The Forgotten Plains
Colorado's high prairie has long been ignored, passed over for the majestic peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Here, we pay homage to the flat expanse east of the Front Range, home to an independent, humble, rugged way of life.
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