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Case cracked: Overland Stage stop, a founding father, and the mystery of the Twin Willows

Riding the lanes, I will often hit a cold spot of air and think of those who have gone before.

Read also: Gruesome end for Father of Fort Collins; historic farm revealed

FORT COLLINS, Colorado -- This old farm resonates with untold stories. Riding along our lanes, or harvesting willow and fruit from ancient trees in the summer, I'll stumble into one of our odd pools of cold air and wonder about those who came before -- not to mention the nagging Twin Willows Tea Room mystery.

John Neutze, a former water commissioner, along with his wife Dorothy, sold us this place. The Neutzes owned a furniture store on College Avenue that burned down and they lived in Larimer County for many, many years. Dorothy told me this was once the Twin Willows Tea Room, named after two giant willows just a few steps north of the house, overlooking the Poudre River.

When we arrived in 1989, a giant stump and a giant willow stood north of the house. I asked a local historian when he visited once, and I talked to remaining family members, but I never could verify the Twin Willows Tea Room story.

Over the years, I did wonder about the tea room. This year, as a $5 million project to widen and enhance Shields Street is planned on our west border, and a proposed housing development takes shape on our east border, I wondered again about this old farm’s history. My archeologist friend, Mark Emery, took up the sleuthing torch and hit pay dirt when he unearthed the Twin Willows Tea Room brochure.

Historic Twin Willows Tea Room brochure cover - Poudre River Stables - 930 N. Shields St. - Fort Collins - Colorado - 80521 - Photo Courtesy Fort Collins Local History ArchiveIt turns out that the house we live in today, built in the late 1890's, was the actual tea room, and is still intact. The proprietors took great pride in their chicken dinners: "We raise our own chickens fed from the purest foods, and prepare them for serving. Milk and butter are produced on the ranch, cooled in spring water, served fresh and sweet." You would recognize the house in a minute from this tea room brochure photo, if you could see past the modern evergreens, below. The remaining twin willow "planted by the first president of the State Board of Agriculture" still stands. According to two separate hand-written notes, one of them at the bottom of this photo, this residence was the farm house of Wm. F. Watrous, a founding father of Fort Collins, who by the way, also used his line of credit to help start Colorado State University. In "1882 he sold the most of his town property and moved to a fruit farm situated on the river bank about one mile northwest of Fort Collins." And according to the brochure, this property was also a stop on the Overland Stage Route.

Stop on famous Overland Stage Route

"Twin Willows – The largest tree in Larimer County (28 ½ ft. in circumference) and its smaller twin give their name to the tea room operated by Mrs. Henry Burdorf, 'Twin Willows.' These two mighty sentinels provide a majestic and magnificent setting for a 'country chicken dinner,' the dinners for which Twin Willows is famous. A beautiful spacious lawn enclosed by shrubbery and lighted by electricity furnishes an ideal place for a dinner served out-doors (sic).
The surviving twin willow took a hit in the October blizzard of 2011, and Gregg had to climb its heights to trim off broken branches.
Patrons and visitors are delighted with this ranch on the banks of the Cache la Poudre River, with its wide-sweeping twin willows. It was at one time a station on the famous Overland Stage Route from Denver to Laramie. These trees were planted by the first president of the State Board of Agriculture, under whose supervision Old Main and several other college buildings were erected – Wm. F. Watrous. It was Mr. Watrous and another member of the board, John J. Ryan, who really started Colorado State College on its career of usefulness. When it was decided to open the school in the spring of 1879 it was found there was no money for that purpose. These two men went to Denver and borrowed $3,000 on their personal note. With this money the school was opened."

The upper reaches of the surviving twin willow are shown above, as Gregg climbs up to trim branches damaged in the October 2011 blizzard. This is not even the entire tree. Can you find him?

This modern photo, taken Sat., Jan. 18, 2013, duplicates the approach down the driveway of the old Twin Willows Tea Room brochure, above. However, the surviving twin willow, and the equally old cottonwood behind the kitchen at the back of the house, have grown so big that they show up better in this version taken farther away.

The Twin Willows Tea Room brochure contained other nuggets:

Brother of a judge, a wedding and Shakespeare

"Just a short distance up the river from Twin Willows, in a building which has since disappeared, occurred the first wedding of white people in Larimer County. A strapping young man named Cyr and a blushing young lady, the daughter of a Frenchman and an Indian squaw, were the groom and bride.

The next difficulty, after persuading the young lady, was to secure some one (sic) to perform the ceremony. Preachers were scarce. There were no justices of the peace. After two unsuccessful trips, the groom finally located a man whose brother was a judge, and he agreed to officiate. When the two arrived, however, the young lady could not be found -- she had disappeared. She was so bashful she had concealed herself under a huge fur. After she had been discovered, the ceremony proceeded. To make up for his unofficial standing, the judge's brother stretched the ceremony to nearly an hour. It was solemnized on a volume of Shakespeare in lieu of a Bible, a copy of which could not be found. Being unable to read English, however, the couple were just as well satisfied."

Origins of the Cache la Poudre name

The Twin Willows brochure also offers two versions of how the Poudre River got its name:

"One story is that a party of French trappers camped near Bellvue discovered a band of Indians coming. Their first concern was for their powder, and hence the exclamation "Cache la poudre!"
The other story is that in November, 1836, a party of trappers and employes (sic) in the service of the American Fur Company was taking a heavily loaded wagon train from St. Louis to Green River, Wyoming. They made camp near what is now Bellvue. During the night it began to snow, and it snowed for two days. The leader decided they could not get through the mountains with all their load. "Niege ... trop beau-coup" (too much snow), he said. An important part of the loads was 600 pounds of powder. This, with a lot of other heavy things, was "cached." A large hole was dug. The hole was lined with brush, the provisions packed away carefully, brush put on top of same, and the whole covered with two feet of dirt. The next spring a company with empty wagons returned to "the river where we hid the powder" and took the powder and provisions on to Wyoming.
Trappers and most white men always respected the caches of others, but wolves -- and sometimes Indians -- were not so scrupulous. So caches had to be made secure from the ravages of wolves and secreted from Indians. The one required work, and the other called for ingenuity.
In this place, with its romantic associations, under these giant twin willows, beside the river where they hid the powder, Mrs. Burdorf will serve you the most delicious dinners, either plate or country style.
Write or phone (329) for menus and reservations."

The next time you find yourself going by our place, especially if you are traveling on the Poudre River bike trail just east of where North Shields St. and the Poudre River intersect, be sure to stop a moment and wonder about those who have gone before. We are the big white house and the red barn sitting up on the bluff. If you know something about 930 N. Shields St., please do comment. I suspect the Twin Willows brochure is just the tip of the iceberg.