February 27, 2024

Lettuce Get Down to Business

Photo from 1918 of the Mahon Ranch, west of Buena Vista.
Pictured are Martha Mahon, her daughter Cassie and Cassie’s husband, George Fields, with crates of head lettuce. Courtesy of Buena Vista Heritage Museum.

An article in the SkiHi News from Grand County, Colo, (Motto: 'The wolves are here, now where are the bucks?") notes the area's success with growing lettuce in the 1920s.

When some of the first settlers arrived in Granby, they realized the sunny days and cool nights were perfect for growing lettuce. The humble lettuce thrived in the mountainous landscape. . . . The Moffat Railroad gave local lettuce producers access to big cities like Salt Lake City. Granby was said to produce high quality lettuce and there are anecdotes that New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bragged of “Granby Lettuce” on the menu, according to the Grand County Historical Association.

Not just Granby. Back before the time when all fresh vegetables in the typical supermarket came from California, southern Arizona, and northern Mexico, other parts of Colorado were also producing lettuce. 

It was exported from the Wet Mountain Valley [Custer County], from Eagle County, and from Chaffee County, among other locales. The photo above was taken near Buena Vista.

All these locales had higher elevations (6000–8000 feet, typically), irrigation, and in most cases, rail access. A 2014 article in Colorado Central examines this now-defunct commercial agriculture.

By 1922 the Salida growing district was making plans to get in on the lettuce boom with more than 40 people becoming members of the Colorado Cooperative Lettuce Association in the town. Headquarters for the association was in the Unger store and Sid Burleson was a leader, The Salida Mail reported.

That same year there were about 1,500 acres of lettuce being grown in Buena Vista. Westcliffe [Custer Co.] had 800 acres, the Hardscrabble district [Custer Co.] 400 acres, the Divide district [Teller Co.] 300 acres and the San Luis district [Costilla Co.] 500. It was reported in the Chaffee County Republican that Buena Vista shipped 163 cars in 1922, followed by Florence [Fremont Co.] with 85, the Yampa district [Routt Co.] with 75 and Avon [Eagle Co.] with 73.

Since Hardscrabble is about 14 miles from Florence, that may be where the lettuce growers hauled their crop to the railroad. 

The 1941 WPA Travel Guide for Colorado, from the Federal Writers Program, noted that in northeastern Custer County, "fields on the steep [?] slopes grow potatoes, lettuce, and celery." Of Buena Vista it says, "Lettuce Day, combined with a rodeo, is celebrated annually in September." Granby, as noted above, and Alamosa are also described as lettuce-growing areas, as are Divide [Teller Co.] and La Veta [Huerfano Co.].

This production nose-dived by the 1940s. There was World War 2, of course, but as best I can tell, the big factor was improved refrigerated railcars making it easier for larger-scale West Coast growers to send massive amounts of lettuce etc. eastward. 

And with the growing more concentrated in fewer areas, a problem like a plant virus there rolls clear to the Eastern Seaboard as well. From 2023: "Farmers seek rebound after floods, virus hit lettuce crop."

Things were challenging enough for lettuce growers in Monterey County’s [California] Salinas Valley before Mother Nature dealt a one-two punch in this year’s storms.

Farmers in 2022 had suffered an estimated $150 million in crop losses as impatiens necrotic spot virus—a destructive plant disease spread by thrips—moved from field to field.

Then this year, vast flooding from atmospheric storms damaged multiple crops, with lettuce growers suffering an additional $54.4 million in losses, according to figures released by the Monterey County agricultural commissioner.

Most of those Colorado lettuce acres went to hay and cows — or in the case of Eagle County, ski condos. After all, cows are plant-based too.


Pat, Marcus & Alexis said...

Not really related, but it's often struck me that the hills around Ft. Laramie, which are grazing land today, are called "Mexican Hills" as New Mexican laborers were brought up to the area after the Mexican War to build the cement buildings at Ft. Laramie, and after they completed the construction, they moved off post and put in vegetable farms. The produce was sold to travelers on the Oregon Trail.

That obviously didn't continue on forever, but I don't know when it ceased.

And also, in the Bessemer Bend area of Natrona County, which is farm land but for hay farms and feed corn only, at one time saw some potato production and barely production, the latter for Coors.

MikeG said...

Thanks for your more in depth discussion of the lettuce issue. I'd seen and read a couple stories but they only centered on Granby.

You have done a much better job with your story. I appreciate it.