The story of the Mormons in northern Colorado can best be divided into three time periods: moving (1846-1868), missions (1882-1931), and members (1931-present). The first Mormon settlement west of the Rockies took place in Colorado (a year before the first settlement was made in Utah), but it was in the San Luis Valley. Groups that traveled through northern Colorado continued on their way to Salt Lake City. Eventually the church leaders called for the saints to “build Zion” in their own home towns, rather than moving their families west. And finally, with the growth of the Colorado Agricultural College, Saints began to move to Fort Collins and put down roots.
Before I describe these three eras in greater detail, let me take a moment to provide a quick glossary to help you better understand the story I am about to tell.
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: is essentially the long winded way to say the Mormon Church. Latter-day Saints is often abbreviated to LDS and members are often referred to as Saints.
- Stake, Ward, and Branch: When Mormons use the term “church” they mean the Church. (See the definition above.) They’re not talking about a building or a single congregation but about the international organization that encompasses all LDS members. So when they’re talking about a local congregation, they use the term “ward.” There are also smaller groups referred to as a “branch.” And bunch of wards together form a “stake.”
- Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: Local congregations do not have a paid preacher or pastor. Instead, anyone can share during the time for testimony. However, there are twelve men who are considered to be high priests of the Mormon church. They make up the second highest governing body in the organization. (Many Evangelical Christian Churches pretty much do their own thing within each congregation. But the LDS are a very organized institution with a strong top-down governmental structure.) There’s only three people over this Quorum and that is the President and his two counselors.
A Time for Moving (1846 – 1868)
With persecution behind them and hostile Ute Indians before them, the emigrating Mormon families did not have an easy road to travel as they headed for Utah. The first wagon-train of Mormon emigrants passed through Colorado in 1846. They stopped for a time around where Pueblo is today. There, Colorado’s first white baby, Malinda Catherine Kelley, was born. (OK, so Colorado wasn’t a state yet. But still…)
There’s some confusion about whether these wagon trains ever passed through the Fort Collins area. According to Ansel Watrous’s 1911 History of Larimer County, Colorado:
In the spring and summer of 1847 they continued their journey to Salt Lake, coming north from Pueblo and passing through this county, entering the mountains west of Laporte. There were thirty-four married women and between sixty and seventy children in the detachment, besides some ten or dozen single men. They followed the Cherokee trail through Virginia Dale, and thence on to the Laramie Plains and to Salt Lake, via Fort Bridger.”
But according to Linda McGehee, who wrote her master’s thesis on the Development of the Fort Collins Mormon Community During the Twentieth Century, journals kept by the Pueblo Saints suggest that they traveled to Fort Laramie and then took the Mormon Trail to Utah, which would mean they traveled through Weld County rather than Larimer.
One possible explanation for the discrepancy is that the first group of travelers passed through Weld, but later groups followed the Overland Trail which sent them through Laporte. Watrous doesn’t refer to any source material in his history and it’s possible that he munged some details together. Either way, it’s clear that these bands of travelers didn’t stop in Fort Collins or even in Laporte. They were simply traveling through.
A Time for Missions (1882-1931)
Eventually the Transcontinental Railroad provided emigrants with substantially easier passage to Utah, and the wagon trains through Colorado ended. During the next few decades, Colorado became less of a pass-through state and more of a destination. Homesteaders began settling down and small communities, such as Fort Collins, St. Louis (the precursor to Loveland), and Greeley, formed.
There may have still been occasional groups that passed through the area. There is one story of a family that stopped for a short time near Buckeye (northwest of Wellington). According to Arlene Ahlbrandt in her book, The History of Larimer County, Colorado, Vol. II, a man by the name of Alexander Webster built a one room schoolhouse in 1883 so that his fourteen children could attend. There’s no mention of what became of Webster or his family. They likely continued on to Utah. But the schoolhouse has since been moved and is now located, along with Auntie Stone’s cabin and a few others, in the courtyard next to the old Carnegie Library building on Mathews (which was where the city’s history museum was located before it moved to N. Mason).
Mormon missionaries came through the area, meeting with whoever would allow them time to share their beliefs. The sense that I get from Linda McGehee’s paper is that the only Saints that came to Colorado were missionaries who didn’t stay. But they did leave behind scattered numbers of pioneers who had been baptized. It is unclear whether much of anything came of these conversions. There are a few references to “cottage meetings” (meetings in someone’s house). McGehee found references to two meetings in Fort Collins, one on March 9, 1898, which was not well attended, and another on March 13 which had 45 people in attendance. Meetings were also held in Laporte on those same days.
The next reference to Latter Day Saints in the area comes from 1904, but it refers to members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. But I’ve learned that including them in this article would be akin to saying that I’m going to write the story of the history of Catholics in Fort Collins only to include the Baptists, as if they were all one and the same.
In 1910, John Herrick, the president of the front range missionary efforts, wrote about a meeting in Greeley of the elders, and he mentioned that the four from Fort Collins were in attendance. Elders, in the LDS Church, are the missionaries that are sent out, so the proselytizing continued, yet it remains unclear how many practicing Mormons actually lived permanently in the area.
I think it’s fair to say that though the church was active in the area in terms of missionary work, there was very little in the way of a Mormon community. There appears to finally have been a branch formed in the early 1920s, only for it to be disbanded for lack of members within the decade. (Many new converts picked up and moved to Utah. Others drifted away from the faith.) It wasn’t until 1931 that the roots of the first healthy Mormon community would begin to grow.
A Time for Members (1931-present)
It was in December of 1931 that a new branch was formed in Fort Collins. Linda McGehee interviewed three surviving members from this early branch. One was Rosella Bauer Harris, whose family converted in 1926 after hearing the message from local missionaries. The family was given regular instruction by these missionaries, but Rosella says that they never met other church members at the time, although they knew that there were other families that were also receiving instruction from the missionaries. The Bauer family began traveling down to Loveland in 1927, where they met in the home of George Myron Baker, an employee of J. C. Penney & Co. It wasn’t until 1929 that the Bauer family was baptized. The baptism took place in the Y.M.C.A. building at the corner of Oak and Remington (where the Elks building recently stood until it was torn down in 2012). When the Fort Collins Branch was officially organized on December 13, 1931, the Bauer family made up 8 of the 49 members.
Linda McGehee also interviewed Esther Bailey Park, whose family moved to Fort Collins in 1937. They were in town 6 years before they discovered that there were other Mormons around. A passing comment by a restaurant owner tipped them off to the fact that there was a branch holding meetings in the Odd Fellows Hall on E. Mountain Avenue.
It was in the late 1930s and early 1940s that a real shift took place. Rather than Mormons constantly bleeding out to Utah, a few started moving to Fort Collins to take up permanent residence. They were drawn by the Colorado Agricultural College. George Henderson took on work with the college extension office. Leland K. Hill a was a civil engineer that took employment with the Colorado experiment station. Robert Gardner, an agronomist, worked there as well. Nephi A. Christensen claimed the position of dean of engineering. And Rue Jensen began work in the veterinary school. After World War II, as the college rapidly expanded with men taking advantage of the G. I. Bill, the number of Mormons that moved to Fort Collins, both to teach and to study, increased dramatically. It was this tide of incoming Saints that finally enabled the branch to build a meetinghouse at the corner of Locust and Peterson, and to reorganize into a full fledged ward in 1951. Apostle Marion G. Romney, who was a cousin to presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s father, came from Salt Lake City to speak at the dedication ceremony for the building.
By the late ’50s, the ward was already outgrowing the meeting house. Sunday school classes were held everywhere, including in the hallway (with students peeking out from behind the coats hanging in the hall), the kitchen (where students sat on the counters and even on the stove), and the furnace room. So a plot of land was purchased in the Fairview Addition for the new chapel, which can be seen today at 1400 Lynnwood Drive. Both the meeting house at Locust and Peterson, and the new building on Lynnwood, were built, quite literally, by the members of the Fort Collins Ward. Group projects such as this drew the members ever closer, helping to create a tight-knit community.
In 1962, a second ward was created specifically for college students and their families. Yet another new building was added for this group, located on S. Meldrum near the university.
By 1963 the Fort Collins Ward claimed 463 members with close to an additional 125 students in the student ward. And in 1968, the Fort Collins Stake was created, which included wards not only from Fort Collins, but also Loveland and Greeley. As membership grew, wards multiplied, and in 1970 a new meetinghouse was added at the corner of Stover St. and Swallow Rd. At the time that the property was first purchased, it was surrounded by nothing but alfalfa fields.
The 1970s and 80s were a somewhat tumultuous time for the local Saints as civil rights and the E.R.A. caused friction not only between the Mormon population and the rest of Fort Collins, but even within the stake. One 19 year old member, Shirley Wallace, got up during the time for sharing testimonies at one meeting and protested against the “patriarchal doctrines” of the LDS church. Soon after, she officially requested excommunication.
Despite these controversies, the population continued to grow and in 1993, yet another meetinghouse was built on W. Harmony Road. By 2002 there were over 6000 LDS members in Larimer County. And in 2011, it was announced that a temple would be built at Trilby and Timberline in southeast Fort Collins.
The local Saints have striven to be supportive members not only to their church but also to the Fort Collins community. They contributed funds in the 1980s towards the building of a Fort Collins homeless shelter. They have been active blood donors. They regularly donate canned goods to the Larimer County Food Distribution Center. And they have teamed up with the Foothills Unitarian Church to build bike racks to encourage cycling in town. Joe Daly and Weston Morrill both served on the Poudre School District Board of Education, and John Clarke has served as both a city councilman and as a county commissioner.
Though slow to establish a foothold in northern Colorado, the Church of Latter-day Saints has grown into an active community which will only continue to develop in size and influence with the building of the new temple.
Sources for this article:
My primary source for this article was Linda C. McGehee’s masters thesis entitled, The Development of the Fort Collins Mormon Community During the Twentieth Century. This post is essentially a summary of McGehee’s thesis. If you find this topic of interest, I would strongly recommend reading the original text. It is a quick read, very well written, and gives a lot of background information so that the topic of Mormons in Fort Collins is in context both geographically and historically.
Dana Rae EchoHawk’s masters thesis entitled, Struggling to Find Zion: Mormons in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, was helpful not only in gleaning additional background information regarding Mormon history in the state, but most especially for the glossary of terms that was included at the end of the thesis.
The photo of the Mormon temple that’s going up at Trilby and Timberline is from MormonTemples.org which explains the purpose of the temple, anticipated impacts upon the neighborhood, construction updates, as well as general information about the church in Colorado.
The entire text of Ansel Watrous’s History of Larimer County, Colorado, can be found online at archive.org. There is also a copy at the Archive at Fort Collins Museum of Discovery. And I believe the Old Town library also has a copy.
Arlene Ahlbrandt and Kathryn Stieben were editors of the History of Larimer County, Colorado, Vol. II, an update of Watrous’s original work. Arlene Ahlbrandt wrote the section on the one room schoolhouse entitled, “Upper Boxelder School.” (This information is all via Linda McGehee’s thesis paper.)
Photo of Catherine Malinda Kelley from Find a Grave where it had been uploaded by Julia Corry.
Photo of the Reorganized LDS church is from the Archive at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery.
The number of Mormons in Larimer County as of 2002 came from city-data.com.
The photo of the Mormon temple under construction can be found at ldschurchtemples.com.