Greeley history

Greeley sugar beet grower
Grower Milton Robinson shows off a sugar beet from his crop outside Greeley in 1939. Greeley had a processing plant that produced sugar from the beets. | Photo by Arthur Rotstein / Farm Security Administration

By Sue Deans

Before it was a city, Greeley was a stagecoach station built in 1862 and known as Latham, or Fort Latham, after Milton Latham, a senator in California (this was before Colorado became a state).

Located where the Overland Trail, the South Platte River and the Cache la Poudre River met, the station was a busy crossroads where settlers passed through. As many as 20,000 people traveled the Overland Trail each year from 1862 to 1868. When the transcontinental railroad link to the north was finished in 1869, the stagecoach traffic dwindled.

Greeley began on the Latham site in 1869 as the Union Colony, a utopian community based on temperance, religion, agriculture, education and family.

Nathan C. Meeker, a former newspaper reporter, purchased the site near the tracks of the Denver Pacific Railroad, which went from Denver north to Cheyenne where it connected with the transcontinental line.

Horace Greeley had been Meeker’s editor at the New York Tribune and the town’s name was eventually changed to Greeley in his honor. Meeker, who became an Indian agent for the government, was killed with 11 others by Ute Indians in an 1879 massacre, in what is now northwest Colorado’s Rio Blanco County. The town of Meeker there is named for him.

The colonists who settled Greeley were known for having laid out a complex system of ditches for irrigation, using water from the Cache La Poudre River. The system may have cost more than $200,000, with some estimates of more than $400,000, but it irrigated thousands of acres and enabled their crops to grow.

Greeley also remained a dry city, in the sense of no alcohol, until 1972 because its charter prohibited the sale or consumption of alcohol, in accordance with the temperance views of the original settlers.

In the late 1880s Greeley residents asked the state to create a school where teachers would be educated, and Gov. Job Cooper signed a bill establishing the Colorado State Normal School, which opened in 1890.

The school’s name was changed in 1911 to Colorado State Teachers College, which offered bachelor’s degrees after completion of a four-year course. A graduate program was started in 1913 and in 1935 the name changed again to Colorado State College of Education. In 1957, the name was shortened to Colorado State College, and in 1970, it was changed to the University of Northern Colorado.

Among Greeley’s prominent citizens was novelist James Michener, who attended the Colorado State College of Education from 1936-1937. While in Greeley he came up with the idea for “Centennial,” his novel published in 1974, two years before Colorado’s centennial year.

Major employers in Greeley include JBS Swift & Co., Northern Colorado Medical Center and Weld County School District.

In addition to the University of Northern Colorado, educational institutions include Aims Community College, the Academy of Natural Therapy and the Institute of Business & Medical Careers.