Town Story: Montrose

Just beyond the cliffs of Black Canyon lies historic Montrose, agricultural hub and hidden gem of art and adventure.



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Montrose was founded in 1882, when the railroad reached the Uncompahgre Valley. Remnants of that era can be explored outside town at the Museum of the Mountain West, which features a historic saloon, doctors’ offices and the carriage house where boxer Jack Dempsey trained.

The Montrose County Historical Museum, located in the old train station downtown, is another good place to get a feel for life in the city’s early days. Executive Director Sally Johnson leads historic walking tours of Montrose, though she takes a novel approach by leading the tours through alleys, rather than streets. “When people redo the fronts of buildings, they forget about the alleys,” she said. “The alley stays historic.” The behind-the-scenes approach takes the tours past old coal chutes, brick walls dating to 1886 and other everyday aspects of a bygone era.

Montrose is an agricultural hub surrounded by fields of corn, beans and other crops, but that wasn’t always the case. The fertile farmland was dry dirt until the 1909 opening of the Gunnison Tunnel, which blasted 5.8 miles through rock to funnel Gunnison River water from the Black Canyon to the Uncompahgre Valley.

Because of the steady flow of irrigation water, the farmers in the Montrose area had an excellent harvest this year – a stark contrast to the catastrophic drought that has wreaked havoc on farmers elsewhere in the country. John Harold, whose “Olathe Sweet” brand sweet corn is a staple of barbecues nationwide, is grateful for his forebears’ foresight.

“We’re fortunate here, not because we’re smart but because our great-grandparents were, and they punched a hole through the mountain over here,” he said.

Harold has been growing his special variety of sweet corn near Olathe, just north of Montrose, for 30 years. The corn is renowned for being tender, but that quality means it must be harvested by hand; 175 laborers can pick a million ears in a single day. It’s the valley’s sunny climate that makes Olathe Sweet sweet corn so good that it’s in demand at supermarkets from Alaska to Virginia.

The sunshine and the temperature swings bring the sugar up in the corn, Harold said. The temperature in the summer changes 40 degrees from the cool of the morning to heat of the day.

Harold’s sweet corn isn’t the sweetest thing in the valley. That title belongs to the Russell Stover chocolate factory in Montrose. The plant’s 400 employees use vats filled with 25,000 pounds of melted chocolate to produce a mindboggling variety of confections – and they return home each day smelling delicious.

“When my daughter was 5 or 6, I’d come home and change clothes,” said plant manager Paul Minerich. “She’d drape my shirt over her head and walk around smelling chocolate.”

Turtle candies with chocolate, caramel and pecans are among the most popular. Minerich is an “equal-opportunity eater,” though his favorite might be the nut clusters – “to me, almonds and chocolate are pretty tough to beat.”

Making chocolate treats is yet another thing for which Montrose’s location is perfectly suited. If Russell Stover were to put a chocolate coating on a marshmallow center at sea level, the air trapped in the marshmallow would expand when shipped to high elevation, resulting in an exploded (or at least cracked) chocolate shell. At 5,806 feet in elevation, Montrose-made chocolates have no such problem.

 

MONTROSE’S HISTORIC DOWNTOWN has been the heart of the city since its founding, but a population boom in the early 2000s spurred the growth of new developments to the south, drawing business away from the century-old storefronts of Main Street. When the nationwide economic slump arrived four years ago, the downtown shops were hit especially hard.

Bob Brown, owner of Main Street’s Around the Corner art gallery, and other business owners took action, backing a ballot measure that created the Downtown Development Authority to revitalize the area. One of the group’s biggest achievements has been Main in Motion, which closes eight blocks of Main Street every Thursday night during summer for a giant street fair that draws thousands.

Shop owners are adjusting to new economic realities by embracing their individual quirks. “We don’t fight the malls and the Wal-Marts – we supplement them,” Brown said. His own store sells the painting and photography of a large roster of local artists. Neighboring shop Tiffany Etc. is an interior design and furniture boutique, and owner Glee Westcott, who has owned a business downtown for four decades, says the revitalization in the last few years has been remarkable.

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