If Longmont’s business community needed a slogan to mark its 150th year of existence, it might be served well by this one: “Everything old is new again.”
The town was born in 1871 as a planned community that caught the eye of a nation, and more than 120 years later it became the site of a new planned community that would win national awards.
It had its roots in agriculture, and today is an ever-sprouting center of organic farming.
The first tavern in the area opened in 1863, and today Longmont is a hub of Northern Colorado’s craft-brewing boom.
Its commerce was staggered by a pandemic in 1918 but bounced back through pluck and perseverance, just as it’s doing today.
Barber Mike Christianson, center, cuts the hair of Brian Ficek, right, at Elite Barber Shop in Longmont on Wednesday. The barbershop was established in 1875. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
It was where a pioneering retailer got his start, and now provides one of the nation’s most supportive spots for startups.
It built a diverse and dynamic economy that was strong enough to survive the Dust Bowl and Great Depression of the 1930s as well as the Great Recession of the early 2000s.
It was reached by rail soon after its founding, and today looks toward the hoped-for arrival of commuter rail service. The new construction of condo and apartment complexes near where those future trains might stop hearkens back to the area’s first “transit-oriented development” — for 19th-century stagecoach passengers.
Even the 2013 deluge and flood that staggered the region was nothing new; the first little settlement on the south bank of the St. Vrain River was plagued by frequent flooding in the 1870s.
That settlement began after the Colorado gold rush of 1858-59 lured Alonzo Allen and his teenage stepson, William Henry Dickens, to the area. They built cabins in 1860 along the St. Vrain and, after Allen’s wife, Mary, arrived in 1863, opened a tavern and inn to serve passengers on the stage route between Denver and Laramie, Wyo. The settlement that grew there was called Burlington — a name familiar a century later to south Longmont shoppers who frequented stores and restaurants in a development called Burlington Square and parents who sent their children to Burlington Elementary School.
A view of Main Street in Longmont looking north from Third Avenue on Friday. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
Want more names that still are familiar locally today? How about Terry, Byers, Pratt and Greeley.
Former lumberman Seth Terry and Rocky Mountain News founder William Byers arrived in Denver from Chicago in January 1871 to look for a good spot for an agriculture-oriented community. Byers and Col. Cyrus Pratt wanted the group, the Chicago-Colorado Colony Co., to buy land for the community from the Denver Pacific Railway, in which they were invested. After visiting Horace Greeley’s Union Colony, Terry bought 23,000 acres near Burlington, at the confluence of Left Hand Creek with the St. Vrain River, and led about 250 settlers there.
The Chicago Colony planned and platted a town with a square-mile grid of wide streets, naming it Longmont for the view of Longs Peak to the west. The plan included businesses, homes, parks, churches and even a library that doubled as a schoolhouse and was financed by East Coast philanthropist Elizabeth Thompson — for whom today’s Thompson Park is named.
The prompt arrival of two railroad lines — the Colorado Central and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy — solidified Longmont’s role as a regional and national shipping point for farm products. Dickens, once a pioneer homesteader, founded a bank to serve the booming agriculture community as well as an opera house at Third Avenue and Main Street in 1881 that now is home to the Dickens 300 Prime steakhouse.
Other entrepreneurs would follow quickly. Thomas Callahan arrived in 1887 with his wife, Alice, and opened the Golden Rule dry-goods store at 372 Main St. Its success prompted the Callahans to buy and refurbish the mansion at Third Avenue and Terry Street; the Callahan House still hosts many private and social events.
One of the Golden Rule’s early employees was a young man named Jim from Hamilton, Mo., who was a bit down on his luck since his butcher shop just down the block had failed. Even though he had no experience as a meat cutter, he spent his life savings to buy the Longmont Meat Market and Bakery at 331 Main St. The shop soon went pork-belly-up, however, which Jim would write later taught him to never “go into anything I don’t know anything about.”
Before starting his department store empire, J. C. Penney, second from left, and Bertha Hess, left, who would later marry him; owned a meat market in Longmont. His sister Pearl Penney and the butcher, Mr. Burkhardt also are pictured. (Courtesy of Longmont Museum)
Jim did know dry goods, however, and went to work up Main Street at the Golden Rule, where he impressed Callahan with his work ethic. He sent Jim to Evanston, Wyo., to work with Callahan’s business partner, Guy Johnson, at a Golden Rule branch they’d opened there. By 1902, Callahan and Johnson made Jim a partner in a store they were opening in nearby Kemmerer, and five years later, Jim — James Cash Penney — bought it from them for $30,000, giving birth to what would become a department-store empire. By the time he returned to Longmont in 1917 to open a J.C. Penney store at 315 Main St., it was already the chain’s 169th location.
Canned vegetables and sugar beets would come to be the stars on Longmont’s agricultural stage. John Empson of Denver opened a cannery in 1889 and began acquiring area farmland to grow vegetables; his canned pumpkin fueled the city’s first Pumpkin Pie Days in 1891. In the 1920s, it merged with Denver-based Kuner Pickle Co., and the Kuner-Empson Cannery remained in operation until the 1970s, when the factory on Third Avenue would be converted into apartments by developer Roger Pomainville.
The ag economy received a sugar rush in 1903, when city trustee Frank Downer campaigned for the opening of a factory to process sugar beets. Longmont Sugar Co. was built with bricks supplied by Callahan, employed more than 700 people, and at its peak produced more than 1 million pounds of sugar a day before being acquired by Great Western Sugar Co.
Longmont’s population doubled in each of its first four decades, including migrant farmworkers who poured into the area to care for and harvest all those crops. They included Japanese, Mexican and German families who came to stay and, in many cases, started their own farms and businesses.
- The U.S. Census Bureau recorded no one with a Spanish surname in 1900, but today people of Latino origin make up more than one-fourth of Longmont’s population. They united to help undermine a brief rise to power of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, and turned the killing of two Hispanic residents by a white policeman in 1980 into a structure of permanent connections, dialogue and economic support with the white community through the El Comité organization. Some Latinos remained in the agriculture sector, including work at a large South Main Street turkey-processing facility, but others moved into jobs across the economic spectrum.
- Japanese farmers began arriving in the St. Vrain Valley between 1915 and 1920, and names such as Tanaka, Nishida and Kanemoto became familiar providers of local farm fare. Goroku Kanemoto, who had come from Hiroshima, Japan, via Mexico in 1919, raised a family in Longmont that would open a roadside stand to sell their produce and eventually switch from farming to development, building the 700-home Southmoor Park subdivision in south Longmont. That subdivision included Kanemoto Park, where brothers Jimmie and George Kanemoto commissioned construction of the five-story Tower of Compassion, built in the style of a Japanese temple. The Kanemotos donated the tower to the city to show their family’s gratitude for the kindness Longmont showed toward families of Japanese descent during World War II, when most were forced into internment camps and their property seized. Said real estate agent Ken Kanemoto, Jimmie’s son, “They were treated very well, including during the war years.”
- Germans came by way of Russia to work in the beet fields, and in 1907 established Longmont’s first German-speaking church. A dormitory for farm workers built by Great Western Sugar at Third Avenue and Kimbark Street was converted during World War II to house German and Italian prisoners of war, many of whom then stayed in the area to contribute to the agriculture production and eventually the business community.
A vegetable mural was added to the Tanaka Farms Market in 1979 to liven up the walls above the many rows of fresh fruits and vegetables. Japanese farmers began arriving in the area in the 1910s. (Longmont Museum/Longmont Times-Call collection)
Although a pair of pandemics hit the United States more than a century apart, Longmont businesses extended compassion and support to each other and to the community in some similar ways.
- In October 1918, cases of a deadly strain of influenza were growing by 25 a day in Longmont. Schools were closed and public gatherings banned, but businesses remained open, and masks were made available at the Longmont Commercial Association, an entity comparable with today’s Chamber of Commerce. Still, the flu claimed 1% of Longmont’s population — a figure that would be near 1,000 today. Limited reopening was allowed by December, but with social distancing: Movie theaters were ordered to leave every other seat vacant, and chairs were ordered removed from pool halls. A campaign of support and promotions helped mitigate the economic impact.
- In March 2020, when the coronavirus forced much of society to shut down, Longmont business owners created a network of phone numbers and email addresses to lend support to each other in the form of supplies and shared information on what grants and other assistance were available. The city helped downtown restaurants by narrowing the outside lanes of Main Street with concrete barriers so more outdoor dining could be offered, and businesses who needed to get rid of some furniture helped supply tables and chairs.
Diversity of population and an unmatched quality of life continued to fuel Longmont’s growth and make its business climate largely immune to booms and busts. More business and more people meant an increased need for water, and in the 1950s Mayor Ralph Price spearheaded construction of Button Rock Dam, seven miles upstream from Lyons on North St. Vrain Creek.
In this 1969 photo, City Finance Director Al Sweeney unveils the plaque that would be placed at the base of Button Rock Dam following a dedication by Mayor Ralph Price. The reservoir helped provide water to the Longmont’s growing population. (Longmont Museum / Staff Photographer)
When Colo. 119 between Longmont and Boulder was straightened and widened in 1960, Longmont residents could more easily commute to non-agriculture jobs in Boulder, and a large IBM Corp. facility built halfway along that Diagonal Highway. In 1965, a Federal Aviation Administration air-route traffic control center opened in northwest Longmont. The result was a housing boom that turned the city into one of the nation’s most densely populated communities by 1980.
One of the foremost developers who met the need was Ken Pratt. At the helm of the Pratt Agency, a real estate firm founded by his grandfather in 1912, Ken — no relation to Cyrus Pratt, for whom Pratt Parkway, Pratt Street, Pratt Way and Pratt Place are named — oversaw the development of nearly 2,000 homes and nearly 2 million square feet of commercial property before his death in 1995. He also was a founder of what was then the Economic Development Association of Longmont, and worked to bring Japanese businesses to Boulder County.
EDAL became the Longmont Economic Development Council and eventually the Longmont Area Economic Partnership, which continues Pratt’s mission to ensure that the city’s economy is inclusive for women and minorities as well as international investment.
Another promotional group, the Longmont Downtown Development Authority, was formed by the City Council in 1992 to rehabilitate the city’s declining core in the face of new competition from Twin Peaks Mall and a growing number of big-box retailers. The LDDA would spend tens of millions of dollars on new construction, renovation, promotion and beautification along Main Street.
The arrival of new high-tech industries including software and biopharmaceutical manufacturers lured more upper-income residents to Longmont, which in the mid-1990s saw development of Prospect New Town, the first New Urbanist project in Colorado, designed by architects Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. The mixed-use, architecturally diverse planned community would draw national attention and awards.
An area that a century ago saw a fierce debate over whether liquor should be sold within town limits now is home to an ever-increasing number of craft breweries and distilleries, with Oskar Blues and Left Hand breweries carving out an expanding national footprint and exposure.
Ben and Wanda Rodriguez and Leon Martinez, standing by a new 1969 pickup in front of Rodriguez Body Shop in Longmont. The business still is operating. (Courtesy of Longmont Museum)
Today, more than 200 companies with global reach have a presence in Longmont, in part lured by city-owned Longmont Power and Communications, which offers electric rates at 29 percent less than the state average and a broadband service called NextLight whose upload and download speeds rank among the nation’s fastest.
But amid all the emphasis on technology and booming growth, Longmont’s farming roots still can be celebrated at the Boulder County Agricultural Heritage Center along Colo. 66 — and at Saturday farmers’ markets at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, where a blossoming number of organic farms display their wares.
And some things never change. Elite Barber Shop, 339 Main St., opened in 1875, the year after the city was founded — and it’s still offering a shave and a haircut today, if no longer just for two bits. Meanwhile, the Rodriguez Body Shop is still maintaining customers’ cars and the downtown Dairy Queen at Sixth and Main has been selling soft-serve ice cream there since 1949.
It just goes to show that in many ways in Longmont, everything old truly is new again.
Originally Appeared On: https://www.timescall.com/2021/04/25/tracing-the-evolution-of-longmonts-economy-over-150-years