Johnstown, Colorado, named for one of pioneer Harvey J. Parish’s sons, was incorporated in 1907, and since has become one of the fastest growing communities in northern Colorado. Johnstown is a Home Rule Municipality in Weld and Larimer counties with the town itself spanning just over 13 square miles.
Johnstown began with the vision of Harvey J. Parish. Parish, who was originally from Taylor County, Iowa, had settled on the Big Thompson River just west of Loveland, Colorado with his family. He was said to be an expert with a rifle and rode over every foot of ground between the Big Thompson and Little Thompson rivers while growing up. He was involved in many successful ventures including a steam-threshing outfit, a lumber business, and the construction and operation of many ditch and irrigation enterprises; Parish was the president of the Hillsborough Irrigation Co. for several years and one of the promoters of the Big Cut Lateral Reservoir Ditch Co. In 1893, he was elected county commissioner of Weld County, a position he was voted into for three consecutive terms. In 1894, Parish moved his family about seven miles east of Loveland to a farm.
In the late 1800s, the Great Western Railroad was beginning to move east from Loveland in an effort to secure sugar beets from nearby plants. Parish’s land was ideally located for a town by the railroad and he submitted a plat for “Johnstown” on November 3, 1902. It was originally composed of just a few streets, one of which becoming Parish Avenue in the heart of our historic downtown today. It was named for Parish’s youngest son, John, who at the time was ill with appendicitis at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Denver.
Built with materials hauled from nearby Berthoud, the Fairbairn-Parish Lumber Co. was the first business in Johnstown and supplied lumber for the quickly growing town. The post office and first school opened in 1903 followed by many other businesses including the Johnstown Breeze newspaper in 1904. That year also saw the construction of the First National Bank of Johnstown, of which Parish was an organizer. As with many establishments of that era, fire was a most serious threat. In 1911, many of the buildings on the west side of main street in Johnstown were destroyed by fire. Unrelenting, the town replaced the wood frames with brick and the growth of the town never slowed. Johnstown prospered partly because of the rich irrigated farmland in what is notoriously known as one of the most fertile areas in the United States.
The railroad industry played a big part in the founding and growth of many towns in northern Colorado. As Johnstown was growing in popularity, population and commerce, another town just east was starting down a similar path.
Milliken, Colorado & The Hillsboro Community
Milliken, Colorado began as a trading post on the Denver, Laramie, and Northwestern Railroad in the 1860’s. It was located right next to the Hillsboro community. The two settlements were established as a result of the visionary railroad executives and investors in the area. The trading post, like many other trading posts along the Platte River, was utilized mostly for agricultural products grown locally. Today, Milliken is a statutory town located in Weld County. The town alone sits on 6 square miles of land on the beautiful Colorado Front Range.
The town of Milliken was named after Judge John D. Milliken and was officially established in 1909. Judge Milliken was the President of the Northwestern Land and Iron Company and General Council of a legal department that oversaw three companies involved in the railroad line. The town began to grow rapidly, overlooking the small Hillsboro community and on October 1, 1910, the town of Milliken officially annexed Hillsboro. Growth continued at a steady rate as the town supported over a dozen businesses including a 16-room hotel, a sugar beet dump, and a newspaper – The Milliken Mail.
Just like Johnstown and many other young settlements during those years, devastating fires erupted and destroyed homes and manufacturing and commercial buildings. Around the same time, the Denver, Laramie, and Northwestern Railroad was abandoned and dismantled as a result of legal and financial difficulties. Again, like their close neighbors to the west, the town was unrelenting and destined to succeed. It was a small setback as the railroads and booming agriculture continued to strengthen Milliken’s reputation. The town was widely known for their sugar beets, potatoes, corn, and wheat. Sugar beets, along with cattle feeding, were among the largest exported items during the late 1920s and 30s.
The Great Depression took its toll on the entire country. Maintaining a sustainable economy became increasingly difficult. However, in the midst of the declining economy, the towns of Johnstown and Milliken helped one another endure as they continue to do today, by co-owning and operating several sugar factories together.
In the 1950s two large potato decks were constructed along with a number of Colorado Alfalfa Products (CAP) farms, which were immensely favorable in those days. The late 1960s and early 70s saw the beginning of a huge housing boom, that despite a few quiet years, has continued to present day. Almost overnight, Milliken had a considerable amount of affordable housing units go up in town. In 1985, the town said goodbye to dirt roads and had most of the roads in town paved; a very progressive step at the time.
The housing boom that started in the late 1960s was a fulsome time for Johnstown and Milliken. The two towns have since prided themselves on offering the most affordable homes outside the Denver metro area, not to mention the best scenic views on the front range. A New York-based financial services and analytics website ranked Johnstown 9th and Milliken 1st on the “Top 10 Most Affordable Colorado Cities to Buy a Home” list in 2015. A number of factors were considered such as closing costs, annual property tax, annual homeowner’s insurance, and median income of residents.
Milliken hasn’t skipped a beat since the housing boom by building a community complex in 1996, a public works facility in 2004, and several more mercantile, commercial, governmental, and residential establishments.
Johnstown and Milliken Today
We have been steadily progressing with the times, all the while staying true to our roots. Johnstown is still located in the heart of the northern front range, in a scenic farm valley. Milliken is still the vibrant and friendly town located at the confluence of the Big Thompson and South Platte rivers in what is a true rural Colorado setting. Today, Johnstown and Milliken provide the perfect balance of history, heritage, and progression. The towns are filled with stories of old, archaeological and historical artifacts, and modern works of art.
The towns are roughly 40 miles north of Denver and sit at an elevation of approximately 4,800 ft. Johnstown had a population of nearly 10,000 at the 2010 United States Census and the town of Milliken came in just under 10,000. Those numbers have increased steadily since 2010, as residential structures are being built faster than ever. The communities are diverse and proud, with a mix of people of all ages, and from all walks of life. The majority of residents in the two towns fall within Weld County School District RE-5J, though some of the northwest part of Johnstown falls within Thompson R2-J School District. There are several well-respected schools in both towns including: Pioneer Ridge Elementary, and Roosevelt High School, Knowledge Quest Academy, and Milliken Middle School.
Sites to See
- The Historic Parish House & Museum – Located on the corner of Charlotte and Fremont Streets in Johnstown. This beautiful home was built by town founders Harvey J. and Mary Parish. A tour through the Arts and Crafts style bungalow instills in you the real history of this farm-based community. Here you can thumb through historic artifacts and listen to tales of old about life in the early 1900s.
- Odd Fellows Hotel & The Famous Grain Elevator – Located a few blocks apart on Broad Street in Milliken. The Odd Fellows Hotel and Famous Grain Elevator are only two out of the 100 plus buildings in Milliken that are 50 years old or older. Odd Fellows refers to a number of fraternal organizations, or “friendly societies” that originated in the 18th century in the United Kingdom. The Famous Grain Elevator on the east end of town has been coined Milliken’s “Cathedral on the Plains.”
- Fort Vasquez & Fort St. Vrain – Fort Vasquez is just south of Milliken on HWY 85 and not far from there is the Platteville Museum. Fort Vasquez was a fur-trading post in the 1830s where early settlers and American Indians came to trade goods. Another trading post nearby, Fort St. Vrain, is where the Platteville Museum sits now.
- The Dent Site or Dent Mounds – Located in Milliken, this 11,000 year-old archaeological dig site holds evidence of man existing alongside the woolly mammoth. The site was discovered when Frank Garner, a railroad employee, stumbled upon large animal bones sticking out of the ground after a period of heavy rainfall and flooding in 1932. The site is located alongside the South Platte River and is evidence that these animals and other prehistoric mammals once roamed throughout our peaceful countryside.
- The Johnstown Meteorite – At approximately 4:30 in the afternoon on July 6, 1924, an airplane engine-like sound suddenly shook the entire community of Johnstown. Residents looked up and saw a trail of smoke emblazoned across the blue sky followed by a series of more loud explosions. Many reported seeing black stone falling from the sky and “thuds” and “thumps” where they landed. What had fallen was a meteorite, more specifically a calcium-poor diogenite. The black stones, 27 in all, were fusion crusted and had a total weight of 88.9 pounds (the heaviest stone weighed in at 51.8 pounds). One piece fell on the front steps of a church and disrupted a funeral service. The overall noise factor and sudden cessation thereof ended a local baseball game.