Grant News

Headless Chicken Inspires Fruita's Preservation

On September 10, 1945, Lloyd Olsen established the allegorical and philosophical inspiration for a future historic preservation movement in the Western Slope town of Fruita by chopping the head off a chicken named Mike.  Readers of this publication, accustomed to finding well-reasoned articles about exemplary historic preservation projects on this page, may doubt this hypothesis.  Be patient; it'll come.

According to legend, Lloyd Olsen's mother-in-law liked her poultry, but savored the neck the most.  When she came over for dinner one evening, Lloyd selected a fine rooster named Mike, placed it on the chopping block, and hacked off its head.  Ever mindful of his guest's tastes, he removed Mike's noggin at the base of the skull to preserve the neck.  Duly dispatched, Mike played his part and ran around the yard in true headless chicken fashion.  However, Mike exhibited a little more lust for life than the average rooster, and refused to die.  Lloyd noted his-er-pluck, and decided to have something else for dinner.

The next morning Lloyd found Mike in the chicken coop, scratching and preening as if nothing had happened.  Astounded, Lloyd took Mike to see some experts.  They explained that Mike's reflexes were controlled by his brain stem, which was located almost entirely in his still-intact neck.  Further, a blood clot in Mike's severed jugular kept him from bleeding to death.  Lloyd discovered that he could prolong Mike's life by feeding him grain and water directly into his gullet with an eyedropper.  Mike lived another eighteen months, got his picture in Life magazine, and made his erstwhile executioner, and his town, famous.

Decades later, Fruita suffered a blow no less severe than the one that removed Mike's head.  When the local energy industry went bust, the town's economy suffered.  Businesses folded and schools closed.  By 1992, historic downtown Fruita had a 50-percent vacancy rate.  And yes, like Mike, Fruita refused to die.

As part of its "Forward Fruita" revitalization program, the city government swapped property with School District 51 and took possession of the historic Jr. Annex Building, an old elementary school that visually anchors the downtown district's east end.  Vacant since 1982, the Beaux Arts-style structure now houses the local chamber of commerce, Mesa County Motor Vehicle, Mesa County Library, Rotary Club, Lions Club, Lower Valley Heritage Chapter, and the city's administrative offices.  Once an eyesore, the building became a vibrant civic center.

Fruita's civic leaders realized that they could set an example for other owners of historic properties by rehabilitating the 1912 structure.  The city received over $96,000 from the State Historical Fund in three related grants between 1993 and 2001.  During the latest project, contractors reestablished the building's original main entrance by rehabilitating an interior staircase, removing an unnecessary emergency door and unsightly metal fire escape that marred historic windows, and replacing a concrete and brick exterior stairway.

Frances Garner, president of the Fruita Historic Preservation Board in 1999, described this project's significance in a letter supporting the most recent grant application.  "Without this rehabilitation and re-use, this building would most certainly have been demolished.  Even before the city moved its offices, this civic center project had created a hub of activity that brings people downtown."

In 1999 Fruita capitalized on its preservation-inspired resurgence by hosting a festival during Colorado Archaeology and Historic Preservation Month.  They call the annual two-day event, "Mike the Headless Chicken Days." Every year, people come to Fruita in mid-May to do the chicken dance, participate in a 5K fun run, eat fried chicken, join a pet parade, and tour historic sites.  Even Mike would agree that Fruita is "headed" in the right direction.