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Boom And Bust Along Colorado's Pawnee Pioneer Trails Byway

Small town, rural life has always fascinated me. I’ve met Coloradans who find the wide, open skies of the plains compelling. There’s something about the feeling you get from just being there, they say.

To get a sense of this region, I decided to drive along the Pawnee Pioneer Trails Scenic Byway.

My journey started in Sterling, a town of nearly 15,000. At a community meeting with KUNC listeners I heard about attempts to collect signatures for a ballot issue legalizing marijuana dispensaries. The pot debate is heated in parts of Eastern Colorado. The week I visited, Brush had a polarized community meeting around whether to allow an entrepreneur to transform a former prison into a dispensary.

Credit Colorado Department of Transportation
Map of the Pawnee Pioneer Trails scenic byway.

In Sterling, there’s also lots of talk about the oil and gas boom moving east from Weld to Logan County. Some residents are concerned about hydraulic fracturing, and whether the town was prepared to manage the boom.

Heading west on the byway, I saw small towns dotting the open land. Many have seen their populations swell and contract since the late 1800s. New Raymer — 70 miles east of Fort Collins — is a good example. The town had 100 residents by 1888. Harsh winters and summer droughts drove everyone away over the next decade. Then population was revived by the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909.

Now, the population is once again 100 people. Many who live nearby make their living as farmers or ranchers like Dorris Williams. She moved to her ranch in 1953. Back then she became a wildcatter during the oil boom of the ’50s. At 85-years-old, Williams said a lot has changed.

“I used to ride pastures [on] horseback and I’d do 15 miles a day. I wouldn’t see anybody all day. Now you can’t go two miles and there’s somebody,” she said. “Trails that used to be are gone. Might be an oil pad in the middle of them.”

Oil and gas development can be seen everywhere around New Raymer. Unlike other economic booms of the past, few fieldworkers have moved here. Most commute from the Front Range or Greeley. Many of them stay in hotel rooms — creating a noticed hotel shortage in the area.

Heading north on the byway toward Pawnee Buttes, you'll see towering sandstone formations baking in the sun. As I drive toward the town of Grover, there are ghost towns that didn’t make it into the 21st century. Keota still has houses and a cemetery. Sligo also borders the Pawnee National Grasslands.

Credit Grace Hood / KUNC
The Pawnee Buttes bake in the sun out in the eastern plains of Colorado. Just along the horizon - if you squint - you can just make out silently standing wind turbines.

In Grover, I met up with Dorothy and Al Timm, who grew up, raised their children and are now retired in this town of 137. They showed me around the town’s history museum, a train depot building that’s part of an abandoned railroad system which actually shadows the Pawnee Pioneer Trails Historic Byway.

Gover has had its ups and downs over the years. Al said easy access to water has helped it survive while others nearby have faded away. Today — ironically — it's road construction that may give Grover a boost. The county is paving CR390 in part due to oil and gas traffic.

“It’s actually going to help our town stay alive,” said Al Timm. “Just like the railroad, it’s a path a direct line between Sterling and Cheyenne. [Now] there’s 20 miles of dirt road that stops people from coming on through here.”

Grover recently invested $2 million from grants into sewer, water and fiber-optic lines. All that will help keep Grover in the middle of everywhere, not in the middle of nowhere, said Al.

At the end of my trip I couldn’t help but to wonder about the future of these small towns. There’s the economic promise of oil and gas development, yet the boom isn’t bringing more residents to towns like New Raymer and Grover.

How will they survive to the next century?

Kay Brigham-Rich of the Sterling Museum said population along the eastern plains will never reach the heights of Denver and the Front Range.

“I don’t think anyone ever expects us to become a big metropolis,” she said. “It’s not an easy place to live.”

All you can really hope for are good weather, good neighbors and a solid Internet connection.

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