Blast From the Past

Way back when, a cantankerous old guy named E.H. "Brownie" Brown climbed atop his taxidermy shop south of U.S. 85 near what would become Highlands Ranch and posted a sign painted in big red letters: "Hellsville, USA."

Brownie wanted the world to know exactly what he thought of the DuPont dynamite factory at Louviers. One of these days, he predicted, the company town would be blown to hell--and his business blown up right along with it.

But as it happens, Brownie Brown met his maker first, through quite natural causes about eight years ago. His survivors pulled down the sign, closed the shop and moved along. Louviers (pronounced "Loo-veers") still stands where Brownie left it. And despite the occasional explosion, death and dismemberment, the town has survived the past ninety years more or less intact.

Today Louviers looks much as it did when DuPont ran things: Tidy rows of clapboard houses the color of after-dinner mints. Birdbaths bubbling. American flags flapping. Evergreens rustling. Wind chimes tinkling. Old men strolling with their granddaughters to check the mail.

Walk through the village and you'll get the impression that nothing much happens. Not much moves. Not much changes. And for the 300 or so people who live here, that's just fine.

"There's nothing to do here," admits Jaime Smith, who volunteers to serve as an informal tour guide. "We don't have any antique shops or boutiques. So the people who come through here just keep going. Even so, I think a lot of people would rather live in a place where there's nothing to do than someplace that has too much to do. But that's my own editorial."

Smith moved to Louviers from Denver in 1967. When he showed up, villagers thought he was a new corporate honcho. Not because of what he did or how he looked (he's a health-care educator who wears a black beret and blue jeans and has long hair and a beard), but because of where he lived.

Smith bought the biggest house on the biggest hill. And in Louviers, where a resident's position at DuPont determined the size and location of his home, people assumed that Smith was taking on a job with big responsibilities. Instead, he brought big responsibilities with him: a wife, twelve kids and an assortment of pets, including a green parrot and an ankle-biting Australian terrier.

"They probably thought I was going to open an orphanage," Smith says. But he and his family soon settled in, sinking their roots deeper than those of the cottonwoods along Plum Creek.

Louviers was founded in 1908, after DuPont decided to expand its dynamite empire west of the Mississippi. The company found the perfect spot about 26 miles south of Denver. In a clearing above a creek, it built a factory, 85 houses, one church and one village club.

Like other company towns, Louviers, named after a village in France, was constructed according to a simple, practical design. Neighborhoods were divided into three sections, arranged according to company hierarchy and assigned numbers instead of street names.

Workers lived at the bottom of the hill in a section called "the Flats," where 384-square-foot homes were built on railroad ties. In the early days, they didn't have plumbing.

Foremen lived a little farther up the hill in a rectangular block where homes were a little bigger and a little nicer. The area was called "Silk Stocking Row" because the men who lived there could afford to buy silk stockings for their wives.

At the top of the DuPont heap was Capitol Hill, where the manager, assistant managers and company doctor lived. Their homes had stone foundations, multiple stories, open porches, large yards and lush gardens. From Capitol Hill, executives oversaw not only the Louviers Works--the dynamite plant located to the north--but the town's activities as well. DuPont expected Louviers to become a model community and ran things accordingly.

Villagers shopped at the company store, sent their children to the company elementary school, got their hair cut at the company barber shop, shot eight ball at the company billiard hall, held picnics in the company parks and danced at company-sponsored dances.

DuPont, in turn, provided electricity and coal and charged rents as low as $7 a month. If someone needed his house painted, the company sent over crews from the plant. If garbage had to be hauled, workers took care of that, too. And if a delinquent child broke a few windows, company officials suspended his parent's pay.

"In some ways, the company made life-or-death decisions for a lot of people," Smith says. "It had considerable influence over people's lives."

The Louviers Works, meanwhile, churned out an average of 584,375 pounds of explosives per month in its first year alone, providing explosives for mining, oil exploration and road building throughout Colorado.

From the beginning, safety was on everyone's mind. Company divisions posted "rooster boards" with announcements like this one: "The Acid Department has something to Crow About: It has been 413 days since the last injury." Although three fatal accidents occurred within the plant's first three years, no one else died at the Works until 1940 and, after that, until 1971. The total body count: ten men.

"The explosions were always contained within a building or a small area," Smith says. "That always gave you a certain sense of pride that DuPont was so interested in the welfare of the villagers."

In turn, the villagers were fairly content. The factory attracted workers from miles around who often finished their careers at DuPont. Often several members of the same family worked at the plant, and it wasn't uncommon to find cousins working alongside uncles working beside brothers.

"It was a happy town," Smith says. "The workers thought a great deal of the company, and the company thought a great deal of the workers."

In the early Sixties, however, DuPont began cutting back on dynamite production and started selling its houses. By the mid-'80s, the plant had shut for good. But instead of moving out and leaving a ghost town behind, the villagers stayed put, finding jobs elsewhere and doing what they could to preserve Louviers.

Although satellite dishes are as common in town now as pick-up trucks, most communications are the old-fashioned kind. Babysitting notices are posted on the Village Club bulletin board. And the best place to catch gossip is the post office.

"If we want to know something, all we have to do is ask the postmistress," Smith says. "She's not exactly a gossipmonger, but ask her something and she'll give you an honest answer. Beyond that, it's a question of over-the-fence conversation. Though we don't have many fences around here."

On Mondays and Thursdays, children straggle over to the village library to read storybooks while their parents check out paperback novels. On special occasions, families might even bowl a few sets at the two-lane Village Club bowling alley, which could be the oldest of its kind in Colorado. But since the wooden lanes have worn thin and the club can't find someone to operate the manual bowling-pin apparatus regularly, there's not much action here anymore.

No matter. There's always the baseball diamond, which attracts teams from throughout Douglas County in the summer. And for nature lovers, the cottonwood groves along Plum Creek, where villagers fill brown paper sacks full of wild chokecherries, apples, asparagus and plums.

"You don't have woods like this in many places," Smith says. "When my kids were little, we'd be down at the creek every weekend. One of our great delights is picking apples. Of course, the plums are great, too. Just outrageous."

And the wildlife: deer, turkeys, foxes, owls, rabbits, snakes. Some villagers even keep pet raccoons. "We have five elk that camp out in our yard," Smith says. "And we have a bear walking around. So far as we know, he's not bothering anyone. Just tipping over trash cans and scavenging. No one has got their guns and chased him out. They've taken him to heart. People kind of like him."

They also like walking down the street and knowing their neighbors by name. Villagers watch out for each other's kids and keep an eye on their pets, and if one of the old-timers needs a ride to the grocery store or doctor, a neighbor is always happy to oblige.

"Out here, people have been neighbors for thirty or forty years," Smith says. "They've developed a reliance on one another."

They've also developed a habit of watching each other's backs. If a suspicious car rumbles by, curtains part, heads turn and people notice.

Not long ago, Smith's ankle-biting dog decided to defend the family against a visiting German shepherd. After hearing much yelping and yowling, Smith's wife ran outside, saw her dog in the jaws of the shepherd and did some yelping of her own. A neighbor arrived within minutes. With a pistol. Locked and loaded.

"She didn't know what was going on," Smith recalls. "All she heard was the screams. She didn't know it was the dogs, but she was ready to do battle. She was ready to lay them down."

Since Louviers is miles away from the nearest drive-by shooting, though, villagers generally enjoy the kind of down-home serenity thought to exist only in Mayberry.

"A young married couple just moved in here," Smith says. "It was like they had escaped the chaotic world for a place where they felt safe. That's what it's like here. I don't have a house key. I don't know even where it is. It's been years since I locked my doors."

Still, Louviers has its problems. Like other small towns, it has its share of neighborhood squabbles and family feuds.

A while back, one guy wanted to tear down his half of a two-car garage that he shared with another family, who wanted the shed to remain intact. The solution: The guy tore down his half of the shed and left the other half standing.

That's Louviers, Smith says. Problems have a way of working themselves out. When the town needed a sediment pond, villagers got together, talked it over and opened their wallets. When they heard about plans to widen U.S. 85, someone raised his hand and volunteered to bird-dog government meetings.

"People step in and fill the breach," Smith says. "You meet someone in the post office, talk about it and get something going."

While other historic towns preserve character with restrictive zoning codes and stringent building covenants, Louviers prefers open discussions. If someone wants a two-story garage, he can have it, as long as he has county approval and village support. And if he wants to collect old Ford Falcons and line them on the roadside like a used-car lot, he can do that, too.

"We don't want restrictive covenants," Smith says. "We have our own system that works well without codifying things. Eventually everything seems to meld in okay. Generally speaking, people live with whatever we decide. Some might not like it, but I think it improves the overall character of the village."

And the importance of continuing to improve that character is something everyone agrees upon. Last month, Smith and a contingent of Louviers residents stood before the Colorado Historical Society and asked that their village be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Louviers is something special, they said. A community practically frozen in time. If Coloradans want to see a living example of what a company town looked like, they can visit Louviers.

The Historical Society agreed, declaring Louviers among Colorado's top three best-preserved company towns (the other two are Cokedale and Redstone) and passed the application to the national office.

But villagers don't want to stop there. With the help of DuPont, which still owns land around Louviers, they hope to create a wildlife preserve that would prevent their slice of Douglas County's past from disappearing beneath the bulldozers of development.

"People should respect the history of a place, get to know it," Smith says. "It terrifies me to think this land will be turned into another Highlands Ranch."

When Smith stands in his backyard and surveys the grasslands where Indians once lived and he now hikes, he feels a connection more powerful than dynamite.

"I think the land has a soul," Smith says. "And if we're all part of nature, then we're part of that. Not everyone agrees, but I think we're here to take care of the earth, to be good stewards and to turn it into a paradise."

Twenty-six miles south of Denver, in a place once called Hellsville, they've come pretty close.

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