Reflections on small towns after a bulldozer rampage

  To many of us who know Granby, Colo., or even mountain towns in general, the bizarre explosion last week — a man armoring his bulldozer, mowing down buildings and then shooting himself — was surprising. The explosion itself was not.

Some people say they expect violence in cities and not in little towns. But mountain towns have dark sides. The question seems to be whether these towns attract people with the potential for uncorking, or whether there’s something in the towns themselves that can produce berserk behavior.

Granby managed to survive 99 years largely without incident. Named after a railroad attorney, Granby Hillyer, it was bland enough that with some regularity reporters for the Denver newspapers misspelled it "Grandby." It’s been described as a little ranch town, but that description is as wrong as calling Denver a big ranch town. Ranching hasn’t mattered in 50 years or so.

But neither was it ever truly a tourist town. True, resorts are found all around — Hot Sulphur Springs to the west, Winter Park ski area to the south, and Rocky Mountain National Park and its gateway, Grand Lake, to the north. But Granby itself was never more than a place on the way to someplace else.

What Granby has been for decades is a service center and bedroom for those who sell scenery, snow and rubber tomahawks to tourists. It had a blue-collar mentality that persists even to the present. That mentality was reflected in a town vote during April. Town officials proposed to borrow money to gussy up the streetscape, which looked lifeless and dusty when the snow melted. There was the promise of economic improvement: More than 6,000 acres of land were recently annexed into Granby, which was expected to spur the building of weekend and vacation homes for people of upper-middle and high incomes. Still, town residents voted no, not until the money was in hand.

The dispute at the core of Marvin Heemeyer’s anger was also essentially blue-collar, if about zoning: Heemeyer’s neighbor had been given the green light for an industrial use, and Mr. Heemeyer objected, saying it harmed his business, a muffler repair shop.

To fully understand what happened in Granby, it’s probably necessary to examine Grand Lake, 16 miles away, where Heemeyer lived. It’s a gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, snug in its isolation. A knotty-pine sort of resort, it once had a large number of gay men and now remains the snowmobile capital of Colorado. For about seven months, drinking and snowmobiling seem to be the primary avocations.

For whatever reason, gateway communities for places of peace and tranquility are themselves often anything but peaceful and tranquil. Perhaps it’s the lack of seasons; in mountain towns, there’s always too much winter. Then there’s the isolation, causing moods to sour and grievances to mount. A seemingly minor offense — a neighbor pushing his snow onto your property, a car parked in the wrong place — becomes a capital offense.

Whether Heemeyer succeeded in teaching Granby a lesson — his intention, according to a suicide note — is anybody’s guess. But now that the town has become notorious, land developers will no longer have to tell people that it’s 85 miles northwest of Denver, and reporters will know how to spell its name.

And finally, once the hurt is gone, Granby may yet be able to have some fun with its tragedy. Think of a Dozer Days celebration, with the armored tank preserved in the town park and a demolition derby at the rodeo grounds. Cartoonist Kenny Be, in Denver’s alternative paper, Westword, envisions bulldozer knickknacks, a self-guided "Stations of the Cross" tour where people can follow the bulldozer tracks, and town hall becoming the entrance to a Disgruntled Loner Hall of Fame, with other possible rural honorees being Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber.

Despite these light-hearted musings, the damage to Granby was costly and frightening, and one person died. Others might have been shot had local emergency teams not worked so effectively. Undersheriff Glenn Trainer was a local hero, riding the bulldozer like a bronc-buster as he tried to figure out how to get a bullet inside the dragon. There appear to be several heroes involved in this story, and they probably will be part of town lore in years to come. As Winston Churchill said, there is nothing quite so exhilarating as being shot at without effect. Granby dodged a lot of bullets, and that may be the story worth telling through the years.

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of NewTowncarShare News (newtowncarshare.info). He lived in Granby from 1981-1985, and now monitors mountain towns in the West for his syndicate, Mountain Town News.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of NewTowncarShare News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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