Initial markets for Fremont County’s agricultural products included early Colorado mining camps, such as Cripple Creek and Leadville, that depended on Fremont County communities for fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy products, meat, and other provisions. Nearby cities, including Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and Denver, added to the demand for the area’s agricultural products. Fremont County’s own coal towns, oil fields, cement plants, stone quarries, brickyards, sawmills, smelters, and other active industries provided additional markets tied to a growing labor force and an 1880 population of about 5,000.
By 1888, total fruit shipments from Fremont County were over 700,000 pounds. Consisting of primarily apples, they also included pears, grapes, plums, peaches, strawberries, and other berries. In 1888, Fremont County produced 40,000 bushels of apples, compared to 60,000 bushels produced that year in the entire state of Colorado.
Private investment, tied to the county’s natural setting and available markets, was focused on stimulating the development of Fremont County’s agricultural industry. Investment by area entrepreneurs led to the development of irrigation canals, storage reservoirs, land preparation, and related facilities. By 1893, over 45,000 acres of land were in agricultural production. Irrigation was provided by 13 canals from the Arkansas River, Grape Creek, Fourmile Creek, and Beaver Creek.
Mine owners from Cripple Creek and Leadville, who often chose to live in Cañon City with its relatively mild climate, invested in commercial buildings and agricultural development. Among the promoters of land developments were Fremont County businessmen who were also involved in land development, promotion, and sales. Iconic homes of those involved in real estate development remain today as a reminder of growth during this period.
Six hundred and eighty-seven orchards covered 5,688 acres of apple, cherry, pear, apricot, plum, and peach trees, according to a 1920 report; with 3,700 acres in apples. While there were large orchards, such as the 3,000-tree orchard developed by Jesse Frazer that produced 15,000 bushels in 1888, many small tracts were sold along with home sites as part of land development projects. Promotional publications of the period show handsome homes surrounded by orchards and shade trees and extoll profits to be made from agricultural products.
Agriculture was woven into the fabric of development in the Arkansas River Valley east of Cañon City. Beyond shaping land development and sales, it was part of the daily lives of residents. Businessmen, schoolteachers, and other residents had small orchards or gardens that produced fruit, berries, and other crops for seasonal sale as supplemental income. Judge W.B. Felton, Warden of Colorado State Penitentiary from 1880-1882, developed an orchard and was later named President of the Colorado State Horticultural Association, though he was not a full-time farmer. Italian workers enjoyed a taste of their home country through wine from grapevines they grew as a family tradition, not a business.
Fremont County’s agricultural base grew from the efforts of full-time Agriculturists, hobbyists, and those who used it to supplement their income. Additional enterprises, such as packing houses, flour mills, an ice plant, a Libby-McNeil-Libby pickle plant, cider mills, produce marketing organizations, a creamery, and soda bottling companies also prospered. In 1905, Armour & Company of Chicago, among others, marketed Fremont County fruit and produce in major cities from coast-to-coast as part of their extensive distribution network. An average of 800 rail cars per year (some iced) of agricultural products were shipped to market from Fremont County, causing the area’s farms and orchards to prosper.
Not all newcomers to the region were equally experienced in agricultural pursuits, nor were all successful. Late spring frosts, hail, locusts, and other risks took their toll. The end of World War I saw agricultural prices drop and production costs increase. By the late ’20s, the Great Depression effectively ended this period of agricultural prosperity. Cropland was sold off for residential development, which, in turn, negatively affected the agriculturally related operations. Today only a few of these operations remain.
Not all irrigation projects were successful, either. State Canal #1, an ambitious project intended to irrigate some 70,000 acres over its 85-mile length, was initially funded by the 7th Colorado General Assembly in 1889 to draw water from the Arkansas River about 4-miles west of Cañon City. The 8th and 9th Assemblies provided further appropriations amounting to a total of $200,000 in addition to the use of Prison labor. An 1897 promotional brochure references the project, but it was never completed due to engineering, construction, cost, and feasibility issues; not the least of which was that Arkansas River normal flow water rights were fully appropriated by 1887 and users after that date had to rely essentially on Flood Rights.
Today, the aqueduct has been partially filled with a roadbed, while the three tunnels blasted through solid rock make up the enjoyable 2-mile Tunnel Drive hiking trail accessible from a trailhead off Highway 50 just west of Cañon City.
Royal Gorge Region farms, orchards, and wineries include the following: