A place in time: Project connects suffrage movement to physical location, driving home history

Susan was here: Famed suffragist Susan B. Anthony stumped for women's voting rights in 1877 on the steps of the Hinsdale County Courthouse, still standing and in use today in Lake City. (Courtesy photo/Colorado Historical Foundation)

When people walk into the Hinsdale County Courthouse today, they are probably aware they are stepping into a historic building. The white building with the green trim is on the National Register of Historic Places, after all, and there’s even a plaque just below the roofline: “1877.”

But it might not be as evident that, as they approach the door, they are standing where famed suffragist Susan B. Anthony stood in that same year, drumming up support for female voting rights. Anthony attracted a crowd that day in Lake City — the turnout was so great that she was obliged to deliver her speech in front of the courthouse building rather than inside.

Today, historians think it’s time more people knew how close to the suffrage movement they really are. The Colorado Historical Foundation and Colorado Historic Preservation Office are now following in the suffragists’ footsteps and tracing them to actual buildings and places that, just like the Hinsdale County Courthouse, can be seen today.

“We work with buildings and cultural landscapes. It was just a thrill to be to be able to bring these real places where these women would have speeches and stump,” Cindy Nasky, director of Preservation Programs for the Colorado Historical Foundation, said.

“People learn history in different ways.”

For many, it helps to have something tangible to connect to — to think “This is where Susan B. Anthony stood,” or “This is where they had a suffrage pageant at Garden of the Gods (Colorado Springs),” Nasky added.

There’s plenty of research about the movement in the state — where, after a failed attempt in 1877, women’s suffrage became law in 1893, well ahead of the 19th Amendment’s ratification in 1920. What the Colorado Historical Foundation noted, though, was a dearth of officially recognized historic places associated with the suffrage movement.

That’s changing. First, History Colorado’s State Historical Fund paid for a survey plan of women’s suffrage sites in the state, which provided critical context. More recently, the foundation received a National Park Service Underrepresented Community Grant that will extend research to locate sites associated with the movement for female enfranchisement.

The project also serves to highlight the contributions of women, who are underrepresented in the historical record despite their contributions and achievements.

“We’re finding more and more of this,” foundation Executive Director Catherine Stroh said. “There’s an acknowledgment of the different kinds of history that took place.”

She pointed to Lake City. “It’s not only a courthouse, but served as the backdrop for Susan B. Anthony to give her speech. For people to walk by and say ‘that happened here’ (connects them to history). This is one of a few different projects to connect underrepresented history.”

Broadening the record

An earlier project helped propel the suffragist project — and the 2018 film “The Green Book” inspired that earlier project.

Nasky and Stroh said Steve Turner, the former executive director for History Colorado, approached them about researching African American travel sites, after he watched The Green Book. (The film is based on jazz pianist Don Shirley’s trip through the South in 1962, with his driver and bodyguard.)

After Turner’s suggestion, the Colorado Historical Foundation’s African American Travel & Leisure Sites research turned up several locations linked to African American leisure travel. (Montrose sites include the Adams Hotel and Chipeta Café, once located at 448 E. Main St. and the Ace Beauty Shop, 306 E. Main, which is now a real estate office. Stroh said the foundation’s findings were consistent with those of the Montrose County Historical Society.)

The research is also feeding growing interest in identifying places associated with lesser-told history, the history, as Stroh put it, of those “whose history has been kind of left out of the big picture in general.”

Locating physical places and spaces connected to women and minorities is intended to help round out the historical record.

“I don’t think it is a surprise to any of us that (history) seems to be focused on white men,” Nasky said. Women’s suffrage falls into growing efforts to tell the fullest story possible of under-documented populations, she said.

“There are so many stories out there that they need telling and the historical record tends to be heavy on the white male,” Nasky said.

The Women’s Suffrage Sites Final Survey plan document, prepared by Erika Warzel of Clerestory Preservation, identifies the Hinsdale County Courthouse as being among places that should be considered a “strong candidate” for the project’s first phase, because it is within an established National Register historic district.

“One clear need is that of intensive survey within Colorado’s smaller communities … Such survey would demonstrate the geographic reach of the suffrage movement and its dependence on grassroots organization and advocacy, but would also encourage Coloradans across the state to understand and value how the struggle for women’s votes was within their own backyard,” Warzel wrote.

“These women were tenacious,” Nasky said. “It took them a long time to get the vote.”

Anthony was a better-known example of that tenacity, although she did not stand alone. As the survey plan information details, she was in a different town nearly every day between Sept. 11 and Oct. 2, 1877, including Lake City and Saguache, while Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell worked parts of the state in Idaho Springs, Greeley, and other locations.

“Anthony’s speech in Lake City at the Hinsdale County Courthouse was so well-attended that she had to address the crowd from the steps,” the report says. “The next day, inspired by her arguments, local men and women formed a local suffrage association.”

As the document goes on to describe, the 1877 push from women’s suffrage in Colorado failed, with only Boulder County turning out in favor. The movement then lost steam, with some organizations folding and newspapers that had backed it falling silent.

However, better luck was on the horizon.

In 1893, a referendum (introduced by J.T. Heath of Montrose and Delta) passed both houses at the State Legislature and was placed on the ballot for ratification by vote that November.

This time, 35,698 votes of 65,159 cast propelled female enfranchisement into the state constitution: “Every female person shall be entitled to vote at all elections in the same manner, in all respects, as male persons are.”

Stroh, too, learned from the report.

“I didn’t know the entire history of where, and all the locations where the activists really did their work throughout Colorado,” she said. “It was interesting to see all the small towns and mining towns they dropped by to (generate) support.”

Stroh noted suffragists tended to find receptive audiences at Colorado grange halls — because many of the granges already were used to female members voting on grange business matters.

Welcoming more voices

The survey plan is a building block for the suffragist sites project now funded by the NPS grant. The next project phase the foundation is planning will take a similar look at sites and locations connected to LGBTQ history.

“We’re not only amending the historical record, but getting the word out there so people can kind of understand the places they live. Having that context is really important to understanding where we came from and where we’re going,” Nasky said.

The foundation’s work dovetails with other efforts, including that of the City of Montrose and the residents of a northern Montrose neighborhood they call Tortilla Flats. Work there to fully flesh out the history of the Montrose morada — a religious meeting house of the Penitente — also caught the attention of the Colorado Historical Foundation as it examined the history of those who are underrepresented.

“It aligns with the work we’re trying to do right now,” Stroh said.

“We’re kind of scratching the surface,” Nasky said, characterizing the suffragist and related projects as many steps being taken by many players to expand research that amplifies all of history’s voices.

“These survey plans all can be expanded. We’re certainly not the only ones doing the work. Getting the information out there is the main goal.”

None of what’s being done is intended as the final word — there is always room for more information.

“These are all living documents. They can be updated and added to,” Stroh said. “We welcome any other input. If people have stories from their own family members, we would love to learn more about that.”

Information and input can be emailed to catherine@cohs.org. A link to the women’s suffrage survey report can be found at https://tinyurl.com/suffrageCO.

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Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.