A group of colonists from Chicago crossed the Great Plains in the 1860s, when the United States’ westward expansion was growing in swells and tides. An experiment in industry, temperance and morality as an agricultural colony tries to survive on the edge of a vast, arid desert, the settlers of the Chicago-Colorado Colony face immense challenges in the new world they’ve found themselves in.
That story may sound familiar to anyone acquainted with Longmont’s 150 year history. And recently it’s become the setting for the first in a series of historical novels.
“Digging into the roots of U.S. history made me more and more invested in this land I grew up in,” said author Amy Scanes-Wolfe. “These are total lay people, I enjoy the perspective of history from the smaller players involved.”
The story of Between Grass and Hay, the first in a series of novels set around the founding of Longmont, is a tale of independence and ambition, of love and duty and of struggle and perseverance in a hostile landscape.
“The arc of the first two books is set during the first couple years, with old Burlington, the locating committee and then the founding of the colony,” she explained. “There is this question, if this colony will even survive, or if it should.”
Her research took her through books on old Burlington, collections of early newspaper clippings and trips to the Longmont Museum.
The second book, still in the editing process, will be released in the winter of this year. Continuing the story of Between Grass and Hay, it will follow the characters up until the railroad arrives in Longmont. Her plans for more historical novels will go further back, examining the events that led up to the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 and its aftermath.
The Sand Creek Massacre was a barbaric stain on Colorado’s history with the Cheyenne and Arapaho people that lived here. On November 29, 1864, U.S. cavalry led by Col. John Chivington slaughtered a camp of women, children and elderly at Sand Creek, 170 miles southeast of Denver in what is now Kiowa County. Overshadowed for decades by the Civil War, it was formally recognized as a National Historic Site 142 years later, in 2007. Records of the event can be found through the Smithsonian and National Park Service, as well as other historical archives.
“I think it’s known, sort of superficially, what happened with the Sand Creek Massacre,” Scanes-Wolfe explained. “Some of the people from old Burlington, who would go on to settle Longmont, were involved in the Sand Creek Massacre. I’m really interested in getting into the mindset of those people, to understand them … Settlers led this path of ecological destruction and cultural obliteration that we still reckon with today.”
Scanes-Wolfe moved to Longmont from Johannesburg, South Africa when she was 5. In her author bio, she recalls milking a rubber glove “cow” and dreaming of life as a pioneer. Her path took her to studying cultural anthropology and historical interpretation, including time working at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
While studying cultural anthropology, Scanes-Wolfe said she began to question the trajectory of humans and their impact on the world. When she moved back to Colorado, she began to work with Harlequin’s Gardens and Boulder County Parks and Open Space, studying permaculture landscaping and native perennials.
Scanes-Wolfe works on her writing in the off-season, spending most of her days working with her permaculture company, Lefthand Landscaping. “Farming is my main passion. I love storytelling, but it’s not what I want to do full-time.”
Permaculture, as Scanes-Wolfe describes it, is a way of landscaping and agricultural design that uses nature as a model for human growth. She explained that most everything in nature is a perennial, like grasses and trees, that grow back on their own. A majority of agricultural crops are annuals, and so they are constantly causing a state of disruption in the soil. Permaculture landscaping is a more resilient, sustainable method of working with the land, according to Scanes-Wolfe.
“The more I studied history and anthropology when I was younger, the more excited I got about finding my place. I couldn’t really be a hunter-gatherer, so I went into farming instead,” she said.
Once the current planting and harvest seasons have finished, Scanes-Wolfe plans to get back to work on the books, including getting physical copies into bookstores in Longmont.
Christine Washington and Eve Lempriere found the book through a book club at Niwot’s Inkberry Books.
“Between Grass and Hay is a wonderfully engaging story that feels very much alive, since it includes historic characters and events,” Washington said. “It was exciting to have personalities for historic characters I’ve known as little more than names.”
“It was colorful, entertaining and educational all at the same time. I felt like I had stepped back in time and was experiencing Longmont’s history through my own eyes,” Lempriere added.