By Kevin Strong
NEW RAYMER, Colo. (CBS4) – A cold, windy snow falls on Centre Avenue in the rural town of New Raymer.
This was one of a string of “whistle stop” towns along the Burlington & Missouri (later, Burlington Northern) Railroad that ran from Sterling to Cheyenne, Wyoming. These small communities sprang up mostly to provide water for the locomotives as they made their way down the line, but most quickly developed into viable communities in their own rights as the local farmers came to depend on supplies and mail being delivered to the depots.
New Raymer was originally called “Raymer,” named for George Raymer, a civil engineer who helped build the railroad. It was founded in the 1880s as the first homesteaders were moving out west.
The town struggled, barely hanging on until the 1910s when a new group of homesteaders came out, being given more land which allowed them to be more successful in the dry Colorado climate. They changed their name to “New Raymer” partially to inspire a sense of revitalization and partially because the postal service requested a name change to avoid confusion with another town. Whatever the reason, the town began to thrive.
Okay, “thrive” may be relative. New Raymer wasn’t “big city” by any stretch of the imagination. Its “downtown district” was a series of a half dozen or so small, one-story buildings which lined Centre Avenue. It had the basics — grocery store, post office, bank, gas station and tavern.
Some of these buildings would change functions over the years. Take the post office for example. Patty Ford grew up in New Raymer, and remembers the post office when it was in the back of the grocery store. Getting the mail was her daily after-school chore.
“The school buses with the school up north would stop here and allow the children to go in and get the mail because they knew the parents always didn’t get into town every day,” Ford recalls.
The store served as the social center of the community.
When Trina Kauk’s father became postmaster, he converted the tavern that was in the front half of the building he and his family lived in into the post office instead.
“Dad re-did this building several times. He was a tinkerer, carpenter,” she remembers.
The social scene Ford remembers followed the post office to its new location three doors down.
“A lot of guys would gather out front and talk about what was new,” Kauk said. “It was kind of the central point of the town.”
The corner gas station — a quintessential one-room building with a large awning overhanging where the gas pumps would be — likewise served as a social hub of its own, especially for teenage boys looking to meet up on a Saturday evening.
Lee Fritz remembers those days fondly.
“No phones or anything for several years, so we just met here and discussed what we wanted to do for the evening, then go do it.” Fritz added that many games of cards were played in that gas station.
If this idyllic life sounds a bit like the fictional town of Mayberry, the residents of New Raymer would agree there were many similarities.
“It was different times,” said Ford. “When you’re in it, you don’t think things will change, then all of a sudden you realize things have changed.”
Those changes began to happen in the 1960s. Society became much more mobile, and folks traveled to the larger communities for their supplies and entertainment. Carol Lambert graduated from New Raymer’s high school in 1966.
“At that point,” she remembers, “we had pretty much lost all of the stores and businesses in town.
The post office was the last man standing, and would move one last time in the 1970s into a modern facility. That move would leave all of the remaining buildings along Centre Avenue vacant — ghosts of a bygone era.
A few years ago, the U.S. Postal Service floated the idea of closing New Raymer’s post office. That seemed to reawaken that long-dormant sense of community. The townspeople successfully rallied to keep their post office in operation, and then turned their attention to the vacant buildings still sitting dormant across the street.
Carol Lambert is a fourth generation New Raymer resident. She’s surprised the buildings have survived vacant as long as they have, but will take it.
“I think part of the reason they are is it just happened that way. But it’s great because I think they need to be preserved.”
Her son Cyle shares that sentiment, and has put words into action. He purchased the tavern-turned-post-office which Trina Kauk grew up in, and has big plans for it.
“I coached at the high school three of four years out here, and I wanted a place for the kids could go after a game where they’re safe. This building fits that prototype exactly. They can come over on a Friday and Saturday and hang out and play pool.”
Cyle has a 2-year-old reason to want to preserve that small town life he and those before him enjoyed. “I want her to grow up experiencing the same things I experienced. I went to a small school. I graduated in a class of nine.”
It’s that small-town feel that residents want to preserve. For Ruth Fritz, it’s a chance to get people to slow down and appreciate a different, quieter lifestyle.
“I don’t believe businesses will ever come back and thrive in Raymer anymore, but I do think we can revitalize it in a new way to educate people who come here to visit and learn and appreciate the prairies,” she said.
Visit a special section of Colorado Preservation, Inc. to learn more about New Raymer’s Centre Avenue. The organization has declared it one of their Most Endangered Places for 2017.