John Otto, A Monumental Man, Part II
January 31, 2011
Born in Missouri on Dec. 3, 1879, but raised in Illinois, the son of a college English professor, John Otto, heeded the advice of Horace Greeley who wrote, “Go west, young man, go west.”
After panning for gold in the Northwest and in northern California, he headed to Colorado in 1906 to find work. His first local job was working in Fruita, Colo., with the crew who were installing a new water line. Instead of living in town, after his workday was done, he’d ride his mule back up into the canyon and red rock area in what is now known as the Colorado National Monument.
In 1907 he wrote, “I came here last year and found these canyons and they feel like the heart of the world to me.” He pitched a tent directly below the 450-foot rock formation which he named, “Independence Rock.” Otto started carving trails and laying out plans for future roads so that others could come and appreciate the natural beauty he saw every day. Trail fundraising projects were started to raise money for dynamite and other supplies needed to blast the rocks. It started with $154 and some subscribers pledged $1 a month for 14 months. School children donated nickels.
Meanwhile, with his Fruita wages, he bought ropes and taught himself climbing techniques so that he could successfully scale the heights towering all around him. And this very patriotic man loved the American flag so much that he raved to others about his plans to scale the formation he called “Liberty Cap Rock,” carry a homemade flagpole to the top and hoist the flag on America’s birthday. On July 4, 1909, our country’s flag whipped in the Grand Valley breeze atop Liberty Cap Rock for all to see and admire from down below.
Two years later, in 1911, he vowed to do the same thing on “Independence Rock.” He carefully planned his ascent on the Northwest face and the southwest ridge, installing a pipe ladder on the rock for handholds to enable him to single-handedly, reach the top of the 450-foot tall sandstone formation that silently loomed above his head where he slept in a tent each night. His goals this time were Flag Day, June 14, and the 4th of July.
June 14 commemorates the day that the 1777 Continental Congress adopted the original flag sewn by Betsy Ross and presented by President George Washington. It was composed of “six white stripes and seven pretty red ones, 13 stars upon a field of blue.” The circle of 13 stars represented the states in the order they’d signed the Declaration of Independence. The first star represents Delaware since Caesar Rodney, lawyer, politician and congressman was the first signer of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. A larger-than-life bronze statue of Caesar Rodney riding his horse is in Rodney Square, downtown Wilmington, Del., my hometown.
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Otto told friends about letters he’d received from women planning to come to Colorado to meet and marry him. Some doubted his tales, so were surprised when a 6 foot tall woman, Beatrice Farnham, came into town wearing a homemade sheepskin coat, in the spring of 1911. Wedding plans were begun. She said she’d studied art in Boston and San Francisco and had been out West for many years, painting and buying Indian art to be resold back East.
Beatrice claimed, “I love the open air and the open west – and the western man, too.” They were married in June 20, 1911, about 300 feet from the base of Independence Monument at an altar they constructed. While standing on a carpet of cedar boughs they’d constructed, about 15 to 18 friends watched the wedding ceremony conducted by Reverend Hatch. His best man was Joe Kiefer of Fruita, Colo., while the minister’s wife, Mrs. Hatch, and friends witnessed nearby.
Beatrice wore her grandmother’s wedding dress, gloves, scarf and veil, while carrying a bouquet of Colorado wildflowers. John wore dark, brown shoes, a white shirt, dark coat, trousers and tie. His wedding gift to her was a burro named “Foxy.” The tent stood nearby that would be their canyon home. Otto claimed “she was the perfect lady.”
On Aug. 21, 1911, Beatrice left for New Hampshire to “close up her estate.” She never returned and requested a divorce that was finalized in 1914. Otto explained in a March 12, 1912, letter to the Daily Sentinel, “She couldn’t take the dizzying heights.” Later he wrote, “She came back as far as Kansas, a prairie state and married another.”
He never remarried, but continued his fight to get National Monument status for his beloved land, while continuing strenuous trail building each and every day until his goal was accomplished 100 years ago on May 24, 1911. He was selected to be the first Custodian (Ranger) of the Colorado National Monument, a job he performed until leaving in the early ’30s for Yreka, Calif., where he died
The 100th year celebration has begun! On New Year’s Eve, the public was invited to watch fireworks set off at the Saddlehorn Visitors Center, four miles from the West Entrance. Before leaving home, go to http://www.NPS.gov/colm/PlanYourVisit/CampGrounds.htm for information about the Saddlehorn Campground open year round, the two-12 minute orientation films you should see at the Saddlehorn Visitors Center, the winter hours for snow road closure between the East and West entrances on Rim Rock Drive, the Bookstore, and special climbing, biking and running events planned for all year.
Reference: “John Otto of Colorado National Monument,” Alan J. Kania.