The Plot Thickens

The down-and-dirty truth about Colorado's Garden City.

The smell of feedlot hung in the air as I drove up Route 85 from Brighton, and a sign reading "Welcome to Garden City" flashed by. Whatever sort of place Garden City was, I drove through it in less than a minute and right on into the heart of Greeley.

I didn't see the town itself, but I thought about it.

For a gardener, the Garden City name suggests a wonderful place where gardens, or perhaps gardeners, rule. Imagine that you are a passionate amateur cook who's just learned of a town called Dinnerville, or a foot fetishist who's come upon an obscure atlas reference to Spike Heels Crossing. But reality can be much less tantalizing. Growing up back East, I lived not twenty miles from Garden City, Long Island, which today summons up not memories of gardens, but a vague image of acrylic-nail parlors and Sopranos-like upward mobility. The Sopranos, of course, actually belong in New Jersey, which has a Garden City of its own. Of that, the only memory that springs to mind is the word "armpit," spoken by my father -- whether of Garden City or the entire Garden State, I can't recall.

John Johnston
Garden City's first bartender.
John Johnston
Garden City's first bartender.

But now here was a Garden City in my own backyard, and I wondered how many more I'd overlooked. And so my research began.

In time I discovered that in the United States alone, there are 29 towns known as Garden City. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia and Florida each have two! Stepping off this continent, Garden Cities are to be found in Egypt, Malaysia and Japan. You could even count the Garden City Hotel, located in a remote part of northern China, but that would invite attention from various cities that claim Garden City in nickname only -- and I'm damned if I'll let San Jose, California, Vancouver, B.C., and Christchurch, New Zealand, into a group that, to me, should be pretty exclusive. In England and Wales, there's even a utopian movement known as Garden Cities.

It seems as though Garden Cities sprang up simultaneously around the globe, all in hopes of becoming some kind of earthly paradise. But did anyone actually garden in these far-flung places? Does anyone still?

Although the ground was frozen, perhaps I could unearth the truth in our own Garden City.

My second view of the "Welcome to Garden City" sign: It gleams green against a backdrop of brown dirt, gray sky, small houses and light industry. "Life Got You Down?" asks a billboard just north of the city limits. "Let Jesus get you up!" JB's Drive-In has soaped-over windows; apparently it is no longer possible to "buy 12 hamburgers get 1 gal. Root beer free." The Checker Auto, the King's Pawn, the Atomic Car Wash are all deserted. The Village Inn is bustling, but I doubt it's running a dozen-hamburger special, and I kiss my 1 gal. Root beer dreams goodbye.

Garden City's town hall is a small white bungalow that smells faintly of cigarettes. Inside, it's decorated with rust-colored curtains purchased at a garage sale, a historic photograph of the day the Budweiser Clydesdales came to town, and enough chairs to accommodate the seven-member town council. Janis Walter, town clerk, sits at her desk, handling everything.

At the moment, this consists of two very young men in Carhart coveralls who have decided to admit that the fence they built exceeds building code limits.

"Well, you're the ones who called and asked permission and then just went ahead and did it, aren't you?" Janis points out, after considering their meager paperwork. "So really, what is there for me to do about this? You have a six-foot fence you're not supposed to have. I don't see that it's worth me paying for someone to go out and inspect it if it's a done deal."

The Carhart boys leave, relieved.

Garden City has a mayor, but Janis Walter has been running the town since 1990. "Once my granddaughter called me at work and asked me what I was doing, and I had to say I was scrubbing out the toilet," she says. "I guess I really am responsible for everything. Zoning, bookkeeping, managing the town and all that. But I like it, because just about the time you think you have it figured out, they change the rules on you and you have to learn everything all over again."

Janis's hours end at 11:30 a.m., after which the town hall is officially closed to the public. But it is high noon now, and there's no sign of an impending lunch break. In any case, she says, everyone knows her phone number and no one hesitates to use it, so she may as well hang around this afternoon, as anyone who wants her will run her down. She invites me to look over the town's scrapbooks and appears willing to discuss how Garden City came to be.

"As long as you want to hear the down-and-dirty truth," she adds. "Basically, the rumor has it -- and the rumor is basically true -- that a gentleman named A.F. Ray owned this property, and he had a truck garden, and he wanted to sell alcohol. Greeley was dry back then, you know. So he sold watermelons and hollowed them out and filled them with bottles of liquor."

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