Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Article & photos by Jack Olson

I came west for the mountains. Mountains, mountains, mountains. Who knew that a third of Colorado was plains? I would surely never head out east. What’s out there?

A story.

remains of a bank with the ubiquitous water tower © Jack Olson

The Denver Post used to have a Sunday supplement called Empire. I’d been in Colorado for two years in 1967 when I read a story about the intriguing town of Keota, way out there on the prairie. Population six. How can that be? Six? But then the author told of a man, Clyde Stanley, who had lived there most of his life, took requests for publications on his old time printing press, ran the post office, and sold candy.

The author had gone out to Keota to interview Mr. Stanley and find out how a person lived out there—and why. He got the story of how the town once had a population of two hundred and was based on homesteading. Railroads had produced glowing brochures of the bountiful harvests and healthful life in the west. Keota was a stop on the “Old Prairie Dog Express.” When the author finished his interview he asked Mr. Stanley if, out here miles and miles from, well, anywhere, there was anything he needed. Mr. Stanley responded that he could use a green eye shade.

old railroad bed
sign marking the bed of the long-abandoned railroad © Jack Olson

That was enough for me. I had to go out there. My girlfriend, Julia, and I loaded up lunch, filled the gas tank, and I grabbed my Kodak Pony IV camera and a roll of Kodachrome 25 slide film. As usual, I was right on top of the latest in photography. We consulted the official state map and were on our way.

Just a side note. The Keota area was the inspiration for James Michener’s Centennial. The tales of the area were the tales of Keota. I later read that Michener interviewed Clyde Stanley and that he is one of the people to whom the book is dedicated. This is getting more interesting. The striking Pawnee Buttes out there were renamed Rattlesnake Buttes in the book. If you’ve read it you know why.

We got out to Keota in a couple of hours, drove over an abandoned railroad track and by a collapsed depot. There was still a crossing sign in case a ghost train passed through this ghost town. We drove down a dirt main street and stopped by a needless fire hydrant. The former businesses and homes of Keota were mostly weathered wood scattered on the ground. Peering down into a hole we saw what must have been a vault in what must have been a bank.

Just then a small, feisty woman confronted us and asked what we were doing. I explained that we had read the article, were very interested in the history of the town, and wanted to see it. Her mood changed instantly to one of welcome and she invited us into her home, one of two in the town.

Not much is left of Keota on the eastern plains of Colorado © Jack Olson

Her name was Fae Oram. She explained that people would come out from the Front Range and take away wood reminiscent of the ‘Old West’ that they could put in their den or rec room. But to her these relics had been part of a friend’s home or business, or a church or school. Bit by bit her beloved town was disappearing.

Fae enthralled us with stories of Keota’s heyday. She had been a school teacher. She showed us her postcard collection. People from all over the country would write her. She took down information about us and our addresses. She’d write to us from time to time and comment about the things we’d told her. Then she said she would take us to the shop next door and introduce us to her brother, Clyde Stanley. Be still my heart. We went into the business next door: print shop, post office and candy store. The small man came out, hand outstretched. He was wearing a green eye shade.

Thus began a friendship that lasted for several years. Friends and I would go out to camp at the Pawnee Buttes and always stop in to see Clyde and Fae. Then one year they weren’t there. The other people living in the town told us they had to move to Greeley for health reasons. Years passed and I wondered what had become of them. On one camping trip my friends and I stopped at the Keota cemetery and there we found the gravestones of Clyde Stanley and Fae Oram. I began to feel my eyes getting moist. The inscription on Clyde’s gravestone read, “Keota, my home of 63 years.”