Staking Their Claim
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.
"Sounds good to me," shrugs Garnett Mayhew, whose great-grandfather opened a saloon in downtown Denver in 1860.
Eileen Dowling tries to rally more support. "I think it's something really up the Territorial Daughters' alley," she says. "After all, that's what we are--women of the West."
"All the wives of the former U.S. presidents are on the board of directors," observes Inez.
"Is that a good thing or bad?" wonders Louanna Opekar, who is known as Lou and is the Territorial Daughters' treasurer. "I can just see someone from New York..."
"I think Territorial Daughters should stay on top of this," says Inez, her voice rising. "And when there is a groundbreaking, Territorial Daughters should be out in force! Mandatory attendance!"
The group agrees to write individual checks to the organization's account, which will be combined into a single donation to the museum from the Territorial Daughters.
It is toward the end of the meeting that the state song comes up. "Where the Columbines Grow" was written in 1915 by A.J. Fynn and adopted as the state song on May 8 that same year, settling into its lofty position with barely any time to be tested on the public. John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" was released in 1972 and quickly rocketed to No. 9 on Billboard's chart. The song has enjoyed a second surge of popularity since the singer was killed in a plane crash two months ago.
But who says popularity makes a state song?
"Yuck," observes Garnett Mayhew. "'Rocky Mountain High' is pretty. But I think it's more a fad-type song than anything."
"I think it's ridiculous," agrees Lou Opekar, whose grandfather ran away from the family farm in Lawrence, Kansas, and arrived in Colorado in 1870. "Then again, I don't particularly like 'Where the Columbines Grow,' either. I think it's outdated. If I had my choice, the state song would be 'Colorado,' from the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Wouldn't that be nice? It's vibrant, exciting, fun!"
"I don't think anybody knows 'Where the Columbines Grow,'" complains Betty Cram, whose grandmother was born in Colorado in 1865. "People don't know the words. Some people say it's too old and it's time for a change. Well, that's not the point. We're the Centennial State."
"I think it's terrible," adds Inez Sawdey, shaking her head. "All John Denver did for us was take our city's name. I don't think he's even from Colorado. Where's he from? West Virginia?"
"He lived in Aspen," Lou Opekar says.
"Still," Inez continues, louder, "the state legislature wouldn't even look at a Colorado march song written by a Territorial Daughter in 1976. And now we're going to let an outsider come in and make his the state song?"
Betty Cram nods. "We're going to have to fight."
"But 'Columbines' is never played anymore," Lou protests.
"Well, we'll just have to start," says Betty.
"The Southern Colorado Territorial Daughters play it at every meeting," notes Inez.
Lou is still unsure. "I think I've only heard it once in my life."
"As a grade-school student, when I was a member of the Colorado Young Citizens League, we sang it two times a week," says Inez.
"And we sang 'America the Beautiful' every time the flag was hauled up," adds Betty.
"We had to dust the desks and fill the water jugs, too," says Inez.
"And clean the erasers," points out Mary Summers, who has been brought by Sheri Benedict as a guest. ("I'm not eligible to join, even though I've lived here for seventy years--all my life," she says. "But their meetings are such fun.")
"The boys had to clean up the playground," adds Inez. "And every Arbor Day we planted a tree. That was the way we were raised. That's what we did." She pauses. "I'll tell you, 'Rocky Mountain High' will never pass in Longmont," she declares.
Lou is still unconvinced. "'Columbines' is just so old-fashioned. And I can't feature anybody who's young and bright being interested in it."
"I think it's better to keep the traditional song," argues Eleanor Ahern, whose mother's father settled in Idaho Springs in 1855, before the state's gold rush. ("He tried to find gold, but it never worked out for him," she says.)
"I mean, I love 'Rocky Mountain High,'" she continues. "I know the words, and John Denver had such a beautiful voice. And I don't know the words to 'Columbines.' But let's not change it. It's been around for a while."
Doris Sawdey agrees. "Oh, I'm against 'Rocky Mountain High,'" she says. "Too much native Coloradan in me, I guess."
She fixes her eyes in the middle distance and begins singing in a soft, reedy voice:
Where the snowy peaks gleam in the moonlight
Above the dark forests of pine
And the wild foaming waters dash onward
Toward lands where the tropic stars shine;
Where the scream of the bold mountain eagle
Responds to the notes of the dove
Is the purple-robed West, the land that is best,
The pioneer land that we love.
'Tis the land where the columbines grow.
"There's two more verses," she says. "Would you like some tea?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Reader: Landlords Are Overcharging Marijuana Businesses Because They Can
Mon., Aug. 31, 7:00pm
Thu., Sep. 3, 6:40pm
Thu., Sep. 3, 7:00pm
Thu., Sep. 3, 7:00pm
- Remembering the Denver Wax Museum and Nine More Long-Gone Local Landmarks
- Dear Mexican: Was Jimi Hendrix Part Mexican?