History in Focus: Desert drama
The American West is a continually unfolding drama of tensions between development and growth, the dream of land ownership, a thirsty and arid climate, and the resulting political battles. In 1915, these tensions came to Moffat County with the establishment of the Great Divide Colony No. 1, a unique and doomed farming settlement scheme.
Two colorful Colorado characters were pivotal players in the creation of the Great Divide Colony: Frederick Bonfils, owner of The Denver Post, and his long-time friend from land rush days in Oklahoma, Volney T. Hoggatt. A 6’2”, 220-pound farm boy from Iowa, Hoggatt was a fun-loving extrovert, full of energy, and by all accounts a hustler and first-rate schemer.
Bonfils and Hoggatt viewed the big cattle ranches of the open range as a group of antiquated rural elites who tenaciously clung to political and economic power out of proportion to their numbers, especially in an era of rapid industrialization and urbanization. Hoggatt, raised on a farm and knowledgeable of rural issues, held a strong antipathy toward the land-dominating cattle barons of the West.
For decades, big open range cattle operations ran cattle on public lands and state school lands for pennies to the acre. Any small-time farmers attempting to homestead in these lands were quickly confronted, harassed, and intimidated by the barons overwhelming strength of numbers and money. In Colorado, Republican-dominated state politics acquiesced to the interests of “Big Ag.”
In 1902, Bonfils retooled an old tabloid, Great Divide, into a newspaper centered on the concerns of homesteaders, small ranchers, and workingmen. His old buddy, Hogatt, became the editor, and circulation grew to a reported 100,000 reaching across the West and Midwest.
In 1912, Democrat Elias Ammons was elected governor and named Hogatt as register of the State Land Board. In two years, Hogatt unearthed how cattle barons controlled and exploited public lands at the expense of public schools. By 1915, Hogatt was editor of the Great Divide and railed, “cattle barons of this and other states, who through political prestige have all but created a state of inheritance on these pastures…” (Burroughs, 330).
Soon, Hogatt put into motion his long brewing idea of outmaneuvering cattle barons by mass settling large numbers of farmers and taking over available water sources and fencing in areas for dryland farming. Hogatt decided the first test of his plan would be in Moffat County.
Newly created in 1911, Moffat County was desperate for people and development. In 1913, the railroad finally arrived in Craig, and large scale settlement was now possible. Hogatt’s Great Divide and The Denver Post went into overdrive to promote the idea of a farming colony.
A Denver Post article reprinted in the Craig Empire extolled 400,000 acres of land northwest of Craig as a “garden spot of the world” with fertile soil and plenty of water for irrigation The article stated, “failures are unknown in this region among industrious farmers who follow intelligent methods” (1/26/16). On Feb, 29, 1916, Hogatt wrote the Moffat County Commissioners requesting construction of a road from Lay, up the Lay Creek to Greasewood Creek, Spring Creek, and Big Hole Gulch in order to properly encourage the onslaught of settlers.
Furthermore, the Grazing Homestead Act of 1916 allowed settlers to claim 320 acres instead of the previous limit of 160. This created another powerful incentive for land-hungry midwestern farmers, especially after World War I and the collapse of farm markets.
And they came! In April, The Craig Empire happily reported on the hustle and bustle of Craig.
“The old town’s busy. Merchants are smiling. Hotel keepers are on the go. Moffat County is alive with industry” (4/12/16).
As an estimated 1000 settlers started grubbing sagebrush, the harsh reality of the land quickly revealed itself. Intelligent methods or not, there was not nearly enough rainfall, nor could an irrigation project do the trick. The colony lingered and struggled through the 1920s. The 1930s Dust Bowl was the dagger in the heart of the Great Divide Colony, and the stalwart remnants of Hoggatt’s experiment drifted away. Much of the Colony’s land was eventually returned to the public domain, and is now administered by the BLM.
But Hogatt’s scheme successfully broke up local large scale cattle operations, and he carried out his scheme in several other areas of the west. For Moffat County, growth of the county would finally come in the form of the discovery of petroleum in the mid 1920s, creating its first energy boom
Sources: “Where the Old West Stayed Young” by John Rolfe Burroughs; Dan Davidson, director of Museum of Northwest Colorado; and the archives of Museum of Northwest Colorado.