History of downtown Meeker significant

MEEKER I Meeker and Rio Blanco County may be one of the ”best kept secrets in Northwest Colorado” as a truly historic venue of the Old West.
Thousands of tourists from the United States and the world are greatly attracted to seeing and experiencing the “real Old West” as it actually existed in the 19th and 20th centuries, and still exists today, according to Dr. Kathleen Sands, a distinguished professor emerita of cultural anthropology and Western American literature from Arizona State University.
Sands’ special expertise is in cultural traditions and structures of the people who shaped the Western U.S. The cultural attraction, appeal and enthusiasm are so great that Western history interest groups have been formed throughout the U.S. and internationally to study, visit locales and emulate those traditions.
For example, Native American dance groups have been formed in Germany that study, perform and teach the unique and colorful dances, regalia and symbolism of the Western Native American tribes. Similarly, seeing and experiencing the traditions of the Western cowboys and the military cavalry battle engagements are prized pursuits for tourists throughout the world.
In Poland, they do a re-enactment of the American Pony Express. Such experiences “become a part of the body and persona to such interest groups and of each individual,” Sands said. She further noted, “There are comparatively few quality museums and venues that preserve and display art and artifacts or re-enact significant Western historical events of the Native Americans and of the Western cowboy and military culture, but those that are offered (and are widely publicized and promoted)attract many visitors.”
Sands is a long-time frequent visitor to the White River Valley and has been a friend to local residents for many years. She has shared her expertise on the topic of heritage tourism and cultural opportunities, each of which may foster significant economic development.
Sands has written many books and taught graduate students the topics of culture and legacy of the legendary American West. She suggested that “Meeker is an excellent community for attracting tourists to experience Western culture.”
Sands cited Meeker as a unique heritage tourism treasure because it is the site of the last major Native American uprising and subsequent military engagement — at Milk Creek. These events resulted in the establishment of the military cantonment where downtown Meeker now exists.
The two-block locale that once served as a soldiers’ encampment and parade ground now hosts the Rio Blanco County Courthouse and old Meeker Elementary School, both built of native red sandstone, which is historically and architecturally significant, she said.
The original cottonwood log cabin officer’s quarters and barracks are preserved as the White River Museum and Garrison buildings, and the Jensen residence.
Many historical structures such as St. James Episcopal Church, The Meeker Hotel and Café, the Hugus Building, the IOOF Hall (now Mountain Valley Bank) are historically restored and repurposed. Some are designated as National Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
History Colorado preservationists have evaluated the notable downtown structures in consideration of recommendation for designation of the area as a National Historic District, she said, adding that the old Meeker Elementary School is a flagship building in the legacy of historic venues of downtown Meeker and should be repurposed and used as a community center to promote tourism, host performing arts drama and musical productions, serve as a conference and meeting center, host local nonprofit clubs and organizations, provide venues for small business startups, serve youth, adults and senior citizens with features and venues that provide activities, educational opportunities, recreation and promote unity of purpose as a premier historic and cultural attraction to residents and visitors.
Sands said, “When I pass through communities that display signs that indicate ‘correctional facilities’ and ‘do not pick up hitchhikers,’ I tend to not stop even briefly in those communities because of the negative connotation. Heritage tourism communities must be welcoming and attractive to visitors. The negativity of jails is not conducive to such appeal.”
Sands cited many Arizona communities that have actively promoted heritage tourism (such as Flagstaff and Bisbee) with great success and resulting economic development.
The nation is changing from a manufacturing and product-oriented society to a cultural, heritage tourism, recreation and entertainment-oriented economy and culture. Tourism is the leading economic engine of Colorado, and creative industries (such as the arts and culture) are the fifth-largest element of that economy, she said.
The money and appeal are found in tourism and entertainment that create jobs, support businesses and result in economic development. She cited Carbondale, Salida, Creede, Steamboat Springs and Grand Lake are all successful examples of rural Colorado communities that have successfully built their economies on heritage tourism and entertainment.
Internet and Broadband high-speed website access have become critical to such successes and for promotion of heritage tourism and entertainment, she said. The ambiance of a community for both residents and tourists is dependent on the attraction of the historic and cultural resources as well as entertainment potential and offerings that appeal to all ages and interests.
Sands recommended substantial effort be invested in promotion and advertising of the Meeker Heritage Tourism enterprise on an international scope.
“Meeker is already internationally renowned for the Meeker Classic Sheepdog Trials and now the community must reveal ‘the rest of the story’ and share it widely with the world community,” she said.