A Pioneer Venture In Women Helping Women

IN the early 1900s women did not have the vote, and many were working long hours at routine jobs in stores and offices for little pay. It was considered improper for a single woman to eat her midday meal at a public lunch counter or restaurant if she was alone. And for an unmarried woman to take a vacation by herself was to seriously jeopardize her reputation. In Chicago, a group of 24 young women led by Jean Wirt Sherwood formed the Altura-Lend-a-Hand Circle. They maintained a clubroom where women could rest and eat their lunch.

Mrs. Sherwood, the daughter of an Ohio Congregational minister, had attended Mount Olivet College in Michigan and received a degree from Oberlin. In Chicago, she founded Saturday tours for children and Sunday concerts at the Art Institute, and one of her goals was to ease the lives of women in the city who earned their own living.

At that time, summer chautauquas - named for the original Chautauqua Lake in New York - were popular. At scenic spots throughout the country, entire families often gathered during the summer in tents and cottages to enjoy lectures, concerts, plays, and outdoor activities.

In 1904 Mrs. Sherwood lectured on art at a chautauqua in Boulder, Colo., where she had been impressed with the high grassy meadow dotted with wildflowers outside her cottage. Blue penstemon, pink wild roses, and yellow daisies grew against a backdrop of sheer rosy cliffs and dark green pines. Wouldn't it be wonderful, she considered, if girls who spent long hours in offices and factories had a vacation place of their own like this.

That autumn, Jean Sherwood outlined to Altura members her plan for such a vacation haven. Members were caught with the idea. She spoke to other organizations in the city. Soon, $1,500 had been raised. No more contributions were asked for. ``This should not be a charity,'' Mrs. Sherwood said. She proposed an organization in which the vacationers - the women themselves - could invest.

In 1910, the Holiday House Association of Chicago was incorporated as a nonprofit organization, with Mrs. Sherwood as president. Trustees at one time or another included Lorado Taft, the sculptor; Jane Addams of Hull House; Mary A. Barthleme, judge of Juvenile Court in Chicago; Lena B. McCauley, art editor of the Chicago Evening Post; and Charles Burkholder, treasurer of the Chicago Art Institute.

Mrs. Sherwood purchased ``two lots in the best location on a mountainside'' on what was then little more than a dirt path along one side of the Boulder chautauqua grounds. Later she purchased two more. She gave the lots to the association for the site of a vacation cottage to be held as a permanent trust for self-supporting single women, and to provide an inexpensive, healthful vacation.

The association had no endowment or affiliation with any other organization. ``Stock'' in it was sold in blocks of $10. The owner of a block was entitled to a room for two weeks each summer, paying only a nominal weekly sum, $4.50 the first year, for board.

The association sent out circulars telling of the ``rest and inspiration'' to be found in ``mountain altitudes.'' Businesses bought stock for their employees, but subscriptions came largely from the women themselves. In three months the money necessary to start building was collected.

On March 7, 1911, ground was broken for Blue Bird Cottage. The cost of construction was $8,500 and furniture was shipped from Chicago. On June 15 the cottage opened with Mrs. Sherwood as hostess.

Why was it called ``Blue Bird''? Maeterlinck's ``Bluebird of Happiness'' may have suggested the name. But a Boulder newspaper quoted Mrs. Sherwood as saying, ``A bluebird named it. A bird made her nest in the cottage porch and hatched her young before any of the girls came to live there. It was named for our first guest.''

Forty-three women vacationed at Blue Bird that first year, ``stenographers, typists, dressmakers, clerks in stores and offices, teachers, nurses.'' In the Chicago Evening Post, columnist Lena B. McCauley paid tribute to the function it fulfilled: ``The lot of many a brilliant young woman who takes a place in the ranks of commercial enterprise may be compared to that of the gentle animal hitched in the treadmill or at a water wheel.... The industrial system robs her of joyful hope, and unless a helping hand is reached out to invite her away from the killing pace of monotony, each year finds her more depleted and nearer exhaustion. Blue Bird Cottage ... is the realization of the dreams of women in business in Chicago.''

As hostess at Blue Bird Cottage, Jean Sherwood planned the meals and directed the kitchen, ``just as I once did for my own family.'' Blue Bird was her home for 14 years. When the cottage opened, two stenographers took over the cooking. The guests did the sweeping and dusting. Each took care of her own room. In 1913, a professional cook was hired. In 1917, Emma Tracy, a public stenographer in Chicago, came for a vacation, and stayed as business manager until 1951.

Under Mrs. Sherwood's direction there were no rules at the cottage except ``to do nothing that would make others uncomfortable.'' She arranged for artists, musicians, and lecturers to put on programs there. A fifth lot that she purchased became a sunken garden. Blue Bird property now had frontage on an entire city block.

``The hospitable stone cottage is set in the midst of gardens,'' The Christian Science Monitor reported then, ``Roses bloom from May until September, and the girls may gather all they want.'' The Monitor quoted Mrs. Sherwood: ``I am more and more impressed with the influence of the garden.... When girls first felt its beauty and peace, I have seen their eyes fill up with tears.''

An article in Follett's Weekly Magazine signed ``By One of the Girls'' described the summer of 1912 at Blue Bird Cottage. ``It was the most refreshing and inspiring vacation I ever had.... Day after day girls would come worn out and hopeless, too tired to do anything for a week but sleep and eat, and at the end of another week full of life and spirit, eager to climb every mountain within sight.... Real fun and relaxation and health are ... the main objects of the home, and every day there are merry groups starting out for mountain climbs, beefsteak fries, ranch trips, or burro parties.''

In the second year of the Blue Bird Cottage tents were set up on the lawn and neighboring houses rented to accommodate the guests. In 1914, the association built a bungalow facing the sunken garden. Later, another one was built. In Chicago, women who had vacationed at Blue Bird formed a club to raise more money. At first the cottage was only open for vacations in the summer. By 1917, it was open all year.

Twelve miles up a canyon from Boulder at the end of a steep, rocky road lay the nearly deserted village of Gold Hill. Its crumbling buildings had empty windows, but in the 1860s it was a booming town where prospectors flocked to dig for gold. The log hotel, closed for many years, had once housed 40 miners on the day shift and 40 more who worked at night.

By 1921, Blue Bird Cottage was too small to accommodate the ``Bluebirds'' - as the visiting women came to be called. The Holiday House Association voted to buy the hotel at Gold Hill as a Bluebird summer camp. They raised the purchase price of $350 in 5 minutes. Five years later, the Bluebirds built a lodge adjoining it.

Part of the popularity of a Colorado vacation among suffragists was that in Colorado women had the right to vote.

To promote her idea of a cooperative vacation house, Mrs. Sherwood spent 10 days lecturing at women's clubs in Kansas City in 1922. Kansas City women purchased a house in Boulder, where 205 working women vacationed during the first year.

In 1926 when she was 80, Mrs. Sherwood retired as hostess at Blue Bird. A women's organization in Boulder commissioned a portrait of her. At its unveiling in 1929, the president of the Art Association of Boulder said, ``What a privilege it has been to know Jean Sherwood. For her life has been a sort of cumulative benediction to those who know her.''

Mrs. Sherwood organized the Boulder Art Association and Artists Guild. She gave her collection of over 10,000 photographs and prints of paintings and sculpture to the Chicago Art Institute to be used in schools and traveling galleries. Her vision of a vacation home for self-supporting working women brought nearly 5,000 ``Bluebirds'' to Colorado. At her passing in Boulder at the age of 92, the town of Boulder turned out to honor her.

And what of Blue Bird Cottage and Blue Bird Lodge? They continued in operation for a time after 1951. But ``Blue Birds have no nest,'' read a headline in the Boulder Daily Camera of Aug. 12, 1958. Blue Bird Cottage had been sold as a private residence. The lodge at Gold Hill continued to operate as a Bluebird retreat until 1961. Since then, purchasers have operated the dining hall as a restaurant from time to time.

The Bluebirds have flown from Colorado. Only old-time Boulder residents identify the original Blue Bird Cottage, now set behind pine trees and surrounded by city residences. But visitors to the old Gold Hill Inn will find the parlors furnished almost as the Blue Birds left them. And some may still recall the many working women who found solace in the mountain air of Colorado.

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