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"The death of Fannie Augusta Boettcher Sunday ended a long, spectacular financial and philanthropic career, but one seemingly shrouded in mystery because of her iron determination to remain in the background."- The Denver Post, Monday, November 10, 1952.
So read the obituary that appeared the day after Fannie Boettcher's death at age 98. Now more than half a century later, Mrs. Boettcher's penchant for privacy lives on. While Geraldine Bean's 1976 book entitled Charles Boettcher: A Study in Pioneer Western Enterprise, plus papers and other items contained in The Boettcher Collection document nearly every aspect of Charles Boettcher's personal and professional life, details concerning the life of his wife remain as mysterious as ever.
Although she and Charles separated in 1915 (legally in 1920) after more than 40 years of marriage, Fannie kept herself well informed of her husband's business dealings, reinvesting part of her share of the family trust in a number of enterprises until she had a controlling interest in some of them. As it was noted at the time, "The personal matters which sundered the couple were not enough to sway her opinion of his business acumen" (The Denver Post, November 23, 1947). And it remains a little known fact that Fannie - forever determined to stay out of the limelight - managed her estate so deftly that her portion was worth half a million more upon her death than the financial legacy left behind by Charles four years earlier.
Born in Liberty, Missouri in 1854, Fannie Augusta Cowan was the oldest of seven children raised by her parents, John and Elizabeth Jones Cowan, in and around various farming communities in that state. In 1871, the Cowans moved to northern Kansas, and in 1873 19-year-old Fannie, described as the "most adventurous daughter" (Bean, p.31), traveled to Colorado to visit her uncle in Fort Collins. There she met 21-year-old Charles Boettcher, who had recently opened a branch of his brother's hardware business. Within a matter of months, after what had to have been a whirlwind courtship, Fannie had met and agreed to marry Charles. Their wedding took place in April of 1874, and by September of that year, they were living in Boulder, where Charles opened yet another hardware store. Just a few blocks west of the business, they built a small brick cottage. Their son, Claudius Kedzie Boettcher (Kedzie was a Cowan family name, and the child was called Claude), was born in June of 1875.
The first five years of their marriage were always remembered fondly by Charles, who later reminisced that, "I had done fairly well and had a nice store in Boulder. We built a nice little house on Main Street (Pearl) and had our baby there. Business was good and Boulder was a pretty town and we were happy there" (Bean, p. 35). During this promising period in Charles' career, Fannie was equally busy, raising Claude in their residence at 925 Pearl Street. Extensively remodeled over the years, primarily for use as a popular Boulder restaurant (Pasta Jay's), the dwelling was moved in 1996 to its final resting place in Erie. The "Fannie Boettcher Cottage" is now owned by the Erie Library and Historical Associations, which plan to renovate it for use as a children's library.
When the silver boom overtook Colorado in the late 1870s Charles, always able to see potential profits, moved his family to Leadville, where they built an apartment above their new store. Fannie worked in the shop as needed, and Claude took to racing up and down the town's many steep hills in his goat cart. He was subsequently sent to a private school in Indiana, a not-so-subtle ploy to keep him "off the streets" of Leadville, which was hardly safe for children. Charles later expressed remorse about his spur-of-the-moment decision to move there: "Looking back now it seems like it was a foolish thing to do. Here I was established in a profitable business; I had a wife and three year old baby. I feel sure now that had I stayed in Boulder, I would have led a happy life. Very likely I wouldn't have made much money, but money isn't everything although it often helps" (Bean, p. 42).
By 1884, Charles had purchased a wholesale hardware business in Denver, and in 1888 the Boettchers hired English architect John J. Huddart to design them a sophisticated residence at 1201 Grant Street. The $26,000 spent on its materials were the best that money could buy, and its location in the midst of "Millionaire's Row" (on Capitol Hill) was prized. Completion of the house coincided with the birth of Ruth Augusta Boettcher, born in 1890. With Charles and Fannie now in their mid- to late-30s, and Claude age 15 and away at boarding school, the arrival of a new baby - coupled with the Boettcher's new "urban" lifestyle - must have been an adjustment. But few facts are known of Fannie's day-to-day life during this period, even though she was surrounded by - and was now considered - "high society." Although she entertained often, she was mentioned only occasionally in the local newspapers. For example, her first trip abroad in 1884 - where she met her German in-laws for the first time as Claude celebrated his 10th birthday - made headlines in The Leadville Daily Herald.
The turn of the century was an incredibly industrious time for Charles Boettcher. Approaching age 50, he had already amassed a fortune, and was entertaining thoughts of retirement (this lasted less than a year, after which he worked another 48 years until his death). A banner year in every way, 1900 encompassed not just the quintessential "grand tour" of Europe (by Charles, Fannie and Ruth, with another 10th birthday celebration for Ruth in Germany), but also Claude's marriage to DeAllen McMurtrie of Kansas City (a union which produced Charles Boettcher II the following year). After scrupulously studying the German sugar beet and cement industries, Charles shipped seed and machinery back to Colorado. As a result, two more extremely lucrative enterprises - The Great Western Sugar Company and The Ideal Cement Company - were launched practically overnight.
In 1902, Fannie took Ruth around the world, stopping in Japan to purchase a multitude of Oriental items for their Denver mansion. Imperial India - seen from a private railway car - was another destination, and in 1911 the Boettcher women witnessed the coronation of George V in London. Fannie's last trip abroad - complicated by the outbreak of World War I - occurred in 1914, and she forever blamed the Germans for the 12-week delay in her return home. After that, she traveled only as far as Hawaii.
In 1915, Fannie took it upon herself to remodel their Denver residence, taking care to properly display items from her international collection. Her flair for interior decorating did not go unnoticed. As the society pages noted: "Embroidered fire screens, and pictures, brocaded silk screens, silk velvet coverlets, rugs and furniture are testimonials to the Japanese influence on her life." One room was "completely furnished with Japanese objects, including antique temple chairs, bought in a pawn shop, an ancient desk and an exquisite prayer table." The "Dutch Room" featured "lovely delft blue tiles that stand out in the art work of Holland, surmounted by a fine Dutch frieze; everything in the room is from the Netherlands – clocks, decorative coffee tiles, vases and pitchers, table china and even furniture" (The Denver Post, November 23, 1947).
While the exact forces behind the fissure that ultimately caused Fannie and Charles' marriage to crack wide open are unknown, by now it was clear to both that they had drifted apart. In 1919, as Ruth prepared to marry Albert E. Humphreys Jr., the son of an oil and mining magnate, their marriage came to a halt. In planning for what was undoubtedly one of the grandest weddings of the year, Fannie decided their Denver residence needed a sun porch. When Charles stated he would leave if the addition took place, Fannie built it anyway (Rocky Mountain News, June 17, 1979). Whether it was Fannie's tenacity - or Charles' thriftiness (he was once called "a notorious tightwad"), that caused their final separation after a long and prosperous marriage, is pure speculation. But after Charles moved out, he never returned.
Sadly, the Edwardian-style residence that served as the couple's Denver homestead for more than three decade was demolished in 1953. Occupied only by family members, and exclusively by Fannie after her separation from Charles, it could have shed such light on her taste and temperament had it been preserved. With its fanciful turrets and gables, the red brick residence contained 16 rooms, servants quarters and an adjacent carriage house. Surrounded by a high iron fence, and growing increasingly infirm of body and mind, Fannie lived there until the last months of her life, when she finally asked Claude to move her to a nursing home (Bean, p. 200).
In the meantime, Charles took up residence at the Denver Club, later moving to The Brown Palace (which he eventually purchased). Having commissioned the architectural firm of Fisher & Fisher to design and build a summer cottage and seasonal hunting lodge on top of Lookout Mountain in 1917, "Lorraine Lodge" (now known as The Boettcher Mansion) must have been a much welcomed retreat. Whether it was initially intended this way or not, the rustic dwelling and surrounding 110 acres turned out to be his near-exclusive stomping ground. It is not known how much time (if any) Fannie spent at the Mansion. From 1920 until Charles' death on November 2, 1948, Fannie led a quiet life in Denver. It is interesting to note that, up until 1947 (perhaps in anticipation of Charles' passing), The Denver Post's own files contained nothing on Fannie Boettcher. That year, she bequeathed large sums of money to a few carefully chosen charities (her criteria was apparently stringent). These included gifts of $55,000 to the Kent School (a private all-girls school attended by some of her descendents), and $128,000 worth of stock to Children’s Hospital. These gifts - too generous to go unnoticed - prompted The Denver Post to publish a series of articles on Mrs. Boettcher that were later copyrighted. As staff writer Robert Steinbruner observed:
"Other women enjoying her position have spent their energies and money in making displays - high and fancy living, giving and attending social functions, wearing expensive attire and jewelry. Not so the wife of Charles Boettcher, pioneer merchant prince with the Midas touch. Mrs. Boettcher always has lived simply and has been hostess at very few large parties. Her abstinence from exhibitions of the very rich plus her nature to prefer to be in the background plus her travel proclivities account for the almost total lack of knowledge that Denver has about one of its most unusual and wealthiest citizens." (The Denver Post, November 25, 1947).
Although Fannie's own propensity for managing money may have been her best-guarded secret, a rare self-quote reveals one tried-and-true financial strategy: "I didn't always buy the most expensive things, but the best I could afford." (The Denver Post, November 23, 1947). One particular pet peeve she had concerning the excessive use of alcohol supports her reputation of "integrity, straightforwardness of will (and) an uncompromising persistence where principle is involved." According to one account, when living alone at age 93, an inebriated itinerant rang the doorbell of her Denver home. Slow to heed her request that he leave the premises immediately, Mrs. Boettcher literally scared him off by sounding the brass gong hanging on the front porch. "The last I saw of him he was running as fast as he could go," she said afterwards (The Denver Post, November 23, 1947).
Today, with the Boettcher name as much in the news as it must have been in Charles' heyday, the family spirit lives on at The Boettcher Mansion. Was it Fannie who initially set the tone for this unique mountaintop retreat, now owned and operated as a popular Jefferson County event and meeting site? Did she ever live here? To date, these questions remain unanswered. And knowing what little we do know of Fannie that is probably just how she would want it.
Photos courtesy of the Colorado Historical Society
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