County—home to the two towns that feed into Plainview—lost nearly 20 percent of its population from 2000 to 2008, among the steepest declines in the nation. The lone gas station left town; so did an auto-parts store. There were worries that Sheridan Lake’s post office would leave, too. By the time Mr. Coulter pulled up in his truck, Plainview School had fewer than 50 students. The district couldn’t afford a preschool. The high school lost its baseball, football, and boys’ basketball teams. The class of 1999 had 12 graduates. The class of 2005 had six.
It was a far-from-perfect place, yet it was a perfect fit for Coulter, a college-educated farm boy from Michigan who’d come to Colorado four decades earlier to teach rural high school kids about agriculture and welding and, ultimately, found his calling in administration. Coulter eventually became a rural superintendent in Pritchett, near the Colorado-New Mexico-Oklahoma border. He stayed 20 years, worked budgets, improved reading and writing scores, and retired in 2004 to a life of fly-fishing on the Arkansas River. That is, until he got a call from a buddy in Kiowa County who said the superintendent job near Sheridan Lake had just opened. “I felt like I was just sitting around,” he says, “waiting to die.”
The Hollywood happy-ending story would go something like this: Mr. Coulter came in, got people to believe in themselves, and turned the school around. But the Eastern Plains ain’t Hollywood. “It took a year before people could trust me,” Coulter says. “I’m not a talker, but what I say, I mean.”
So when he came to Sheridan Lake, Mr. Coulter didn’t say he’d be one of them. He proved it. His home was 175 miles away in Rye, but Coulter moved into a house next to the Plainview playground. He went to community meetings. He told folks from the state’s Department of Education that if they wanted to see him then they’d best come after 8 a.m. because he might be driving an old Suburban to pick up kids for the first bell.
He stayed up nights in his office, flipping through budgets and test scores. Mr. Coulter found grant money and state money and federal money. Soon, a school that had had only small reserves had $754,000 in the bank. There were new school buses and new textbooks. Then he opened the preschool, with six kids and coloring books and play kitchens.
Families who hadn’t given Plainview a second thought started sending their kids there. The school buses went right up to the Kansas border to pick up students. Enrollment grew: first to 60 students, then to 75, then to 86. Coulter went to work resurrecting the football team, because, he says, a country school needs a place for folks to whoop it up on Friday nights. The middle school students will huddle for the first time this fall; the high school will get its team soon. “Mr. Coulter saved us,” says Tom Pape, the high school’s history teacher.
Things around Sheridan Lake were going pretty well—until January of this year, that is. It was then that Coulter started feeling weak. He went to the doctor and was told he had bone cancer. Nearly a foot of his femur needed to be taken out and replaced with a rod. For the first time that Coulter could remember, he worried. He had surgery in Denver in the spring. The cancer, the doctors said, was gone. Mr. Coulter was back at work in 10 days, walking with a crutch and a limp, but ready to run a school district again. Then he saw all the work that needed to be done and wondered if he was still the right person for the job.
Mr. Coulter was tired. He talked to his family, then to some teachers at school. He said he wanted to keep going, but he wasn’t sure his body would make it. Ultimately, he decided it was time to let go.
Garry Coulter is in the gymnasium, a single crutch at his right side, in the last weeks of a job he doesn’t want to leave, at a school that doesn’t want him to leave, with folks scared to see what’s going to happen to their school when he does. Elementary school children swirl like a tornado over the wooden floors, their screams and laughter bouncing off the cinder-block walls. “Oh, if I had this kind of energy,” Mr. Coulter says. “I could turn the world around.” He leans against the wall. “You know,” he says, “every one of these kids sent me get-well cards when I was in the hospital.”
All this talking gets Mr. Coulter wondering about the school’s future, wondering about his future. Soon, he’ll pack his office and shake hands and tell folks that he’ll be around if they need him, that he’ll be just a phone call away.
His dark-brown and gray hair is slicked back, and his jaw sticks straight out. For a moment, he allows himself to see what he’s done for this small school, for the towns of Sheridan Lake and Towner, for himself. “I’m gonna miss these kids,” he says, quietly looking down at his feet. “I’m gonna miss them real bad.” —RS
Winds of Change
Paul Gillham is a lot like most of the folks he knows on the northeastern Plains of Colorado. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, and soft-spoken, the laid-back 28-year-old grew up in Peetz, the tiny border town where he works. He lives just up the road a piece from his parents’ ranch in a modest home across the state line in Sidney, Nebraska. He’s married with three children, two of whom are infant twins. And he likes it out here—there’s something honest and simple and good about small-town America that Gillham says suits him well.
But that’s where the similarities end. Unlike many of his fellow Plainsmen and women, Gillham does not grow wheat or corn or raise livestock for a living. He doesn’t toil away for hours on a tractor pulling a disk through soil or spend time talking about grain storage. Instead, Paul Gillham is part of a new generation on the Plains—a generation of workers looking to make a living by producing something else entirely: energy. And with an abundant natural resource—one that rarely ceases to blow, and howl, and scream across this flat expanse—to harness, there is tempered optimism for a new way of life east of the Front Range.
Driving along flat county roads in northeastern Colorado, you’ll sometimes catch a hint of movement, a fleeting glint of white on the horizon that draws your attention. And then you see them: windmills, hundreds of them.
From a distance they look like tiny jacks tossed haphazardly across the land. Close up they are surrealistic sculptures soaring 400 feet into a clear blue sky. Their sleek blades ride a near-constant northwesterly wind and generate a dense swooshing sound you can feel as you stand at the base of a turbine. These windmills, beautiful to some, scars on a bucolic landscape to others, are shiny new additions to this otherwise timeworn landscape. Alien as they may seem, wind farms are fast becoming the great white hope of rural Colorado, where the sagging farming business has been the number one industry for longer than anyone can remember—or wants to.
With 37,000 farms and ranches spreading across 30 million acres and pouring $20 billion into Colorado’s economy, agriculture easily beats out tourism as the state’s primary breadwinner. Yet, farming is a tough trade these days: Water-rights issues; cap and trade regulations; the national credit crunch; shortages of seasonal workers; high prices for seed, fertilizers, pesticides, and farming equipment—the list of woes is a country mile long, and it has Colorado farmers looking for relief, if not for a new way of life altogether.
The thing is, until recently, there hasn’t been a way out of farming for those wanting to remain on the Plains. In many areas, like Peetz, agriculture has been the only industry, save for a few government jobs in education, maybe a construction gig or two. Which means that few opportunities existed for anyone—especially educated young people—to get nonagricultural jobs and stay near their families. But when renewable energy companies began to converge on Colorado’s windswept prairie, and windmills began to pop up at a furious pace a few years back, jobs—good-paying, nonfarming jobs—began to pop up around here as well.
In June 2001, then-20-year-old Paul Gillham was back home from Sterling College for the summer. He figured he’d probably end up doing long hours of backbreaking labor for a local farmer or rancher for a little extra cash before going back to school in the fall. But the landscape in Peetz had changed while he was away. “I showed up home and saw the trucks and cranes and giant white metal towers lying around everywhere,” he says. “I’d never even seen a modern windmill before, but I went to ask for a summer job anyway.” That gig—constructing wind turbines—led to a two-year job in Minnesota and a stint in Wyoming before Gillham found his way back to Colorado to take a job as operations manager with a wind company called Invenergy, located in an unassuming white building on County Road 74.
“I was always looking to come back home,” says Gillham, “but I’d watched the struggles of the previous generation with farming, and I just didn’t want to fall into the same situation.” Gillham didn’t want to stress over the price of wheat, or worry about drought and blizzards, or think about how he would pay for expensive combines and tractors. Instead, Gillham has now been with Invenergy for four years, in about as steady a job as anyone can find these days, running, maintaining, and managing the work and workers it takes to operate 40 wind turbines that power 20,000 Front Range homes. He still worries, of course—turbine gearboxes are known to go haywire at two in the morning—but it’s a different kind of stress than he might have experienced as a struggling family farmer.
With nearly 400 turbines in the Peetz area—and hundreds more fanning out across the Plains—Gillham isn’t the only one benefiting from the idea of harnessing Colorado’s omnipresent breeze. What’s happening in Peetz is happening elsewhere. In small towns like Haxtun, Lamar, Burlington, and Julesburg, wind energy companies are gearing up to build more farms—which means dozens and dozens of part-time jobs and handfuls of permanent full-time jobs will flood into areas that desperately need them. “Before now, if you were living in a small Plains town, there weren’t jobs like these,” says Gillham. “Having this job isn’t something I take lightly,” he adds. “I’m grateful for it every day.” —LBK
They came by train, via California, mostly—dozens at first, then hundreds, and finally thousands. Men, women, children. Packed away, tagged like cattle, and sent east, to the Colorado Plains.
The first of them pulled into Granada in the late summer of 1942 to make their new lives on a patch of farmland along the old Santa Fe Trail. By then, the barracks, the fire station, and the guard towers had been built west of town, up a hill along a dirt path that locals would name Jap Camp Road.
The Japanese who lived in Colorado, in Arizona, in California, in the remotest lands the nation had to offer, were interned on an executive order following the bombings at Pearl Harbor. Although about two-thirds of the interned were American citizens, they were forced from homes, from jobs and families, and shipped to camps across North America. Of them, the Granada Relocation Camp, near the Colorado-Kansas border, was the smallest in the land. Those who were detained ran stores and landscaped the once-barren plot and had children. For some—maybe most—of the detainees, the center was nothing more than a hellish stop on the road of life.
Today, John Hopper stands over the grave of one of the less fortunate souls who lived here. The clouds have moved in this morning, casting a shadow over the granite headstone: Matsuda Baby, Dec. 25, 1944.
“We got an e-mail awhile back from one of the sons of the mom,” says Hopper, a 46-year-old high school teacher and the de facto caretaker of the camp, which is now an abandoned 500-acre parcel covered in scrub, craggy Chinese elms, and rattlesnakes. “They were strawberry farmers in California before they were sent here, and the move put a lot of stress on the mother. The baby died soon after birth.”
As he says this, his hair flaps in the wind. Three students from Hopper’s high school class are working behind him, watering and trimming the shrubs—teenagers helping to save this deserted piece of land.
Nineteen years ago, Hopper, then a 27-year-old master’s graduate from Alamosa’s Adams State College, was hired as Granada’s high school history, government, and geography teacher. As a kid growing up 50 miles away in Las Animas, he’d heard stories about the relocation center—later renamed Camp Amache, after the daughter of a Cheyenne Indian chief—from his mother, a hospital dietician who counted one of the camp’s former interned residents as a friend. When he first arrived in Granada, Hopper drove a mile outside of town to a hill dotted with crops and roaming livestock, a place lost to time. Hopper saw dozens of cracked and scuffed concrete slabs where barracks once stood, where a school was built, where the mess halls had been. Many of the elms—which campers dug from a nearby riverbed, carried up the hill, and lovingly placed in neat rows throughout the camp—were dead and broken, toppled with roots exposed on the dust-choked land. The cemetery was wrapped with barbed wire; headstones were buried under weeds. Cows grazed nearby. “I’m from the Plains, so what I saw didn’t surprise me,” Hopper says of the forsaken plot. “My first impression wasn’t, ‘How shocking.’ It was, ‘I’m standing on a piece of living history.’ ”
At its height in October 1943, Amache housed nearly 7,500 people. Before it closed in 1945, at least 10,000 people had called the camp home. Sons went to Boy Scouts meetings and flew the American flag; daughters joined the National Honor Society; husbands fought in World War II and built koi ponds at home with sticks and concrete and rocks; wives watered the elms planted along the barracks.
Hopper wanted his students to see this place as he saw it: not as an abandoned hillside dumping ground, but as a living, breathing piece of the past that needed a good bit of attention. So he lobbied the high school to allow him to create a for-credit, by-application-only, three-year class focused entirely on preserving the camp and its history. It has become one of the school’s most highly regarded and popular classes—a trend only heightened by the fact that senior students travel to Japan at the completion of the program.
Around these parts, though, it was tough getting people to care about that long-forgotten piece of land as much as Hopper and his band of history students did. For some longtime residents, mostly farmers, there was resentment toward the federal government for putting the camp near the town in the first place. Prime farmland was taken to build Amache. And Amache’s school was actually nicer than Granada’s.
“There was World War II, and we had a situation where feelings were being raised—and it was very difficult to deal with,” Granada mayor Jerene DeBono says today. “I grew up here, and I never visited the camp. My mom never went there. We didn’t know much about Amache until Mr. Hopper arrived. We knew it was there, but we didn’t discuss it.”
But Hopper has pressed on. There’s now an Amache museum in town, and the camp has been put on the National Register of Historic Places. Eventually, Hopper plans to bring back the old barracks, now scattered about the Plains, to create an interpretive-history site, making it Colorado’s closest equivalent to Valley Forge, Bunker Hill, or Gettysburg. “This could be a really big boon to the community,” says mayor DeBono, who’s helping Hopper with the project. “This won’t just be another Plains town. It’ll be a destination.” —RS