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Oct 12

The Life and Times of Charles Boettcher: The Early Years (Original Post Date 1/31/17)

Posted on October 12, 2017 at 7:38 PM by Laura Wilkins

Historical Context

This is a monthly, year-long series leading up to the 1917 construction of Charles Boettcher’s beloved “Lorraine Lodge” on top of Lookout Mountain. Known today as the Boettcher Mansion, the 110-acre Arts and Crafts estate has been owned and operated by Jefferson County as a special events venue since it opened to the public in 1975. Now 100 years old, with a midsummer birthday gala planned for Thursday, July 27, 2017, the National Register landmark lives on as a great example of adaptive reuse.

January’s entry begins with 17-year-old Charles’ journey from Germany to America, where a three-month visit to the Wild West turned into the career of a lifetime for this hard-working, forward-thinking Prussian immigrant. Special thanks to Professor Geraldine Bean (1928-2012), whose 1976 Centennial publication, “Charles Boettcher: A Study in Pioneer Western Enterprise”, provided the background for this blog.

Part 1:  The Early Years

Charles Boettcher was born in 1852 in Kolleda, Germany, a thriving agricultural town near the cultural hub of Weimar. His parents – Susanna Martine, the daughter of a local farmer, and Frederick Boettcher, the proprietor of a hardware store – were respected members of the burgher (bourgeoisie) community. The eldest of six children, Herman and Charles attended the local primary schools when it became clear that their second son had the mental and physical stamina to pursue the rigorous, classical Gymnasium curriculum that paved the way for a university education. So at age nine, six days a week, Charles began an intense immersion into languages, math, science, religion, art, music and physical education. He was a model student. 

At 17, he was well trained in attention to detail, critical thinking, good manners and self-discipline – all traits that would serve him well in the years to come. In the summer of 1868, his parents sent him “on holiday” to convince Herman – who had left four years earlier to find work in Wyoming – to return home. Thrilled to cross the Atlantic, he hunkered down on the ship, passing the time listening to his fellow voyagers talk about their hopes of a better life in America despite rumors of crime, corruption, disease and poverty in the ghettos, tenements, sweatshops, slaughterhouses, coal mines and steel mills. Charles steered clear of trouble.

After disembarking at Ellis Island, Charles soon boarded a hot, dirty, overcrowded train to Chicago, switching to another car to Sioux City, Iowa (where anyone heading west had to be ferried across the Missouri River to Omaha). The Union Pacific then traversed Nebraska, passing sparse prairie settlements, bison and coyote herds and occasional bands of Indians who had not yet “relocated” to reservations. After crossing the North Fork of the Platte River (a spot that would later hold great significance to Charles), he arrived at the “end of the track.” Then known as “Hell on Wheels”, Julesburg, Colorado was populated by 4,000 gamblers, prostitutes, real estate speculators and saloon keeper out to make a quick buck. Charles did not linger

Finally, he arrived in Cheyenne, an early railroad division point that led to its designation as a territorial capital in 1868. By then it was known as “The Magic City” for its banks, hotels, post office, schools, shops, dry goods and hardware suppliers, lumber and freight shipping (the latter enterprise was particularly important when Texas cattlemen began driving their steers up north to be shipped to eastern markets). Noting the pervading sense of law and order (saloons shut down on Sunday mornings, visitors were required to check their guns when coming into town), and comparing the free capitalist system to that of Europe, Charles was duly impressed. He wasn’t leaving anytime soon.

When Herman hired him to help out at the local hardware store, Charles apprenticed as a tinner, fashioning crude cups, kettles, pots and pans and other frontier staples out of sheets of metal later shaped and joined at the seams on the premises. Sleeping under the counter at night to save most of his salary of $1-$2 per week, he at first joined his cohorts in the Saturday night revels around town. But watching his companions spend their entire paychecks on drinking and gambling, he soon turned to more productive activities such as learning English and the hardware trade. Surrounded by scales, stoves, leather harnesses, mining tools, traps, ammunition, groceries and household staples, he quickly learned the business.

In 1870, Herman purchased his employers’ stock, leasing the building from them, renaming the store “H. Boettcher & Company” and adding Charles on as his partner. The transaction included purchase of a second store 50 miles south along the tracks in Greeley, Colorado. This location proved to be a wise investment as a new north-south Pacific feeder line was built the same year, enabling Denver to overshadow Cheyenne as “the Queen City of the Plains”. With Charles now his partner, their business motto became “Quick Sales and Small Profits”. This slogan was soon replaced by “Hard Goods, Hardware and Hard Cash.” There was no turning back.