1920s: A utopian agricultural community on Missouri Heights

Willa Kane | Glenwood Springs, Colo.
Photo courtesy of the Frontier Historical Society and Museum in Glenwood Springs, Colo.

A 1920 black Ford Model T automobile brought 74-year-old Henry David Watson to Missouri Heights in 1921.

Watson was the creator of the famed Watson Ranch of Kearney, Neb., which was developed to promote the advancement of agricultural practices while at the same time creating a utopian society.

As Watson surveyed the 168 acres owned by Attie C. Dyer of Denver, he found the land a perfect fit for the formation of his next utopian agricultural community, where each colonist would have 22 acres, share in the expenses and profits, and live harmoniously.

His colony would be known as Watson Colony Number One.

Watson was born in 1846 in the agrarian community of Amherst, Mass.

It was a place where potatoes were extensively grown, and where the Massachusetts Agricultural College promoted scientific agriculture.

Philosophically, he may have been inspired by the Transcendentalist writings of fellow Massachusetts resident, Henry David Thoreau.

When Watson arrived during Kearney’s economic boom of the late 1880s, he patched together parcels of land totaling 7,000 acres.

The improvements included an enormous dairy barn, vast fruit orchards, livestock, alfalfa fields, vegetable gardens, and homes for those living on the ranch. Funding came from Northeastern investors, and Watson was perceived a millionaire.

With potato commodity prices high in the early 1920s, Watson ventured into potato production on Missouri Heights.

To obtain the labor needed, Watson solicited settlers for his new colony through newspaper advertising.

W.F. Boyd of Pueblo answered the ad, and soon received a small check from H.D. Watson and an invitation to join the colony.

Mr. and Mrs. Boyd and their five children sold their belongings and arrived at the colony near today’s Strang Ranch on Missouri Heights outside Carbondale in 1921.

Alice Boyd Turner recalled in Anita Witt’s book, “They Came from Missouri,” that five families were at the colony when they arrived. With the few dwellings on the property occupied, the Boyd family resided in a tent through two winters and one summer.

The charismatic Watson possessed a knack for securing needed materials, supplies and livestock.

He was a thin man with grey hair, moustache and bushy sideburns, a spry gait aided with a cane, an air of kindness, and no lack of confidence.

In the fall of 1921 he secured loans from the First National Bank of Carbondale, Denver’s Bank Service Corp., and W.M Dinkle Mercantile and Lumber Co.

He used 15,000 and 21,000 bushels of potatoes as collateral for the local loans.

His Ford automobile secured the Denver loan.

Alice Boyd Turner recalled supplies distributed to the colonists came from Denver’s Daniels and Fisher Department Store.

She said livestock was purchased courtesy of a loan received from a Glenwood Springs bank.

Quickly, the colony financially unraveled.

In February 1922, W.J. Moore and Loui Brown of Carbondale filed a lien against the property.

Moore and Brown hauled logs to the colony for the construction of a potato cellar and 10 community houses, but did not receive payment.

Although Watson claimed he had purchased the property from Attie Dyer, he did not have ownership.

As creditors clamored for payment, Watson’s financial history emerged.

His Nebraska ranch had historically been deeply in debt, and most of his investors lost a majority of their investments when the sale of the property began in 1917.

Watson had no money to show for his life’s work.

One afternoon, Henry David Watson was arrested at the Watson Colony for nonpayment of debts.

His wife, Harriett, who was rarely seen outside the house on the colony, eventually left Missouri Heights.

Colonists W.F Boyd, V.J. Kuntzman, and C.J. Layton tried to keep the colony afloat, but Watson’s financial devastation was too great.

The price of potatoes plummeted, also creating financial difficulty.

Sheriff Winters served attachment papers in a suit filed by Ira Fender in late January 1923.

The Watson Colony collapsed.

W.F Boyd and family stayed in the Carbondale area, continuing to farm on their own.

Henry David Watson died penniless on Feb. 9, 1924.

His obituary read, “Mr. Watson was a great philanthropist. To merely acquire wealth for its own sake did not interest [him] at all.”

Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Frontier Historical Society and Museum. ❖