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Lilac City

Fort Collins, Colorado

by  | Apr 9, 2020 | Fort Collins | 0 comments

If you were, for some reason, inclined to ask someone “What are the smells you remember from your childhood?” a person who grew up in Fort Collins would likely give one of three answers: the overwhelming smell of the sugar processing factory during a campaign, the pungent smell of the Dreher pickle factory out on Riverside, or… lilacs — the sweet, heady scent of Fort Collins’ favorite flower.

Lilacs have been planted in Fort Collins since very early on. The local paper used to frequently mention when the buds had appeared on the lilac bushes or when the flowers had arrived.

There used to be lilac bushes on either side of the south entrance to the county courthouse on Oak Street. In the spring of 1906, those bushes were loved-on a little too much and the following article appeared in the May 16, 1906 Fort Collins Weekly Courier.

Shameful Vandalism.
At the south entrance to the court house are located two lilac bushes, which, a few days ago, were exceptionally pretty. Their flowers at last caught the eyes of small boys and girls, who divested the bushes of their attractiveness in an afternoon and evening. As the flowers were taken off, goodly sized branches were broken, and now the bushes look as if they had been victims of an Oklahoma tornado. Treasurer Ramey and the other court house officials are incensed over the destruction and if they catch any boys and girls disturbing the county’s property again, punishment will be meted out. Janitor Blackwell has something else to do than to act as picket guard.

Lilacs were often planted along waterways, between backyards and alleyways, around cemetery plots and by schools. But at some point, probably in the late 1940s, a local garden club came up with the idea of being more intentional about lilac planting. In 1950, they designated Fort Collins “Lilac City”. They formed a Lilac City Committee that met regularly and even raised funds to give ten lilac bushes to President Eisenhower. (Wouldn’t it be neat of those lilacs are still growing in Washington D. C. today?!) 

Walter Cooper’s  song, “Where the Purple  Lilacs Grow”  was  published on March22, 1951. Local musician, Bob Swerer, often sang the tune. 

In 1951, Walter B. Cooper wrote and published a song entitled, “Where the Purple Lilacs Grow.”

Cooper’s day job was to sell cars for Poudre Chevrolet, which he did for 32 years. But from 1947 – 1951, he also ran his own music publishing company, Walco Music, located  at 144 N. College. The company was primarily a means of publishing his own songs and sheet music. And so, in 1951, he penned the following words:

In Fort Collins, Colorado, where the purple lilacs grow,
Where the sun is always shining, where the mountain breezes blow.
There are friendly folks to greet you, there is music soft and low…
in Fort Collins, Colorado where the purple lilacs grow.

You can see the children play, you can hear the songbird sing,
You can know their friendly feeling with the joy that friends can bring.
By the lofty snowcapped Rockies, ‘neath the crags that thrill your soul,
That’s Fort Collins, Colorado where the purple lilacs grow.

(musical interlude)

In Fort Collins, Colorado, where the purple lilacs grow,
Where the sun is always shining, where the mountain breezes blow.
There are friendly folks to greet you, there is music soft and low…
in Fort Collins, Colorado where the purple lilacs grow.

You can see the children play, you can hear the songbird sing,
You can know that friendly feeling with the joy that friends can bring.
By the lofty snowcapped Rockies, ‘neath the crags that fill you so,
That’s Fort Collins, Colorado where the purple lilacs grow.

Bob Swerer and his Sons of the Rockies, often sang the song and even published a record of it through Walco.

If you’ve never heard the song, and can’t locate a record of it, never fear! Back in 2009, Lost Fort Collins put together a montage of Fort Collins photos and overlaid the song “Where the Purple Lilacs Grow” onto the video.

Lilacs were pretty much everywhere. 

In an utterly unscientific survey, I posted a question to Facebook asking, “Lilacs. Fort Collins used to have lots and lots of them. Tell me where your favorite patch of lilacs was.” I expected to hear about the lilacs along S. College Ave. near Colorado Field and lilacs in the median along W. Mountain Ave. I suspected there’d be a few other prime locations, but that that would pretty much be it. Man, was I wrong.

In just 24 hours I received 234 responses. (!!!) And where were people’s favorite patches of lilacs? Well, pretty much EVERYWHERE! There were lilacs on the east side of Old Town, lilacs on the west side of Old Town, lilacs at Grandview Cemetery, lilacs at the Harmony Cemetery, lilacs throughout CSU, lilacs at Fort Collins High School, lilacs at Poudre High School, lilacs at the old Harmony school, even lilacs at the old Fossil Creek elementary school (where the S. College Walmart is today). There were lilac bushes at the corner of Prospect and Shields that were used to decorate the gym for FCHS Recognition Night in 1973. There were lilacs in South College Heights that were used to make lilac liqueur. There were lilacs in a backyard on Grant street that grew up around a stump, creating a sweet-smelling hide-away for kids. And though I can no longer find the admission, I believe I saw one post that copped to having used some especially thick lilac hedges as a hideaway for teenage antics involving a wee bit of smoking. (Perhaps the lilacs would help to mask the scent?)

What became clear quite quickly is that the profusion of lilacs in Fort Collins helped to build powerful memories that, with just a whiff of lilacs, can come flowing back to people today in a powerful way.

 

These lovely blooms are from the Fossil Creek Nursery website. 

Many of the lilacs mentioned on by folks in the Facebook post are now long gone. The hedge along S. College, by the old college football stadium and field houses, were torn out when College Avenue was widened. Many of the bushes in the median on W. Mountain were removed when the trolley was returned. (Speaking of which, Wayne Sundberg says that people used to ride the trolley and grab sprigs of lilacs as they passed by. 🙂 ) And as properties change hands, many hedgerows of lilacs, or prominent front yard bushes, have been torn out in favor of a more modern yard aesthetic.

In 1964, the Chamber of Commerce decided that the “Lilac City” moniker just wasn’t doing it for them, so they renamed Fort Collins the “Choice City.” In a 1974 Triangle Review opinion piece, Charles Unfug lamented the both the change of name and the loss of several local lilac bushes. He decried the loss and argued that the disappearance of lilac in Lilac City made Fort Collins just like any other city.

There are still many lilac bushes throughout town, some still in place where they were first planted decades ago, others dug up and transplanted as people moved and decided to take their beloved bushes with them. But whether the bushes remain or not, it’s clear that they still loom large in our memories of Fort Collins.

Image Credits:

Where the Purple Lilacs Grow, music cover sheet — Archive at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, H17632.

Image of the Walco record — I got the image off Facebook. It’s probably from the Archive, but I can’t find it online so I can’t add the identifying number for it.  :-\

Photo of Bob Swerer — Archive at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, H23101.

Photo of Walter B. Cooper — Archive at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery. M23760A.

First two images of lilacs were via Google – with a license that allowed free use of the images.  (I have lots of lilac photos myself, but the problem with taking a gajillion pictures is that once you need one, they’re hard to find.)

The last image of lilacs is from the Fossil Creek Nursery website.

And if you want to check out Kat’s video for Lost Fort Collins, you can find it here on YouTube — Montage Fort Collins.

Article Credits:

Thanks to everyone in the You Know You Grew Up in Fort Collins if you Remember… group on Facebook that shared several wonderful memories of lilac bushes in Fort Collins. 

And most of all thanks to Joan Day who bugged me to write this article in the first place. Thanks, Joan!