Life in Fort Lupton

Joshua Hardin

Fort Lupton might be the most uncategorizable city in Colorado.

You can group most cities by region: Fort Collins is on the Northern Front Range, Fort Morgan is on the Plains, Denver is in the Denver metro area. But Fort Lupton isn’t so easy to pin down.

It is close enough to Denver that people often commute to work there, but just far enough away – 25 miles north on U.S. Highway 85 – that it isn’t really part of the metro area. Fort Lupton feels a lot like a Plains community, with its surrounding farm fields and small-town Main Street, but how can it be on the Plains if it’s so close to the peaks of the Front Range?

When the first version of Fort Lupton was founded, it was a lot simpler to figure out where it stood in relation to other Colorado cities – mainly because there were no other Colorado cities. 

The original Fort Lupton was one of four fur-trade posts that sprang up in the 1830s along a 15-mile stretch of the South Platte River. Beyond them, there were no permanent structures for at least 150 miles in any direction. The fort’s founder, Lancaster Lupton, named it after himself, twice: He first called it Fort Lancaster before switching to Fort Lupton.

Plains Indians and mountain men met here to trade their buffalo robes and beaver pelts for manufactured goods. Fort Lupton began as a cultural crossroads – something that has remained true to this day.

The trading post lasted less than a decade. It was a pile of crumbling adobe bricks by the time the city of Fort Lupton was founded in 1889. Yet the site of the old fort today looks much as it did in its fur-trade heyday. 

In 2004, the South Platte Valley Historical Society broke ground on an ambitious project to build an exact replica of Lancaster Lupton’s fort. It took seven years, 25,000 hours of volunteer labor and major donations of building materials from local businesses, but the rebuilt fort opened to fireworks and a gala celebration in 2011. The reconstructed Fort Lupton, called “Fort Lancaster” or “Lupton’s Fort” to avoid confusion with the city, is the centerpiece of the South Platte Valley Historic Park, open 10 a.m.-4 p.m., May through October.

People in Fort Lupton didn’t stop making history in the old days. At the Fort Lupton City Museum, just a few minutes’ drive south of the park, one of the most recent acquisitions is a painted portrait of a living man, Fort Lupton native Brian Shaw. He has gained international renown for winning the World’s Strongest Man competition four times – 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2016 – and for finishing in the top three in nine of the past 10 contests. 

Shaw, who stands 6-feet-8 and weighs more than 400 pounds, travels the world to compete in events that have him lifting 800-pound tree trunks and pulling fully loaded semi trucks. He trains for the latter event right in his hometown, with an assist from the Fort Lupton Fire Protection District.

“When Brian first asked if he could pull a fire truck, we did not hesitate, after getting over the shock of, ‘You wanna do what?’ ” Fire Chief Phil Tiffany said. 

Shaw comes by every month or so to pull fire trucks weighing as much as 40 tons, he said. Although it’s become a routine sight for the firefighters, it never ceases to amaze.

“We love having Brian,” Tiffany said. “He is a very humble and thankful person, for being such a huge person.”

Shaw even joined the fire department as a volunteer before his rigorous training schedule got in the way. Besides, it was tough finding gear that fit him.

Fire Trucks aren’t the only big red trucks rumbling around Fort Lupton. Oil-extraction giant Halliburton has a major facility employing hundreds just south of town.

Each morning, convoys of Halliburton’s signature red semi trucks depart from a parking lot the size of a football field, while workers in jumpsuits and hard hats buzz around the massive row of garages. 

Oil is a way of life in Fort Lupton, which sits on top of a 7,500-foot-deep section of the Niobrara formation in the Denver-Julesburg Basin, one of the nation’s top-producing oil basins. More than 70 million years ago, the Great Plains lay on a sea floor. Organic matter collected in layers and was eventually preserved in sediment. High pressure, heat and many millions of years converted the matter into oil. As Fort Lupton’s farmers harvest crops on the surface of the earth, they also seek to harvest the oil below, and they call on Halliburton to help them extract it.

Like many big companies, Halliburton donates to local charities, but Fort Lupton’s branch tries to engage the community in a more personal way: A group of a dozen Halliburton volunteers equipped with shovels and weed-whackers scout out the homes of elderly people in need and give their yards a makeover. 

“A bunch of rough and tough guys can lend a hand, so we do,” said Jake Pinkelman, an assistant district manager and a member of the volunteer committee.
At lunchtime, red Halliburton trucks head to Denver Avenue, where most of the stores and eateries of downtown Fort Lupton can be found.

The Italian restaurant Wholly Stromboli is one of the most popular places to eat, though its name isn’t entirely accurate: In addition to stromboli, the menu features pizza, spaghetti and a host of made-from-scratch Italian dishes.

Melissa Rickman runs the restaurant, which she and her husband, Eric, own. The Brooklyn-themed establishment harkens back to her childhood on the East Coast, but she couldn’t imagine having it anywhere but Fort Lupton. Residents embraced her plan to revamp the century-old St. John Building for her restaurant.

“When we were working on it, people would knock on the door and offer to help,” Rickman said. “They would say, ‘I can hang drywall, I can paint.’ It was the coolest thing.”

In 2014, the Rickmans remodeled the building’s basement and turned it into a space for private events – but it was to be no ordinary banquet room. Inspired by the Prohibition-era liquor bottles they found while cleaning up the historic building, they turned it into a speakeasy. To get into the private dinners downstairs, guests must give the predesignated password to the intimidating doorman, aka pizza cook Rick Baker. No password – no admittance.


For the rest of the story see the September/October 2018 issue of Colorado Life.

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