Where is Witches Alley? What are “dinkies” and which Greeley residents wore them? What happened to the 1908 neighborhood commune envisioned by UNC professors? In “Bears in the Backyard,” eight historians find the answers.
Greeley, Colorado, can lay claim to a century and a half of stories that dot the high plains and illustrate a celebrated history. But which parts of that storied past can be traced to the neighborhoods that comprise the city’s University District? How does it intersect with the University of Northern Colorado and add to a narrative that underpins Greeley’s spirit of community?
These are the questions eight people set out to explore in their book “Bears in the Backyard: The Story of Greeley’s University District.” The book, nearly a decade in the making, derives its title from the lore of the university’s early founding in newly incorporated Greeley and the rural city’s embrace of education, culture and, yes, bears.
“Not everyone invites bears into their backyard,” says Rebecca (Becky) Safarik, interim development director with the City of Greeley. “But Greeley did.”
Hence, the college’s mascot.
Greeley was one of the first cities in the state with a college, and although UNC was founded on agriculture, it also valued high culture. It was dedicated to training teachers, providing education, and including the community in its mission.
“We wanted to give voice to the many stories about a journey of how an agricultural town grew up with a university.”
Along with her fellow chroniclers — Deb DeBoutez, Ron Edgerton, Mary Borg, Jay Trask, Elizabeth Kellums, Tori Knutsen and the late Peggy Ford Waldo — Becky embarked on a journey beginning in 2011 to detail the “institutional DNA” of Greeley’s University District, made up of six neighborhoods.
According to the Greeley Creative District, which along with the city financed the book’s publication and fronts the book’s website, the 170-page anthology “provides a narrative of the origins and evolution of the city, college and University District, maps, abundant photos, and a chapter dedicated to each of the six historic neighborhoods surrounding the school.”
Welcome to the Neighborhood
“Bears in the Backyard” started by chance, says Deb DeBoutez, Greeley’s former neighborhood engagement specialist, who in 2011 was conducting assessments of each of the six neighborhoods in the recently designated University District. Beyond gathering typical input on capital improvement and beautification projects, Deb was hearing residents reminisce about the “old days” and the people who inhabited the neighborhoods.
“We did a collective whoa!” adds Becky, who joined the meetings. “These were really cool stories.”
The two saw the value in collecting — and recording — the oral histories that up until that time had not been made publicly available. More meetings led to one-on-one interviews, which in turn, led to a gathering of photos, drawings and memorabilia — material documenting the formation, growth and evolution of each neighborhood over time.
“We didn’t know what we were going to do with all of this material,” adds Deb, “but we thought it was important [to collect it.]”
As the two continued to interview residents and compile archival material from the Greeley Museums, they realized there was something missing: The university. Soon, Deb and Becky consulted faculty and university historians who poured additional stories, historical background, and significant university benchmarks into the discussion, broadening the narrative and connecting it to the city of Greeley.
Labor of Love
As years went by, Becky’s “pet project” became a “labor of love” when Ron Edgerton, UNC History Professor Emeritus, and Mary Borg, UNC History Lecturer Emeritus, came on board to provide their perspective and editorial expertise. The year was 2020. There was a pandemic and Greeley was about to celebrate its 150th anniversary. It was time to put pen to paper and move the project to publication.
In July 2021, with the help of graphic artist and UNC graduate Tori Knutsen and other dedicated volunteers-turned-authors, “Bears in the Backyard” was finally published.
Beyond the history of the area, the book is chock full of stories passed down by generations of families, children, business owners, faculty and community leaders, all who bring to life the unique relationship between a community and a college.
It’s that relationship, adds Ron Edgerton, and the way Greeley “can get its hands dirty” but still value its arts and education that make the city attractive.
“We have our own identity in Greeley. It’s real… and that feels good.”
At the end of each neighborhood chapter, readers will find walking tour maps and guides to help them discover the distinctive attributes of each neighborhood on their own. In addition, there is information about how to arrange for a tour of the campus.
For more information about “Bears in the Backyard: The Story of Greeley’s University District” and where you can purchase a copy, visit the Greeley Creative District. All proceeds benefit the district.
How does your own story intersect with the City of Greeley and its University District? Share your experiences to help us write the next Greeley story.