Staking Their Claim

The Territorial Daughters have a song in their heart--and it's not "Rocky Mountain High."

On a recent afternoon, eleven members of the Territorial Daughters of Colorado convene their final monthly meeting before the winter holiday break. They have a full program: the officers' reports (the checking account stands at $543.07), the minutes of the October meeting (approved), a membership update (nothing to report), food assignments for an upcoming philanthropic tea, a slide presentation on local cemeteries, and a position to take on the recent threat, from a fourth-grade class in Fort Collins, to change the Colorado state song from "Where the Columbines Grow" to "Rocky Mountain High."

The meeting is held at Denver's Church of the Risen Christ, a modern building on South Monaco Parkway with a sloping steeple that resembles a ski jump. Margorie Cowie, the president, and Eileen Dowling, the recording secretary, sit at the front of the room behind a folding table. The rest of the women scatter themselves at a half-dozen round tables. Breads, candy, tea and coffee are arranged tastefully on a side table.

While the matter of Colorado's official song may not be on the minds of most people, the Territorial Daughters are about nothing if not what best represents the state: Thirty years ago they successfully repelled an unpatriotic attack to change the state flower from the columbine. By that time, they'd already been around for half a century.

The Denver chapter of the Territorial Daughters of Colorado was founded in 1910; since then, three other chapters have formed: the Southern Colorado Territorial Daughters, the Greeley chapter and the Grand Junction chapter. In all, the organization claims about 200 members, the vast majority of whom are not active. Most meetings these days boast no more than ten to twenty attendees.

Membership is exclusive and in the blood. "In order to join the Territorial Daughters, you have to have had a direct ancestor who lived in Colorado before it became a state on August 1, 1876," explains Doris Sawdey, who, like many active members, is a former president of the organization. She has made the trip to today's meeting from Longmont. "My great-grandfather Rufus Rice came to Colorado in 1859, and my great-grandfather Frank Sawdey came in 1871. Rufus Rice was from Massachusetts, where he was one of fourteen children. Him and his brother came west because there wasn't much room left. His marriage to Georgie Black was the first in Longmont."

The group has had two big membership drives in the past four decades--Rush the Rockies, in 1959, and a concerted registration push during the state's centennial, in 1976. Since that time, the Territorial Daughters have mostly relied on word of mouth for recruitment, but new members are scarce, and truth be told, the legacies simply are not coming through. Many of the members' daughters just don't join.

"It's left to older people to do all the work," says Doris Sawdey, shaking her head.

"The younger generation, they're different," sighs Sheri Benedict, whose father was born in Central City in 1865. "I have two daughters, but they work; they can't come to our meetings. That's our biggest problem: getting active members."

So the monthly membership reports tend to concentrate on the increasing number of inactive members: Which shut-ins should get free calendars this year? Which members have recently passed away? Who should be made an honorary Territorial Daughter? (Admission to a nursing home confers automatic eligibility; honorary members are exempt from annual dues.)

Still, despite the aging and less-ambulatory membership, the Territorial Daughters meet every month except December and January. The four state chapters also gather once a year, in June. And the annual fundraising party, held in February, is fast approaching.

"We always send an invitation to the governor's wife," someone calls out.
"Yeah, I suppose," President Cowie grumbles. "You never know; she might come." She writes a note to herself.

Membership rolls generally swell with a new project, so recently the Territorial Daughters have been looking around for something to do. In the past they have concentrated on plaques. In 1923 they put one up in Daniels Park, in Littleton, to mark where Kit Carson had his final campfire before traveling to La Junta, where he died. In 1959 they installed a commemorative plaque on the first rural school in Colorado, outside of Erie. In 1961 they placed a marker on Colorado's first woolen mill, located in downtown Denver. The building was later razed, and the plaque was lost.

"It was brought to our attention, but nobody took action," concedes Doris Sawdey. "Sometimes you're not sure if you're overstepping your authority."

The plaques on the state's first bank, in Greeley (dedicated in 1983), the kiosk in Old Town Fort Collins (1982) and the gazebo at Palmer Lake (1989) remain. The marker at Soda Lakes (1937), which indicates where early settlers got soda when their supplies from back East were cut off by hostile Indians, has been moved two times so far to accommodate new roads. It was replaced earlier this year after a fifteen-year absence. "I sure hope it stays put this time," says Inez Sawdey, Doris's sister.

Chasing down misplaced plaques takes work, and today the Territorial Daughters seem more inclined to assist others in their projects. One promising new endeavor is the Women of the West Museum being planned for Boulder. In fact, Cowie reports, the museum's board has asked the Territorial Daughters for a donation.

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