May 8, 2015 by Pamela Nowak
Mary Elitch Long brought her own personality and grace to Elitch Gardens. Long known as the “Lady of the Gardens,” she left her mark on the amusement park in many ways.
Mary loved children, though she had none of her own. Every Tuesday while she was park owner, she offered free admission to kids and arranged special events for her Children’s Days. She offered games, contests, and arts & crafts sessions. There were classes in folk dance and ballet as well as plants and animals. Mary also exposed children to music and drama. She even wrote poetry for children.
By the 1900s, more than 3000 children attended each weekly free day. Assistants were hired especially to keep an eye on them. Mary published a weekly newsletter, The Children’s Companion, to publicize upcoming events. As much as Mary loved the children, they also adored her. Often, on the last Children’s Day of the season, they would gift her with small trinkets and hand-picked bouquets of dandelions.
One former child remembers:
“One very hot day, I chanced to visit the Gardens when throngs of happy children played in the sunshine. Right in the middle was a beautiful elderly lady who laughingly greeted first one child by name, then another, and who resembled an ethereal being, almost a part of the sun-drenched blooms that so profusely decorated the grounds. I waited in awe as she was surrounded again and again.” –Dorothy Morgan (from Denver’s Elitch Gardens by Betty Lynne Hull, p. 44)
Elitch’s also held weekly free-admission days for nursing home residents and orphans. Every Wednesday, residents of the Denver Old Ladies Home were welcomed as guests. Local Ute tribal members were hired to teach Native American lore and crafts. Every Tuesday, on Children’s Day, Mary hosted a formal afternoon tea at her home where she taught manners and deportment.
In 1911, Mary worked with state PTA organizers to institute Parent/Teacher Day at Elitch’s. It became a yearly spring event with all Denver schools participating and all proceeds benefitting the PTA. It included a parade and student performances of dances, plays, and other cultural activities.
Mary fostered a wholesome environment at Elitch Gardens. She did not permit alcohol on the premises and designed all of the attractions as family-friendly. While other amusement park had on-site taverns, dancing, casinos, suggestive performances, and games designed to trick people out of money, Mary permitted none of those things at the park. (It was only after she sold the park that the Trocadero Ballroom opened.) Businesses and local societies often planned their annual picnics at Elitch Gardens.
Dedicated to supporting the Denver community, Mary often participated in local fundraising events, offering the Gardens as a venue. She helped raise money for a number of charities in Denver. One memorable event included a yodeling performance by Mary’s friend Molly Brown in 1909 to raise funds for an animal charity.
Mary was more than the owner of Elitch Gardens. She wrote children’s stories, poetry, and magazine articles. In addition, she studied music and promoted musicians and actors as they learned their craft. Her support of others included buying paintings and displaying them in her home and commissioning paintings for the theatre.
She was a lifetime member of the Denver Woman’s Press Club and the Colorado Branch League of American Pen Women as well as the Denver Athletic Club, which John Elitch helped found. Her other memberships included the Denver Woman’s Club, the Garden Club, the North Side Club, the Why Club, the Spanish Club Como-se-dice, the Camp Fire Girls of Denver, and others.
So loved by the community of Denver was she that hundreds supported her and her vision of the park when she encountered financial problems. As Tom and Mary aged, they grew apart. During the years before the park was sold, they separated and Tom focused on building a floral business in Colorado Springs while Mary managed Elitch Gardens. By this time, she was nearing sixty and the growing park stretched her ability to keep up with management. In short, the gardens were in debt. As stockholders pressed her to sell the property to a circus company that planned to close the park and use the land to winter circus animals, the community sprang forward to help with fund-raisers. John Mulvihill agreed to purchase the park instead and continue its legacy. The sale contract included an agreement that the name of the park would never be changed, that the two lower boxes in the theatre would always be available to Mary, and that Mary could live on the grounds for as long as she desired.
After Mary sold Elitch Gardens, she remained active there. She moved into a new house built for her and tended her own garden and animals at the house. She strolled in the Gardens at will, greeting and interacting with park visitors. Sometimes, she quoted poetry to them. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was a favorite of hers and she often carried the volume given to her by John Eltich on their wedding day. Many people have memories of her in a glowing gown and wide sunhat. She often invited friends to share her boxes at the theatre, sometimes at the last minute.
In 1925, the Denver Women’s Press Club hosted a 69th birthday party for Mary (born May 10, 1856). Included in the guest list were the governor and mayor.
Mary moved from Elitch Gardens in 1932, too frail and weak to live alone. She moved in with her sister-in –law, who lived nearby. In 1936, she suffered a stroke and died four days later, on July 16, at the age of 80. She was lauded by the local press and her theatre boxes were draped in black. She was buried in the Fairmount Cemetery beside John Elitch. Her five-page handwritten will bestowed her personal items, many small items were left to local children and her most treasured belongings were given to John Elitch’s niece, Minnie, who had always been very close to Mary.
This Sunday, May 10, is the anniversary of her birth. Happy Birthday, Lady of the Gardens!
Next week, my blog will take a bit of a detour. May 16 is Armed Forces Day and in honor of our military, I plan to focus next week on the Spanish American War. While this has nothing to do with Elitch Gardens, Caleb, the hero of Escaping Yesterday, is a veteran of that war.
Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (https://www.facebook.com/pamela.nowak.142).
Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.