Grand Mesa—the world's biggest flat-topped mountain—gave its name to the county created in 1883. Ute was another name considered after the tribe was pushed out in 1881. Today few traces are left of the Utes except the trade beads which old-timers recover by screening sand from anthills. Euro-American settlers have transformed the dry country with irrigation ditches off the Colorado and Gunnison rivers. The Grand River Ditch (1884, Matt Arch), a 35-foot-wide canal running 24 miles from Palisade to Fruita, made large-scale farms and orchards possible. Mesa has ranked high among Colorado counties in agricultural production since the early 1900s, gaining regional fame for its peaches. With the nuclear age, uranium became a cash crop, harvested recklessly in the 1950s and 1960s to the dismay of those now trying to clean up the radioactive mess.
Grand Junction, the county seat and metropolis of western Colorado, housed a third of the county's 1990 population of 93,145. Clifton has evolved from orchards to subdivisions, while the town cores of Collbran, Fruita, and Palisade remain more intact. Most of the county is undeveloped land, including parts of Grand Mesa and Uncompahgre national forests, Bureau of Land Management acreage, and the Colorado National Monument.
During the 1970s and early 1980s an oil shale boom fueled rapid county growth. Booms and busts in agriculture, uranium, and oil shale have created much modest worker housing, including bungalows and small, square frame houses with hipped roofs. When times were good, residents added on to these structures and installed roof-top evaporative swamp coolers to relieve the summer heat. Many original homes remain, often with traces of the water ditches and orchards which once dominated the area, and symmetrical globe willow trees, a fast-growing shade tree.
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