Colorado's Eastern Plains - not plain at all

February 01, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Farm WagonFarm WagonA wooden wagon and other farm equipment sit exposed to the elements on an abandoned homestead at sunset

Old Homestead - Eastern PlainsOld Homestead - Eastern PlainsOld ranch homestead and outbuildings on the Eastern plains of Colorado, near Elbert

Colorado’s Eastern Plains – not plain at all

The eastern plains of Colorado are sometimes referred to as West Kansas, open, empty, flat and with not much to recommend it. But the plains aren't flat, they’re not empty, and the sunsets looking back toward Pikes Peak can rival even the most stunning coastal sunset. Stormy skies are a treat for photographers on the plains, too.

The undulating rolling hills of the plains are home to the ranchers whose families homesteaded here from the east and from Europe looking for land ownership and a better way of life. It wasn't easy, but they persevered. Descendants of those families, their churches and cemeteries, are still here.

Lumber was scarce, so early settlers used the materials available to them and built sod houses, or ‘soddies’, layers of prairie grass stacked like bricks with timber supports, and sometimes built dug-outs into the sides of low hills, using the natural lay of the land for shelter. As time went on and they prospered, some were able to afford lumber and build cabins and barns from wood.

A rancher I once spoke to told me his ancestors from Czechoslovakia built soddies or dugouts for their families, then the men traveled to Pueblo to work in the steel mill to earn enough to get a start on their farms or ranches back home. The soddies and dug-outs became root cellars or storm shelters for those lucky enough to get ahead.

It was a hard life. I asked about the small family cemeteries dotted here and there on private property.

“Winters were more severe in those days,” he said. “It wasn’t always possible to travel to town (Calhan) for burials, so folks were buried on a plot on the property. A neighboring family might bury their own here as well.”

A friend once challenged me to explore the eastern plains. I had lived in the mountains for years and had not given the plains much thought. After moving to Colorado Springs, I took up her challenge, and discovered a wealth of photo opportunities. Old homesteads and barns, and decaying farm equipment quickly became one of my favorite things to shoot. I’ve spent countless hours exploring from northeastern Colorado to the southern-most area of Baca County.

The flu epidemic of 1918, and later the dust bowl, decimated the population and many left, abandoning their homesteads in search of easier living. Many of those old homesteads remain, dotting the landscape here and there, and beckon to me in some visceral way. “If walls could talk” is not just a rote phrase, but a plea. How I’d love to hear their stories.

Go to the Rural Landscapes link under 'portfolio' on my website for more images of the plains of Colorado.

 


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