Colorado Prairie Towns: A Pictorial History of Agate, Deer Trail, Byers, and Strasburg

Susan Eldringhoff and Deer Trail Pioneer Historical Society

Virginia Beach, VA: The Donning Company Publishers, 2011. 208 pages. Black-and-white photographs. 7” x 10”. $24.00 paperback.

Erin Holzhauser

Past the farthest reaches of the Denver Metro Area, the drive on east I-70 might seem to traverse only barren prairie, but a glance at the pages of Colorado Prairie Towns puts this illusion to rest. Compiled by Susan Eldringhoff of the Deer Trail Pioneer Historical Society, Colorado Prairie Towns reminds the east I-70 traveler that the names on the highway signs represent real towns, not just gas stations. Some of the towns became quite sizable during their heyday and continue to be viable, if small, communities today. Strasburg, Byers, Deer Trail, and Agate line the highway in that order between Bennett, which sits on the farthest eastern edge of the Denver Metropolitan Area, and Limon, the largest township before the Colorado-Nebraska boarder.

As a pictorial history, Colorado Prairie Towns chronicles these towns through a collection of images organized into four sections—one per town. The section for Deer Trail dwarfs the other three, but the book represents all four towns well. Since members of each local historical society contributed information on their own town, each section speaks primarily to its own residents, with captions both informative and fun. For example, an aerial photo of Byers is accompanied by the comment, “It looks like June Floreth was out and about, as her garage door is open!” (158).

Colorado Prairie Towns does not offer a comprehensive history but instead a useful collection of photographs focusing on the buildings and the people who owned them. For this reason, the book would benefit from a greater degree of historical and geographical information. Though this might not be necessary for town residents, contextual information would aid readers at large. At least one map would help locate these towns in Colorado; after all, even a Coloradan may not immediately know where Agate, Deer Trial, Byers or Strasburg are. Also, even though the book focuses on the images from the past, at least one present-day photo of the each town would help readers to recognize it as they traveled through.

Each of the book’s four sections opens with a brief introduction to the town’s beginnings, detailing the first settlers and the establishment of the first post office. Beyond that, however, it offers little information to someone curious about the greater historical context of the Colorado plains; hence, for those readers interested in a detailed and professional account of the settlement of the plains, this book would be of little assistance. Furthermore, all four towns suffered floods, and the section on Deer Trail contains an extensive series of photos of flood damage; but nowhere in the book do the authors discuss the source of the flooding, though Bijou Creek would seem to be a reasonable source. This lack of contextual discussion might bother readers searching for why and how these homesteaders arrived in Colorado or how the eastern prairie towns fit into the greater history of the West.

However, Colorado Prairie Towns can be appreciated for what it is rather than blamed for what it is not. The authors clearly want to preserve an extensive collection of photographs and tidbits of information for town residents. Photographs appear generally in chronological order, although some are grouped  together thematically. Captions accompanying the photos point out every visible structure, and the book clearly emphasizes each town’s buildings. When townspeople are discussed, it is primarily in conjunction with a building. More than anything else, the book is a catalog of information about the buildings in these four towns, whether standing or not. The historical societies of Agate, Deer Trail, Byers, and Strasburg wisely published what photos and information they had in order to promote historic preservation.

For readers interested in looking at photographs of these once-bustling farming towns, Colorado Prairie Towns offers visual appeal and brief information bites. The Agate section is ordered chronologically. The more extensive Deer Trail is organized thematically and includes informational sidebars, such as the fact that Deer Trail is the recognized home of the first rodeo. The Byers section also organizes its subject thematically and juxtaposes older photos with the most recent building images; also, its captions update the reader on the function of the building today. For example, a two-page spread shows Herb’s Barber Shop in the 1930s and as it looked in 1984, along with a caption to tell the reader about the current incarnation of the building. The Strasburg section is the shortest in the book and highlights the significance of railroads in the town’s history.

 Altogether, this neighborly collection of photographs will delight and inform readers interested in these small prairie towns.

Reviewer Info: 

Erin Holzhauser is a graduate student in history at the University of Colorado Denver focusing on the history of East Asian and the American West. She graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in history from Regis University in 2006. She has worked as a museum educator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science since 2001.