Landmark Swetsville Zoo suffered significant flood damage

Heavy rains and high country spring snowmelt brought flooding to many locations around Northern Colorado during May and June. One well-known Timnath landmark received more than its fair share of Cache la Poudre River bounty. The surging waters burst their banks on Memorial Day, inundating metal sculptor Bill Swets’ whimsical creatures and fanciful creations.

To recognize the determination behind Swets’ efforts to save and restore his damaged works, it’s necessary to understand their history.

Known as Swetsville Zoo, the now-36 acre property at 4801 E. Harmony Road (across from the Timnath Walmart and east of Costco’s future site) is where Jurassic Park meets John Deere. The skilled hands of 73-year-old Swets have been crafting dinosaurs, giant tricycles, mega-moths, scrollwork trellises and much more since August 1985. He uses pieces and parts of old farm machinery as the basis of most of the amazing sculptures, and has placed them in delightfully themed areas around outbuildings, seven residences, and along the riverside. The recent flood is just one of a series that have daunted his artistic vision.

Swets’ parents John and Gertrude bought the original 120-acre property in 1938 and, in 1942, relocated there from Alaska, where they’d served as missionaries for 18 years. Son Bill, just 10 months old at the time, grew up farming and ranching the land. He recalled that as recently as the 1950s, his family mounted horses and pushed their cattle westward along an informal dirt path now known as Harmony Road. Time and progress likewise pushed on, shrinking the farm’s size when John Swets sold off a substantial number of acres to Connell Gravel and subsequent land speculators who eventually sold 20 acres to Costco.

The property ultimately passed down to Bill Swets and wife Sandy, who died in 2010. Several homes for three families housed Swet’s parents, Bill and Sandy and their three sons, and a sibling’s family. Custom haying income helped support the 12-member extended family.

Lifelong farmer and talented welder, Swets also served as a Timnath volunteer fireman for 22 years until 1993, a few of those years as assistant chief. He said he built all the original engines, tankers and a light truck the unit used to battle blazes.

His duties with the brigade over, he concentrated on haying and creating a mythical land of iron marvels. Admission-free Swetsville Zoo has drawn wide-eyed visitors young and old from near and far for several decades. But now Swets has concerns for the fantasy world’s future — recent high waters included.

“Flooding started serious on Memorial Day,” he recalled and explained the land’s base.

Below topsoil is 15 feet of gravel with shale beneath. Since this composition allows water to weep up through, Swets long-ago installed a series of subterranean dikes designed to keep moisture out of buildings. When the river insists, however, the only effective weapons are strategically placed pumps and pipes.

For several days during the worst of the current flooding, Swets kept those pumps going round the clock to return to the Poudre River what had escaped. Sadly, the river didn’t return that favor. Five sculptures and several pedestals were destroyed or swept away and approximately 40 other works of iron art were damaged. Large holes have washed in.

Swets said the damage is worse than from the September 2013 floods, after which it took him a month to complete repairs. This time, he thinks it will take two months.

“The pump is setting right there,” he pointed out on June 11, “and I’m not taking it down yet. It can set there till July.” Then, resigning himself to nature’s relentless force, “I hope I don’t ever have to do it again, but I know I will.”

Historical record behind his declaration splashes through several similar incidents, including in 1983 when he used 550 gallons of diesel fuel to pump water for 29 days. “That was a real bad one!” Swets said.

Across the river, he owns land that he hopes will someday become a park lined with his artwork, soccer fields and more. Swets would agree to a long-term lease for the 13 acres if the Town of Timnath or Larimer County would build up the ground and make the improvements.

“People entering town would see that beautiful park,” he said, “and immediately realize what a lovely, special place Timnath is.”

In the meantime, Swets will continue creating clever creatures and doing whatever it takes to keep their metal toes dry.

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