A Run for the Border

Shoenberg Farm
7255 Sheridan Boulevard, Westminster
5:11 a.m.

An hour before dawn, a lunar eclipse suddenly darkens the sky, leaving only the glow of neon signs from convenience stores and fast-food outlets and the never-ending stream of headlights along Sheridan. But back behind the brick silo, it's dark and quiet, so quiet that you can almost imagine what life was like a century ago along this edge of the rolling prairie, along what's become Denver's true border street, a ribbon of asphalt that today stretches from the town of Erie — where it ends in a Weld County landfill — down more than thirty miles to Ken Caryl Ranch, cutting across at least five counties, along Denver's western edge and through the towns of Broomfield, Westminster, Arvada, Wheat Ridge, Lakeside, Edgewater, Lakewood, Sheridan, Bow Mar and Littleton along the way.

A century ago, the farmers who worked this land would already be well into their day. But there are no working farms left along this strip, where the growth crops appear to be self-storage units and churches and retirement homes. There is just the shuttered Shoenberg Farm, which is once again planting seeds of hope for the future.

The front of the brick bungalow facing Sheridan pronounces that this property is supported by the Colorado State Historical Fund. To find out more, you have to go to the web, to www.shoenbergfarm.com, where the City of Westminster lays out the tale in detail. The farm was founded in 1911 by Louis Shoenberg, who'd made his fortune in the department-store business with David May and had already moved from Denver when National Jewish Hospital asked him to build the farm. But Shoenberg was willing to help because he'd lost his only son, Dudley, to tuberculosis, and dairy products were considered vital to the treatment of tuberculosis patients. Shoenberg donated the farm to NJH the next year, and in 1921, NJH sold the 800-acre farm to Jacob Tepper, a Jewish dairyman who'd fled the pogroms in Poland. Tepper kept the Shoenberg name and continued the mission of supplying dairy products and eggs to health-care institutions as well as grocers. In a delicious side note, the farm also served as the headquarters for the Dolly Madison Ice Cream stores, which operated throughout Denver from 1941 until 2001.

By then, the Shoenberg Farm had also ceased operations. Vicky Bunsen, community-development programs coordinator for the City of Westminster, first remembers seeing the boarded-up site in 2002, the year Westminster started its historic preservation program, and wondering, "What's that?" By the time a "For Sale" sign showed up on the property two years later, she knew — and was ready. She'd learned all about the importance of Louis Shoenberg, who'd died in 1942 after decades of philanthropic projects; she also knew what the twentieth-century sanatorium movement had meant to Denver, and it was a lot more than a few attention-grabbing headlines when Andrew Speaker was briefly housed at National Jewish earlier this year. And with a Wal-Mart going up just to the south and Village Homes planning to build 125 homes to the west, she knew what would happen to this section of Sheridan once the property was sold.

So she contacted Jerry Tepper, the family representative who had the parcel under contract with a developer. "I started talking to him about saving it," she says. "Finally, they agreed to carve out a three-and-a-half-acre parcel, subject to a two-year option." The parcel included the part of the farm where five circa-1911 buildings still stand, the part that offers traffic passing by on Sheridan a glimpse of the past. For now.

Because the agreement only allows Westminster to acquire the property at commercial prices, for the same amount the developer had to pay. And that's "a big pile of money," Bunsen says, estimating it will run $10 to $15 a square foot. The developer has already fronted Westminster $30,000 for a historic assessment, and last year she leveraged that for another $25,000 from the State Historical Fund, one of more than 3,100 grants — totaling $192,000,000 — that the state has given since it started distributing gambling proceeds more than fifteen years ago. Still, that's a drop in the milk bucket compared with the final sale price. "Since January, I've been working very hard to see what we can get in a two-year period," says Bunsen. "I'm still struggling to get the money together."

Collecting the history has been much easier. "I do a lot of tours there," she explains. "What I emphasize is that this isn't just a farm, just a dairy farm in Westminster. This was built specifically at the request of National Jewish Hospital to provide dairy products for tubercular patients. But it's a story not only of Jewish immigration to Colorado, but also kind of a civil-rights issue, because Jake Tepper couldn't be a farmer in Poland." But he could in this country, and he worked eighteen-hour days on this farm until he died.