The Plot Thickens
John Johnston

The Plot Thickens

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.

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."

Old newspaper accounts describe how A.F. Ray decided to incorporate his truck garden as a city, for the sole purpose of issuing liquor licenses. The name he proposed in 1935 was Garden City, as in, "Hey, on your way over to the barbecue, why don't you stop by 'Garden City' and pick up a few of those 'watermelons?'" His Greeley neighbors, who bought plenty of alcohol, were nevertheless scandalized at the idea of doing it legally. A.F. Ray's battle with the Colorado Secretary of State and the Weld County District Attorney dragged on for three years, eventually going all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court, with the Greeley Tribune covering the story every step of the way.

"There are five gambling dens in the proposed city," the paper reported in February 1935. "The district attorney says he will attack the constitutionality of Garden City's restaurant licenses. They are saloons, and saloons are unconstitutional." That same year, Ray and his wife, Ida, accused the Colorado political machine of "conspiring to destroy Garden City."

In 1936, reports of "much intoxication" made the news; it also was suspected that a petition signed by the 38 inhabitants of A.F. Ray's truck farm/"cottage camp" might prove invalid, since a few of the signees were babies.

As late as June 1938, a headline read "Garden City Isn't There Anymore, High Court Says." But two months later, the town finally became official when A.F. Ray conducted its first order of business: issuing a liquor license to his own bar. The Nob Hill Tavern served a vast selection of "hi-balls," including the Tailspin -- described on old menus as a "picker-upper" -- and the Blitzkrieg, a "layer-downer." Either one would set you back 50 cents.

"He did a fine business," Janis says, "and he was mayor forever. This is because -- and this is only a rumor, although I think the rumor is probably true -- he picked the boardmembers himself and made sure he got elected whenever he wanted to be."

With the University of Northern Colorado just a few blocks north and Greeley still dry as a bone, the taverns of Garden City flourished, and the town's scrapbook reflects those heady days. "Our first bartender!" one caption reads. Bars like the Elixir Faucet, the White Horse Tavern and Spike's Place burst forth. Across Eighth Avenue, the tiny, booze-centric enclave of Rosedale appeared, named after Rose Kendrick, wife of founder Ed Kendrick, who'd gotten his start by selling moonshine hidden deep within sacks of potatoes.

"What more is there to say, except that Garden City has always been considered the negative side of the rest of Greeley?" Janis asks. "We have fought hard to get away from that center-of-sin image."

It's been an uphill battle. Despite the fact that Greeley finally legalized alcohol in 1968, Garden City's reputation has hung on. Old-timers still refer to the town as "Boozeville," and a Greeley reporter called it "a municipal wart on Greeley's south end" not six months ago. (When I called the Greeley Municipal Archive looking for more in the way of historic material, I was told, "Garden City? Why, it's just a den of thieves where folks go to get juiced!")

It would help if Garden City had developed into more of a garden spot, but with the exception of a few faded photos of A.F. Ray tending his rosebushes in a natty fedora, there is no evidence that any plants thrived in this town after the watermelons vanished.

"Oh, A.F., he spent time in his yard," Janis laughs. "The story goes -- and it may just be a story -- that Lewis Yeddis, who lived in front of A.F. Ray, heard a bunch of gunshots very early one morning. He goes outside -- that's what people did in those days, they didn't call 911, they went out to investigate -- and there's A.F. Ray in his bathrobe, shooting pigeons. 'Those goddamn birds,' he says. 'They make too much goddamn noise, and I'm making sure they quiet down.'"

In the mid-'70s, when Ida Ray died, obituaries portrayed her as a charming old-school eccentric whose motto was "all things come to those who hustle while they wait" and who claimed to have been a lifelong teetotaler. Naturally, Janis has a different version: "The story goes -- and really, maybe it's just a story -- that Ida went around to all the bars every day and always sat up at the bar and had a cup of coffee, and the bartenders always put a shot into her cup. People would ask her why she didn't just fix coffee at home, and she'd say she never could get it to taste right."

After A.F. Ray's death in 1973, the town's management was spread among a few individuals -- most notably Mary Miller, who'd come to work as a bartender at the Rosedale Inn in the '50s and never left. During her tenure as mayor, the hand-painted Christmas party invitations featured intricate representations of garden crops and permission to enjoy "one cocktail on us." Mayor Miller passionately defended Garden City's reputation through a series of scandals, which ranged from a roving-dog problem to whispers of all-nude dancing, the occasional stabbing and several hotly contested mayoral elections.

"We've even had a recount," Janis recalls. "It wasn't as time-consuming as that one in Florida, though, because even though the guy won by only one vote, we only had to recount all thirty ballots." That's a voter turnout rate of nearly 12 percent of all the town's residents; Garden City's population has always ranged between 200 and 300 souls, even after the annexation of Rosedale in 1987.

"But that's not as small as it sounds," Janis adds. "We have more than sixty businesses and still only eleven liquor licenses. I doubt if there were ever more than that. We contract with the town of Evans for police protection, and we're building a new town hall. People won't have to wait in the kitchen anymore to be heard at board meetings. And we're very frugal. The entire town has always operated in the black. Just this morning, the guy who mows our lawn was complaining about the state of the town lawnmower, and I said, 'Howard, stop complaining. I'll have you know Garden City's lawnmower was bought new in 1987.'"

A few years later a handful of rural Colorado towns banded together to push for limited-stakes gambling. With an eye to staying in the black, Garden City asked to be included in the cartel but was turned down. Not for lack of colorful history, but of picturesque settings. Central City it ain't.

And in perhaps the ultimate irony, Alcoholics Anonymous recently established a stronghold in Garden City, and its members have been squabbling over parking rights with the owners of the defunct Hangar bar.

"We don't have a town celebration, but we do National Night Out the first week in August," Janis says. "Everyone turns on their porch lights, showing that we're a community and we do look out for each other. This year we roasted a pig and invited everyone. We had a better turnout than other years, when we just served hotdogs. It was kind of a come-out-and-meet-your-neighbors thing."

I am ready to meet the neighbors -- gardens or no gardens. I consider a night of Garden City bar-hopping with Janis, whom I have come to like very much, and who even gave me several glasses of root beer.

"Please, honey," she says. "I'm way too old for bars. Besides, this Boozeville thing is dated. Give us a break."

To: Samantha, media relations at

In 1935, A.F. Ray of Weld County, Colorado, placed into cultivation a ten-acre watermelon farm. His watermelons were popular, possibly for their refreshing qualities on a hot, dry day, but more probably because Mr. Ray hollowed them out and hid whiskey bottles inside of them.

As you may or may not know, Greeley, the largest town in Weld County, was dry from its inception as a utopian community envisioned by Horace "Go West, Young Man" Greeley until 1968. Not coincidentally, Mr. Ray's watermelon patch was located on the southernmost border of Greeley, not far from the town of Eaton, which gave rise to the popular phrase: "A.F. Ray's? Why, it's just between Eaton and drinkin'."

As a Front Range gardener who has never produced a watermelon any larger than a baseball, let alone one big enough to house a whiskey bottle, I would like to learn from Mr. Ray's success. But I cannot seem to find a watermelon in his original stomping grounds -- a town now known as Garden City -- and believe me, I've looked. There is an absence of melons at the Libation Station, the White Horse Tavern, even the Sav-A-Lot Food Store. An aerial photograph of Garden City, kindly shared with me by Town Clerk Janis Walter, shows scarcely a patch of green, let alone the type of rich, cultivated soils that produce watermelons. And yet, they once thrived here.

It's up to you, Samantha, media liaison to the influential Watermelon Promotions Board. Will you help me solve this historic riddle? What strain of watermelon could Mr. Ray have been raising at the dawn of Garden City? Below are the only clues I have:

Mr. Ray is known to have come from either Georgia or Alabama -- and he also had a criminal record for moonshining in Kentucky. These are all prime melon states, I think you'll agree. Is there a Deep South melon seed that would thrive in Colorado?

Garden City is located in USDA Climate Zone 5, with feedlots on two sides of it, hence, abundant sources of manure, if Mr. Ray cared to use them.

The melons would have had to be big enough, as well as shapely enough, to hide a whiskey bottle. I imagine we are talking about a certain amount of structural integrity here, as well.

I await your educated response.

What I get from the Watermelon Promotions Board is no response at all. So I call a cell-phone number kindly provided by the Weld County agricultural extension office that's answered by Jerry Aldritch, soil and crops agronomist. He's about to "start in with an alfalfa meeting," but the matter of the watermelon and the whiskey bottle stops him in his tracks.

"Whoa," Jerry says, "that's quite a situation. On one hand, a whiskey bottle just isn't all that big. On the other hand, it isn't all that small! I tell you -- call Mike Bartolo, our vegetable crop specialist. He's quite a melon enthusiast."

"There are so many old varieties of melon," Mike says, when I reach him at his research farm in -- where else? -- Rocky Ford, Colorado's melon capital. "I bet Mr. Ray grew an all-sweet. It could have been Crimson Sweet, developed at Kansas State. It's a terrific melon. But then, I doubt it. Crimson Sweet dates to the 1960s, not the 1930s. In a way," he continues, sounding glum, "I have no idea."

But he perks up when I mention A.F. Ray's ties to the old South.

"In the South, they like a darker, greener melon with fewer stripes," Mike explains. "They may well like their melons more elongated and less basketball-shaped. In different localities," he sums up, "people have different tastes in melon."

It's time to study the melon file at the Greeley Municipal Archive, where archivists Betty and Joanne have already been alerted to my interest in all things Boozeville. To date, I am the only person who's ever asked to see the Garden City materials -- other than a "very nice man" who claimed to be writing a Ph.D. thesis on the subject, promised to send along the manuscript as soon as it was written, and never delivered. (Janis Walter also spent an afternoon with this man and received the same false promise.)

I'm sad to report that the melon file is a travesty. It contains:

· a ripped photo of pumpkins on the vine.

· an intact photo of a busted-open Rocky Ford melon.

· a "novelty" postcard, dated 1910, featuring a mule team loaded down with six giant watermelons, obviously retouched according to the jackalope school of exaggeration. The handwritten message on the back reads: "Emma -- come over and eat melons with us. They sure are fine and lots of them. Hope Ora is still better. We are all OK. Minnie."

The card is addressed to a Mrs. P.E. Boyle of Greeley, but the postmark is illegible. Was Minnie an early resident of A.F. Ray's cottage camp? Is her story lost in the soil of time?

Current Garden City mayor Bob Warren may know the answer. Answering Garden City questions is his job.

"Actually, it's Janis who does everything," Mayor Warren admits. "I'm quite good friends with the mayor of Greeley, and we golf together quite a bit, and sometimes I say to him, 'Hey, you got a municipal problem, you got seven staffers around to solve it, right?' And then I tell him, 'Hey, if I have a problem, I just call Janis and say, "What do we do now?"' And she always knows."

Bob Warren and his wife, Betty -- who also serves on the town council -- live in an apartment above the former Spike's Place, now known as the Libation Station (featuring darts, karaoke and "a lotta that college-kid music I can't stand," Bob says). For him, returning to an apartment above a bar after decades in other towns and other careers was nothing more than the continuation of a family tradition.

"My grandfather was A.F. Ray's partner," he explains. "Only we called him Little Ray, because he was not very big. Little Ray couldn't get a liquor license because of his criminal record, so my grandfather helped him out. So my family are Garden City natives. Garden City in the '40s and '50s -- it was wide open. It was where you went to get a cocktail, and the people who lived here were considered heathens. People said it was a bad place -- but guess where they'd be on Friday night? My grandfather did very well selling liquor to those hypocrites."

Now in his third year as mayor, Bob is too involved in town politics to ever consider leaving. It irks him that one of the main bits of city business is "fighting the reputation of 1935. It's dumb, because in actuality, we have the toughest liquor law of any little town," he points out. "Twenty years ago, half our revenues came from liquor. Now it's less than 25 percent. We don't intend to keep sticking in tavern after tavern, and we probably won't give out another liquor license ever -- period. Not only that, we're a town with no debt, and we just got a $175,000 grant from the Energy Impact Council. We're going to use this money and impact this town."

With gardens full of watermelons, perhaps?

"Yeah, but the cost of our water is awful," Bob replies. "It'd cost anyone a bundle to water a yard in Garden City. Way back when, our water system was owned by a private individual, but then he went and sold the whole thing to Greeley, and they charge us their out-of-district rates. I need an answer to that problem, I'll tell you."

Maybe Janis can figure out what to do.

In the meantime, she has come up with two Garden City yards that show evidence of cultivation, even if they're not outright melon plantations. The first belongs to former mayor Mary Miller, who runs a seamstress business out of her home, and her husband Eddie, whose parents moved to Garden City in the 1950s to take over ownership of the Rosedale Inn.

"Oh, well, I take care of the lawn and grow a few flowers," Eddie says modestly. "I've never grown a melon, and I never knew A.F. Ray personally, although I've lived here forty years. I remember the first day I came here, and all I could smell was the cow manure, and I thought, man, this is cornball. But I wouldn't trade it for nothing now, and I wouldn't go live in a big city if you paid me."

Before coming to Garden City as a teenager, he'd traveled the country with his parents, who performed "knockabout comedy" in vaudeville shows. They'd settled briefly in Santa Monica, where Eddie put his budding keyboard talent to use playing "the California sound." But his uncle, one of the earliest Rosedale investors, invited the Millers out to take over the inn, and the opportunity seemed too good to pass up.

"I mean, everything else was dry, all the way to Laramie," Eddie recalls. "My dad took over in 1956. He changed the name to the Club Lido, and we booked shows from Denver. And strippers -- when strippers were strippers. I had the band that played along with them, and I kept on playing -- classics, jazz, the California sound. I just finished a ten-year gig at the U-Park Holiday Inn in Fort Collins."

Forty-three years ago, Mary, his future wife, walked into the Club Lido and was instantly hired as a bartender. The two have worked together, on one project or another, ever since. But their main source of pride is the 120-acre municipality of Garden City.

"Oh, well, it's nice," Eddie says, affecting unconcern. "It's quiet. It's no big deal."

The second possibly fertile yard belongs to Dennis and Nina Kendrick -- and Janis is right that it looks promising. Even in winter, there's unmistakable evidence that a gardener with a strong personality is waiting in the wings for spring.

"No, it looks pretty pathetic," Nina says. "We have sand blowing in all over the grass. But I do have quite a collection of old farm equipment. They practically give it away out east if you'll just get it off their land. I like it because each piece tells a story on its own."

In summer, the old, rusted cornhusker and rake cutter are surrounded by lilies, tulips, jonquils, crocuses and "almost any flower you might want," Nina adds. "I have alliums. You should get you some. Even when the flowers fall off they look nice. When I lived in Rock Springs, Wyoming, I used to get dried manure and scatter it everywhere. If I could do that here, my flowers would look even better, but I'm not about to pay for some manure."

Which is why she no longer bothers with edible vegetables. "I used to," she says. "And of course I grew watermelons. Watermelons and mushmelons. Jeez, but they were a good size -- basketball or bigger."

Big enough to serve as a whiskey bottle stash?

"Sure," Nina says, without missing a beat. "And they weren't no particular variety, either. I just picked up a seed packet at the Wal-Mart or wherever. And drowned 'em in Miracle-Gro. There is a secret, though, to growing a watermelon in Garden City."

I wait, holding my breath.

"You don't let 'em vine out. Make sure there's only a couple of flowers on each plant, and cut all the rest of the vines way back. No, I don't know if that's how A.F. Ray did it. My husband might."

"I knew him," Dennis says. "He was one sharp businessman. A.F. Ray looked out for A.F. Ray. My Uncle Ed, who ran the Rosedale Inn in the beginning, was different. He was a real quiet man who always spoke godly and never spent a cent on anything until he was too old to enjoy it. I learned from that. I live life."

After growing up in Garden City, Dennis became a carpet layer in Greeley, then a gas-field worker in Wyoming. He came back ten years ago to care for his and Nina's aging parents, all of whom have since died. "But my dad built this house a little at a time, and I was so attached to it," Dennis explains. "We bought it and moved back in."

Since then, he says, he's seen disturbing changes in his boyhood town. His wife heard the gunshots one night last month when a security guard was shot to death in the parking lot of the El Toro Bravo Inn, which occupies the original home of A.F. Ray's Nob Hill; he suspects drugs arrive in town off the bus from El Paso; his own renter recently was held up at gunpoint and relieved of her car.

"It makes me nervous, but I'm too proud to be chased away," he says. "And I want to see what we can do about all this. And I want our neighborhood back, with our average garden in our average yard. Nothing spectacular. Nothing to put us on the map. Just a name, really."


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >