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Oct 12

The Life and Times of Charles Boettcher: The Colony Years (Original Post Date 2/28/17)

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


February’s entry begins with the trials and tribulations of Charles and Herman Boettcher's decision to expand their hardware business into Colorado as new settlements began to spring up in Greeley, Evans and Fort Collins. 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.

Greeley was established in 1870 by members of the Union Colony, an agricultural group founded by Horace Greeley and Nathan Meeker, editor and agricultural editor of the New York Tribune.  Men of temperance and good character (moral, intelligent and industrious) could enroll for a $155 initiation fee, used to purchase land near the confluence of the Cache la Poudre and South Platte rivers.  The location was chosen by William Byers, then editor of the Rocky Mountain News and Colorado manager of the National Land Company, an agency handling land grant sales for the Denver and Kansas Pacific Railroads.  Once assigned a tract of farmland, a colonist could then buy a lot in town for up to $50. 

Arriving on a special Union Pacific train that delivered passengers from Cheyenne while the new Denver line was still under construction, most of the first arrivals hailed from back east, where similar colonies already existed.  But, with the soil needing to be cultivated and ditches having to be dug to support agriculture as the predominant source of income, many settlers became discouraged and moved on.  Once a 27-mile-long ditch and a canal were completed, however, those who prevailed soon saw the population grow to 2000, with 400 sturdy homes, several brick mercantile structures, plus a bank, train depot, mills, schools, lecture halls, churches and Masonic and Knights of Templar lodges.

With the Greeley Tribune reporting that the Boettchers' tinware equaled that of anywhere else in the country, the brothers were confident enough to open another branch four miles away in Evans, established in 1869 as a railroad terminus for the Denver Pacific Railroad.  Only 21 at the time of this land purchase, Charles was granted a government permit to farm and raise cattle on 160 acres (the brothers together owned other nearby property and had chattel mortgages on livestock, crops and other investments).  But since Evans did not attract as many settlers as hoped, they shifted their focus to Fort Collins where General R.A. Cameron had recently established an agricultural colony on an abandoned military post 25 miles up the Cache la Poudre River.  The Larimer County Improvement Company was then organized to buy and develop the 240-acre property.

While Herman courted and married Elsie McKinney, the daughter of a New Yorker who had come west to join the Union Colony in 1870, Charles opened a small 1-story hardware business on Jefferson Street.  The town grow slowly and uncertainly, with the population shrinking as the only bank collapsed during the Panic of 1873, the Colorado Central Railroad failed to build tracks as expected, and a drought and grasshopper plague arrived the next year.  Making matters worse, the lack of water caused a heated dispute with Greeley residents over irrigation rights to the Cache la Poudre, with Fort Collins ultimately forced to release more shares to their sister colony.  It didn't take long for Charles to realize this settlement couldn't support a hardware store.

Because the farms and ranches were so spread out, Charles put his goods in a wagon and began traveling to them.  One stop was La Porte, local headquarters for the French Canadian hunters and fur trappers (during the 1840s-50s, many had married Cheyenne and Arapahoe women and settled there permanently).  As the trading post operator became one of the Boettchers' best customers, Charles learned a lot about the challenges facing farmers and ranchers, including freight charges and water rights.  And, for the rest of his life, he fondly recalled the antics of the local Native American children he befriended (one reason he later built his Ideal Cement Company in the area).

Charles met Fannie Augusta Cowan at the beginning of 1874, while she was visiting her uncle Andrew and his family in search for a place that might improve her mother's failing health.  The couple embarked in a whirlwind courtship, with Charles persuading "the vivacious, dark-haired and most estimable and accomplished young lady" to marry him only a few months later (on April 19th).  While she visited family in Kansas after the wedding, he negotiated buying yet another hardware store in Boulder.  Soon a done deal, they began their married life there in September.