IT’S THE KIND of place where you can buy a sack of chicken feed at Niwot Rental & Feed, then stroll next door and buy a Porsche from Gunbarrel Import Motors. Further up Second Avenue, the town’s historic main street, you can stop by Niwot’s hip art galleries for the First Friday Art Walk before going to the Hitching Post to buy a saddle, bridle and other horse tack.

In this rural-cosmopolitan arts hamlet where creative traditionalism is the norm, it’s not unusual to hear the marching band follow John Phillips Sousa’s “Star and Stripes Forever” with Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”

The band’s full name is the Niwot Community Semi-Marching Free Grange Band. Semi-marching?

“We outgrew the flatbed trailer we used in parades, so some of us march and some of us ride on the trailer,” said Bruce “Biff” Warren, who helped found the band.

Warren is a trombonist in the band, partner in a Niwot law firm, editor of the local monthly paper, The Left Hand Valley Courier, and is considered by some to be Niwot’s unofficial mayor (which he politely denies).

Unofficial because Niwot doesn’t have an official mayor, because technically speaking, the town of Niwot is not a town at all — it’s an unincorporated part of Boulder County. But Niwot’s status as an unofficial town has done nothing to stop it from developing a distinct town identity and town pride. There are probably few towns, official or otherwise, that can rival Niwot in parades per capita. Not having a mayor or city council has drawn Niwotians (rhymes with “oceans”) together.

“Because there’s no city government, if we want to get something done, we have to do it ourselves,” Warren said. “We have to get volunteers in the community, and that makes people more invested in the community.”

Niwot takes its name from Chief Niwot, an Arapaho Indian leader who welcomed white settlers to the area in the 1859. Niwot is Arapaho for “Left Hand,” which explains why the town is in Left Hand Valley near Left Hand Canyon and Left Hand Creek. Niwot, the man, was among the 163 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho people killed at the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864; it’s said that he stood with arms folded in the midst of the bloodshed, re
fusing to fight, before he was struck down.

The town took form in 1873 as a railroad stop midway between the larger cities of Boulder and Longmont. It reached its agricultural heyday in the first decades of the 20th century, as farmers from the surrounding fields would come to Niwot to load their sugar beets onto trains.

The trains don’t stop in Niwot anymore, and beet-laden wagons no longer crowd the street at harvest time, but the legacy of trains and farming is still apparent everywhere you look. Niwot is home to Left Hand Grange No. 9, the state’s oldest active grange, a fraternal organization originally for farmers that is focused these days more generally on community service.

“Over the years, the demographics have changed considerably,” said Anne Dyni, Niwot historian and author of Niwot, Colorado: Birth of a Railroad Town. “The grange kept current, not with farmers but with community people as members.”

The white, two-story Grange Hall, built in 1907 and still the tallest building in town, serves as a hub for the community.
It hosts an array of meetings, including performances of the Semi-Marching Free Grange Band. The Grange Hall anchors the Old Town Historic District along Second Avenue, a block of storefronts that’s been preserved to look much as it did a century ago.

Second Avenue – all two or so blocks of it – remains the heart of Niwot. Take an afternoon to walk down the street and chat with the shopkeepers and you get a neat portrait of the town in microcosm. Or if you start your tour at the west end of the street, where it meets the Boulde-rLongmont diagonal highway, you can see an actual portrait of the town in the form of a 160-by-25-foot mural called “The Spirit of Niwot.”

The massive mural fills the entire side of the Excel Electric building facing the highway, a folksy interpretation of Niwot landmarks painted last year by local artist Denise Chamberlain with help from the considerable artistic talent of the town’s citizens.

“We have so many musicians and artists that live in this town, it’s crazy,” Chamberlain said. “There are some really special places on the planet that draw people to them – like here. Everybody’s something else, but also an artist.”

It took her four months to paint, during the hottest summer on record, standing atop a four-wheel scissor lift. It was hard work, but the project had a sweet upside – the building that served as the mural canvas also housed a bakery, My Mom’s Pies.

“All summer long, the smell of pies is wafting out these windows,” Chamberlain said. “They gave me pie every day – and they make the best pies.” 

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Ambling into town, the wide main street and red brick storefronts give Niwot an unmistakably Old West character. If you came here just a few decades ago, you’d hear the clanging of iron and anvil coming from the blacksmith shop. But the blacksmith is gone, and it’s now the strains of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” that emanate from his former shop, which is now the home of Rockin’ Robin’s Retro & Resale.

The classic rock soundtrack comes courtesy of the free jukebox put inside the shop by Rockin’ Robin Abb, owner of the vintage clothing boutique that lives up to its motto “Bop While You Shop.” The store has the requisite fashions to pull off any look from film noir to disco, and its proprietress lends it a flair all her own. Abb’s everyday wardrobe flirts with the outrageous, and she seems determined to live up to the feisty demeanor associated with fellow redheads.

Abb started Rockin’ Robin’s more than a decade ago, following stints as a women’s rights advocate in Washington, D.C., and as an actor and stand-up comedian in Los Angeles (her showbiz career included a bit part in the short-lived Mel Brooks sitcom Nutt House and a bigger role in the film Killer Tomatoes Strike Back!). She started yet another career as one of Niwot’s biggest boosters when she realized that the best way for her business to succeed was to have the town succeed.

“Niwot’s kind of a secret, even though 80,000 people drive back and forth on the highway every day,” Abb said.

The trick is to let the rest of the state in on the secret. Working toward that end, Abb helped created a series of free concerts every Thursday in summer, which is now in its eighth year. Rock N Rails, as it’s come to be known, is put on by a cooperative effort of Ni-wot Prairie Productions, the Niwot Cultural Arts Association and the Niwot Business Association at the gazebo bandstand in Whistle Stop Park, right next to the train tracks and near an old caboose. Big-name Colorado musicians like Hazel Miller and FACE play there while the town comes to party with their neighbors. And it’s pretty much guaranteed that at some point in the concert, a train will pass by.

“Everybody freaks out and starts screaming and waving,” Chamberlain said. “The train honks its horn and the band figures out what to do – sometimes they shift into a train song.”

The railroad features prominently in the latest effort to draw in passing motorists with a roadside sign declaring “Niwot” and the slogan “Vintage Colorado.” The sign itself isn’t that unusual, but it’s crowned by an arch of artistically bent steel rails with wooden ties. Leading the push to get the sign installed was Tim Wise, owner of Wise Buys Antiques, down the street from Rockin’ Robin’s.

Wise has run the shop with his wife, Carrie, for 25 years – “a quarter of a century!” he laughs in mock boastfulness. That’s about the closest to self-importance you get from a guy who has played a part in just about every big project and event in Niwot for the last few decades.

“He doesn’t like a lot of attention, but he really deserves a lot of credit for getting things done,” Warren said of him.

Wise Buys is a holdover from Niwot’s 1970s incarnation as an antiques district, complete with a regular antiques auction that drew visitors from far and wide. The auctions continue at Diane Atwood’s Elysian Fields Auctions, about twice a month. The Wises’ store is the only antique shop left in town, but it’s going strong, doing strong business selling things like mantelpieces from 100-year-old houses.


THOUGH HIS OWN SHOP can be considered part of the old guard, Wise takes every opportunity to promote Niwot’s newer image as an arts center, with art galleries cropping up all over town in recent years. He collaborated on the sign project with Anne Postle, owner of Osmosis Art & Architecture and a leader of the town

’s flowering art scene.

The art bug is infectious. Just a few years ago, Postle’s business was exclusively a residential architecture firm with an office on Second Avenue, but there was demand for gallery space for artists to show their work, so Osmosis turned part of the office into a small gallery.

“The architects in the office were excited about bringing art into our practice,” Postle said. “It’s grown from a small area in the front three years ago to where now the art is everywhere.”

And she does mean everywhere. Art is displayed on every wall and partition of the architects’ workspaces, and visitors are free to roam about, peering over their shoulders at the paintings and sculptures.

On the first Friday of every month, Niwot’s art galleries open up for a community art walk, a new tradition put on by the Niwot Cultural Arts Association. In May, Postle worked with the other galleries to organize the Why Not Niwot? art competition. More than 40 artists submitted Niwot-themed artwork displayed at 10 venues. The editor of Southwest Art Magazine judged the contest, naming Dawn Buckingham Goldsmith the winner for her painting “Whistle Stop Sunset.” 

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Goldsmith used to own a bike shop in Niwot. Though she moved away several years ago, she still bikes back from Longmont for the Rock N Rails concerts or to visit friends. “People joke that there’s this curse of Niwot,” she said. “Once you leave, you always end up coming back.”

Perhaps one of the things that draws people back is the blend of big-city hipness with small-town neighborliness. Take the Niwot Market, which is a cross between a Whole Foods-type health food store and the old-fashioned neighborhood grocer.

Much of the produce comes from just down the road at Ollin Farms, and at the peak of summer, the place is jammed with boxes of heirloom tomatoes and melons that came from the fields 15 minutes earlier. If there’s something customers want that Niwot Market doesn’t stock, there’s an easy way to fix that.

“There’s a list at the door,” says owner Bert Steele. “Just write down your item, and I’ll bring it in if I can find it.”

The market’s staff is happy to accommodate. Kathy Koehler of the Niwot Community Association says she recently got to the checkout stand only to realize she’d left her billfold in a different purse. The checker told her to go home with her items and just come back later with the $6.11.

Niwot Market rents out space within the store to local merchants like Sachi Sushi and Diane Strong’s Niwot Florist. The
flower stand’s synergy with the market and its customers has worked great in her six years there, Strong said. People go out of their way to support local businesses.

“A guy just brought me lilacs from his tree so I could use them in arrangements,” Strong said. “I said, ‘What can I pay you?’ and he just said, ‘Oh, buy me breakfast sometime.’”

There are a host of restaurants where that breakfast can be redeemed. Kitty-corner from the Grange Hall is one of the most celebrated, chef Bradford Heap’s Colterra. Heap, who has also won acclaim for his restaurant Salt in Boulder, serves locallyproduced food. The vegetables that don’t come from the surrounding farms often has grown in the garden next to Colterra’s wide patio.

On the same block is another great eatery, Treppeda’s Italian Ristorante, which switches from fast casual by day to fine dining by night. Owner Howard Treppeda is the son of a jazz trumpeter, and he keeps his love of music alive by hosting regular live performances in the restaurant. His friendship with legendary jazz pianist Don Grusin helped him gather the resources to spread jazz outside Treppeda’s and onto main street for the Jazz on Second Ave Festival. The second-annual festival was in August, and thousands came to hear jazz greats from across the country play, as well as to eat Treppeda’s famous wood-fired pizza.

There are so many festivals and parades in Niwot, it sometimes seems like everyone you meet is coordinating their own event, from Left Hander’s Day to Lobster Bash to Oktoberfest. And the town is always hungry for more.

Connie Rempala opened The Hitching Post – “The Best Little Horse House in Colorado” – on Second Avenue less than two years ago, but already she’s spearheading a new event: an equestrian Wild West Parade to complement the long-running Nostalgia Day. Rempala dreams of one day having as many as 500 horses in the parade, and though there won’t be that many at the inaugural event in September, it should be a sight to see.

The ease with which Rempala became an integral part of the Niwot community attests both to her business savvy – the store has grown so much that it recently moved to a bigger space up the block – and to Niwot’s welcoming spirit. People who first entered the store as strangers have become friends who regularly stop by just to hang out, sometimes for hours. “People call this Floyd’s Barber Shop,” Rempala said – one of many Mayberry references you’ll hear about Niwot.

It’s a unique state of mind they have in Niwot: firmly rooted in the past, but always eager to try something new. And because Niwot isn’t technically a town, being a Niwotian is, in a sense, a state of mind. 

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