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Leah Davis Witherow

It’s hard to imagine someone better qualified to tell the stories of women in Colorado Springs during Women’s History Month than Leah Davis Witherow, curator of history at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. 

“We launched an oral history program to interview 100 women to celebrate the centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage in Colorado, 1893-1993,” Witherow said. “But the women had such great stories — their sisters had stories, their mothers and grandmothers — we ended up interviewing about 130 women.”

Many of those stories and more have found their way into current exhibits at the museum, including COS@150; Any Place That Is North and West; and the museum’s 19th amendment exhibit, This Shall Be the Land for Women.

“Women have always shaped Colorado Springs culture, in the arts and education and business and government,” Witherow said. “From 1871 on, they operated boarding houses and restaurants. They were teachers; they offered music lessons; they were dressmakers; they worked in laundries. And women always sought opportunities to become entrepreneurs.”

Witherow said the oral history project is ongoing as part of the museum’s efforts to uncover more women’s stories.

“I think we still have quite a bit of work to do,” she said. “We are really dedicated to teasing out the stories about women who made a difference but might not be household names in Colorado Springs.”

Tell us about some early women entrepreneurs in Colorado Springs.

A woman who was very successful in business was Helen Hunt Jackson. When she arrived in 1873, she was already a noted author, but she had her most productive years as an author while she was in residence at Colorado Springs, [where she lived] for about 12 years. In terms of a woman who was competing in the world of business — in this case, authoring books and having them published — she was the most successful woman author of the 19th century. She insisted on being paid the same rates, if not more, than the most famous male authors of her time. She negotiated with Century magazine and the major publishing houses, and she would never concede. She demanded it and she received it. 

Anne Van Briggle was another early entrepreneur. After [her husband] Artus Van Briggle died in 1904, Anne took over the operation of Van Briggle Pottery and expanded it to become Van Briggle Pottery and Tile Co., which is internationally renowned and blends the notions of Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts pottery, and is today among the most collectible pottery in the world.

Were there any women entrepreneurs during Colorado Springs’ early 20th century heyday as a healing sanctuary for tuberculosis patients?

Florence Standish was a registered nurse and at one time was the superintendent of Beth El Hospital. She opened her own private health care facility for tuberculosis patients called Knob Hill Lodge in 1912. She purchased a home in what we today call the Knob Hill neighborhood, on Logan Avenue near present-day UCHealth Memorial Hospital. She cared for people of moderate means — and why this is so important is that many of the wealthiest tuberculosis patients would come to Colorado Springs, and perhaps they could stay at Cragmor, which was one of the toniest facilities in the country, or they could stay in The Broadmoor once it opened, or at The Antlers hotel. Some wealthy tuberculosis patients rented homes or built homes here in the Pikes Peak region. But Knob Hill Lodge specialized in working-class folks, and a lot of women. At the time, the prescription for tuberculosis was the rest cure — you needed to almost be completely immobile for upwards of a year, sometimes two. You would sit outside in an Adirondack chair and be exposed to as much sun as possible. … Sometimes the prescription was so strict that you couldn’t even speak. But that didn’t work for working-class people who couldn’t afford to do nothing for an entire year, and it definitely didn’t work for mothers. So Knob Hill Lodge had a more homey environment.

The sickest patients were cared for inside the home, and those that were doing a little bit better lived outside in 10 cottages. Essentially, it was operated on a sliding scale. And there was something extra special that Florence did, because she really made her patients feel welcome. They felt like it was less of an industrial sort of facility, which in terms of their emotional well-being aided their recovery. Florence operated Knob Hill Lodge for several years, and then she served as a chief nurse during World War I. To me, she is an example of someone who was both an entrepreneur and also tried to make things better for people who were really struggling and suffering.

Fannie Mae Duncan, who owned and operated the Cotton Club in the late 1940s through 1975, is well known in Colorado Springs history. Who are some other Black women entrepreneurs we should know about?

“Mama” Susie Perkins is featured in our COS@150 exhibit because her story is really powerful. She was born and raised in Mississippi. She was the daughter and granddaughter of sharecroppers, and her mother had asthma to the extent that they moved to Colorado Springs in 1937 so that she might receive some relief from our healthful climate. When Susie moved to Colorado Springs, she worked in a restaurant for a time; she worked as a nurse, and then she saw an opportunity and bought a garbage truck and developed routes around town. Eventually she owned seven garbage trucks, and she vowed to work until she paid off her debt and her family’s debt and could purchase a home. But she found out that she really liked working, and she never stopped. She drove one of the garbage trucks herself. 

While she was driving around all over Colorado Springs, she saw abandoned houses, and she began to purchase these houses, and with the help of her family she would renovate them and rent them out. She rented them to folks that other landlords discriminated against, including single mothers, mixed-race couples, and Black Fort Carson soldiers and their families who were in a very tight housing market in Colorado Springs in the 1950s and ‘60s. Mama Susie acquired about 100 properties and over decades, she rented those properties to thousands of families.

And there was Joyce Gilmer, the first Black female real estate agent in Colorado Springs. She had grown up in the South, and she loved reading, she loved education. She loved school, and she dreamed of going to college, but her family simply couldn’t afford it. After she married her husband, who was in the military, that dream was always sort of omnipresent. But they had three children, and they would move [frequently]. This kept going on until they arrived in Colorado Springs, when the couple divorced and her husband moved away. But Joyce stayed here because she fell in love with Colorado Springs and because she wanted them to have all of the advantages that she didn’t have growing up. She needed a job that was flexible, so it came to her that real estate might be a great career because she could set her own schedule. So she studied, and she opened Joyce Realty in 1969. She was well known for working with middle-class families, military families, and she could relate to them. She thrived in that business because she was a people person and her clients adored her.

Who comes to mind when you think of modern women entrepreneurs?

I think of Judy Noyes of Chinook Bookshop. She and [her husband] Dick Noyes came to Colorado Springs in the 1950s specifically to open a business. They chose Colorado Springs because Dick was doing a lot of traveling sales, and they wanted to settle into a community and be very present while raising their family. And so to get out of the sales business, they developed a plan, and together they dreamed up a bookshop. People often think of the male partner or the male spouse in a husband-and-wife business as the leader, but they really were true partners. They opened Chinook in 1959 with $25,000 and only one full-time employee, and their goal was to be the best bookstore in the entire country. Ten years later, they had sales of about half a million dollars; they carried approximately 75,000 titles, and they had 30 employees. And in 1975 Town & Country magazine called Chinook the best bookshop in the USA. [Chinook Bookshop, a Downtown landmark, closed in 2004.]

Miriam Loo also has a phenomenal entrepreneurship story. Her husband, [artist and lithographer] Orin Loo, worked at Hallmark in Kansas City, and when they moved to Colorado Springs, he went out on his own and created Looart Press [in 1947]. He designed Christmas cards and sold them to local businesses, through stationery shops and to his neighbors. And then Miriam saw an opportunity and a need. They both were very involved with the Broadmoor Community Church, and one year at one of their fundraising fairs, she looked around and realized how hard women’s groups were working to raise money for a charity or a church or a nonprofit. She came up with an idea to sell cards to women’s groups or church groups that were raising funds for nonprofits — they could purchase the cards and resell them as a fundraiser. So she wrote letters to churches and schools and nonprofits across the country. and she had about a 50 percent positive response rate right from the beginning. And so her company was born — she called it Current and operated out of the basement of the family’s home southwest of Downtown. Eventually the two companies merged. … She grew that company into a $100 million direct marketing enterprise that was eventually sold by the family in the 1980s. 

One of the most remarkable things about Current is that it was a family-friendly workplace. Women who were re-entering the workforce could get a job. It was a place where people worked for decades, and they felt respected, they felt valued, and they had tremendous loyalty to the company. I’ve interviewed about 18 people who previously worked there, and time and time again, people tell me it was the best job that they’ve ever had, and that they were a valuable part of the Current family.

Reporter

Jeanne Davant is a graduate of the University of North Carolina. She worked for daily newspapers in D.C., North Carolina and Colorado, and has taught journalism and creative writing. She joined the Business Journal in 2017.