LOVELAND, Colo. — For almost a century, Loveland was just a sweet little town built by farmers growing sugar beets. By the time the industry faded in the 1980s, farmers were replaced by artists, specifically sculptors.

There are some $6 million worth of sculptures in Loveland's parks, along its tree-lined streets, near its lakes and in front of its buildings.

The artwork features plenty of wildlife, ranging from wolves and horses to polar bears, frogs and toads. There are children, too, and mysterious obelisks. The entrance to the police department is adorned by bronze replicas of cherry trees by artist Mario Miguel Echevarria.

There also are major galleries and an annual event, Sculpture in the Park, that bills itself as the largest outdoor juried sculpture show in the nation. Of the more than 250 pieces around town, 80 percent have been donated.

"It has turned out to be one of the great success art stories in the country," said John Villani, author of "The 100 Best Art Towns in America."

"Loveland rode the curve of expansion in American art schools, where sculpture had taken a seat somewhere behind pottery," he said. He said the artists who went to small foundry towns such as Santa Fe, N.M., Prescott, Ariz., and Joseph, Ore., created huge interest in the young artists who followed. Joseph opened its first foundry in 1982; now it has four.

Kent Ullberg, who specializes in wildlife sculptures and seafaring pieces, said an old foundry in Loveland is the sole reason there are now more than 60 sculptors living in the area, an hour's drive north of Denver and a brief run up the Big Thompson Canyon to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Fritz White, who in the 1970s was in the vanguard of sculptors who arrived in Loveland, said the foundry was developed by a former General Motors executive. The operation was going bankrupt making precision tools, so management decided to try working with sculpture, he said.

"Soon they had more customers than they could handle," said White, who moved here from Cincinnati in 1978.

There are now two Loveland foundries for bronze casting, an expensive and complicated process that starts with a clay model. A rubber cast is made, which then is used to produce a ceramic mold into which bronze is poured. Once all the work is done — which takes months — the pieces are welded together (smaller pieces are not). A cover, called a patina, is applied as a sort of ornamental surface.

The growing group of sculptors approached city officials about displaying their work and, in 1985, Loveland became the first city in Colorado to adopt an ordinance paying for art in public places.

"It's been an exceptionally good thing for Loveland," retired nurse Eldona Hughes said.

"There were jobs lost when the factory closed, but we didn't lose that much — not so that you would notice. When I moved here 30 years ago, there were 18,000 people, now there are 60,000."

It's been a good thing for the sculptors, too. White said most are successful enough to have studios apart from their homes. At one point, he said he was turning down commissions and he has stayed busy.

Kirsten Kokkin recalled how she pretended to be a sculptor at age 7 with her friends, making flowers from marzipan.

"Mine looked real," said Kokkin, who went on to art school and is now an associate professor at the University of Oslo. "I always knew I would be an artist."

In 1988, there was a controversy over a work called "Moulding our Future" because the mother and child figures were only partly clad. Some 600 people wrote letters objecting to the piece, but the City Council approved it anyway.

Kokkin's latest piece has provoked concerns, too: The 13-foot-tall "Triangle" shows a man and a woman holding a third person above them, all nude. Some complained the piece is the equivalent of indecent exposure. Kokkin, who considers herself a traditionalist, just as Michelangelo and Rodin were, said there is nothing sexual about the work.

"The image created is meant to symbolize that in order to survive as humanity, with our many beliefs and values, we have to rely on each other's support to succeed," she said.

Officials have again overrode critics' objections. The Visual Art Commission held a special meeting and voted 5-to-1 in favor of it and it was installed the next day. The City Council has told opponents it has no authority to overrule the commission.

Traffic engineers had already given their OK to put the work in the middle of a roundabout in the southeast part of town.

"People gawk at things all the time and still manage to drive," Suzanne Janssen, Loveland Museum spokeswoman, said.