Lincoln County lies in the Great Plains section of the East Central Colorado, including a part of the area known as the Arkansas Divide. The county is a double to rectangle, 72 miles long, north to south, and 48 miles wide in the southern part of the county and 30 miles wide in the northern part. The county contains 1,644,800 acres of land, principally rolling prairie, at altitudes varying from 4,500 feet in the southeast to about 5,400 feet in the northwest.
The main watersheds in the county include the Arickaree and Republican Rivers in the northern part of the county, and the Big Sandy and Rush and Horse Creeks in the south. The latter Creeks ultimately drain into the Arkansas River.
Aside from nomadic Indian tribes and rare Spanish incursions, the first human visitors to this area were hopeful prospectors, crossing by the thousands en route to the gold strikes in the Pikes Peak region. The old Smoky Hill Trail runs just north of Hugo, and wagon ruts remain visible in some places.
Cattlemen came to the area in the late 1860s, and later were followed by sheep growers as late as 1900. The earliest homesteads were claimed in the 1880s, with land seekers continuing to moving onto government lands in this area over the next several decades. The county's population was just under 1,000 in 1900, but by 1920 it had reached an all time high of 8,273. Since then, the population has declined until, since the 1970s, it has stabilized at around 5,000. With the closing of the open range, to the cattle industry gradually changed from the Texas longhorn stock to purebred stock.
When the gold miners came, this part of the country was included in Kansas Territory. In 1870, it became part of the short-lived Greenwood County, with the county seat at Kit Carson. Later, the area was placed into Bent and Elbert counties, Colorado (since 1876, a state), and in 1889, Lincoln County ... named in honor of martyred President Abraham Lincoln ... was created by the Colorado General Assembly, with Hugo as the county seat.
Hugo was the primary community in Lincoln County in those days. Named for Hugo Richards, a railroad official who later was influential in California financial circles, the town sprang out of the prairie soon after the Kansas Pacific (Union Pacific) Railway construction arrived at the site of a former stage coach station known as Willow Springs on July 5, 1870.
In 1889, a second railroad, the Rock Island, was built across northern Lincoln County, crossing the Union Pacific at Limon. Later, the major highways ... Highway 24, Highway 40/287, and Highway 71 ... all intersected at Limon, and then they ultimately were joined in the 1960s Interstate 70. The meeting of all the major travel ways at Limon has resulted in the town's nickname: "The Hub City."
Other Lincoln County towns situated along the Rock Island line where Arriba, Bovina and Genoa. At one point, Bovina was a thriving community with schools, a bank and hotels, but it has disappeared from the scene since the days of the Great Depression.
The Rock Island, too, is gone, declared bankrupt nearly a century after it first appeared in this neighborhood, and the Kyle Railway since has served agricultural and other shippers along the line, from Limon, east. The old Rock Island track from Limon west to Colorado Springs has been dismantled, with the right-of-way in some places now being used for walking and bicycle paths.
In the early homestead days, land seekers arrived in Lincoln County by covered wagon or any “immigrant cars” on the railroad. Along with their families and belongings, they brought their knowledge of farming, as learned at their old homes in Missouri, Nebraska, Minnesota, etc. Most of them had experience with the relatively lush, high yields kinds of agriculture found on small, irrigated acreages back east. Arriving in Lincoln County with their seed from home, they tried to duplicate their experience here, with little success. They did grow small grains, corn, beans, potatoes, alfalfa and garden truck in some cases, and a few did get into the dairy business in a profitable way. But many of the newcomers found the climate was too harsh and dry, the soils unable to support such crops beyond a season or two, and the homesteaded acreage too small to make the kind of profit necessary to support families. They came looking for greener pastures, and many of them left again, still looking.
The few who stated adapted their skills and their products to land, and not only survived and thrived, but many did very well indeed. And they were joined by other, more successful newcomers, who took up the claims left vacant by earlier homesteaders who had moved away. Dry land wheat, feed crops and cattle remain the primary agricultural products in this area, with corn and sunflowers also grown in parts of the county which have since come under irrigation.
From the earliest times, settlers in this area brought civilization with them in the form of churches and schools. The earliest homesteaders and raised Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist churches, with Christian and Baptist churches following soon after.
The first school in the area was Elbert County District #7 at Hugo, created in 1874. This district later was renamed Lincoln County District #1. Soon, a plethora of rural school districts had been created, as the lands were homesteaded, and the optimism of the earlier settlers and their hopes for the future were reflected in the names given to those one in schools … names such as Sandhill, Lone Star, Columbine, Pleasant Valley, Green Valley, Pride of the Prairie, Lawn Ridge, Liberty Bell, Grand Meadow, and many others. At one time, school districts bore numbers as high as 46.
But, with the migration of the patrons, consolidation, dissolution and annexation took place over the years, changing school district names and boundaries. Then, in 1959, under the School District Reorganization Act of 1957, Lincoln County was reorganized into five first-class school districts. Gone were the one-room schools; Lincoln County students now were educated at Hugo, Limon, Arriba, Genoa or Karval. Within another 30 years, that number was further reduced to three, as the Arriba School District consolidated with Flagler (in Kit Carson County) and Genoa School District consolidated with Hugo.
The optimism of the early settlers also was seen in the rapid rise of financial institutions in the county, with Arriba, Genoa and Bovina each having its own bank, and with Hugo and Limon each having two banks to serve its residents! The banking industry had hardly begun in this county, however, when the Great Depression arrived, and most of the banks here … as was the case with banks everywhere in the United States … were unable to keep their doors open in that dismal financial climate. During the last decade of the 20th Century the county's first bank, the First National Bank of Hugo (opened in 1903), and the First National Bank of Limon, remained to serve the needs of the local residents of the county. Equitable Savings and Loan Association in Limon also provided some banking services here.
There have been a few boosts in the local economy in recent years, with the arrival in the 1990s of a new state prison facility near Limon, and with the development of high quality medical clinics, hospital and nursing homes in Hugo and Limon. But there have been sags, as well. The railroads were here in 1900, and they still are here in 2000, but the shadows they cast are meager indeed in comparison to their freight and passenger service heyday of a hundred years ago.
Replacing the trains in providing these services are private automobiles and the commercial trucking industry, and the local economies have responded to serve the thousands of travelers who drive through the county … whether for pleasure or on business .. each day. The numbers of banks, and newspapers and grocery stores may be declining in Lincoln County, but each year sees new hotels and motels, new fuel stations, and new restaurants and fast food outlets springing up along the rubber-tired routes. Like the homesteaders of old, the men of business who want to remain in Lincoln County are lining to adapt to change.
However, even as adaptations occur, the residents of Lincoln County still remember: As the 20th Century dawned in Lincoln County, agriculture was the backbone of the local economy. And as the 21st Century the dawns, agriculture continues to hold that prominent place in the lives and in the hearts of the county’s citizens.
Terry W. Blevins