Kate A. Speer
Continuing the list of names on the Colonnade of Civic Benefactors is the wife of Denver’s most famous civil servant, Kate A. Speer. She was born Kate A. Thrush in Annapolis, Maryland. The daughter of a minister, her family moved to Williamsport, Pennsylvania. In Williamsport she friended Margaret Speer, Robert W. Speer’s sister. The two girls, Kate and Margaret were in a row boat in the town’s river when it overturned. It was Robert W. that came to their rescue. Both these women had a lasting impact on Robert W.’s life.
Margaret contracted tuberculous and was on her way to Colorado to help conquer the disease when the family asked Robert to escort her to Colorado. Margaret and Robert W. spent the summer of 1877 in Pueblo. Unfortunately she did not improve. Margaret Isabella wanted to return to familiar surrounding and passed away that fall in Pennsylvania.
The following year, 1878, Robert W. Speer contracted tuberculous and returned to Colorado, hoping to improve his health. The illness, tuberculous, shaped Colorado and beckoned the sick. Misunderstanding the disease increased the influx to the state. It was believed that three things improved the patient, fresh air, high altitude and sunshine. It was thought the disease was hereditary, not communicable. The facts are that if you are in fresh air, you are less likely to transmit the disease through coughing, spitting and sneezing on others. The high altitude slows the bacteria growth in the lungs.
The beliefs added to the migration to the state. Sanitariums sprang up in the state. And like any industry, it competed for the richer clientele. Tuberculous was responsible for one in ten deaths in the United States, in Colorado it was one in three. Consequently, the number of doctors in Colorado was in higher proportion than the rest of the nation. The disease was also known as consumption or white death and the affected were known as lungers. Another side effect was the number of homeless. The infected would buy one way railroad tickets to Colorado. Once here, they did not have the resources to pay for the fancier sanitoriums. National Jewish Hospital was started to accommodate those who could not pay.
In the 1890’s the germ theory begin to find more acceptance. The disease, once thought hereditary, was now recognized as spread by contact. Spitting was outlawed. Women’s skirts were raised to prevent the collection of dust and possibility the spread of disease. Attitudes changed. Although Colorado was stereotyped as healthy because of fresh air, high altitude and sunshine it was not enough to stop the disease. Lungers were now looked at as burden to society and could bring more disease, not dollars. Various ideas were presented to the legislators to prevent the influx of sick tourists. Eventually, in the 1940’s, antibiotics was found to be the cure.
Robert W. Speer was in the minority, and moving to Colorado cured his disease. He found work at the Daniels and Fisher department store as a carpet salesman. The carpet fibers affected his weak lungs and he moved on to an office job writing reports to stockholders. From here he joined the real estate firm of Cyrus H. McLaughlin and then was able to become elected to City Clerk. His path to politics was on its way.
Once involved in Democratic politics, he traveled back to Lewistown, Pennsylvania and married Kate in 1882. By 1889 Robert was the Post Master of Denver and is listed as living at 1065 Washington. The house still stands but is listed as being built in 1896, so whether this was the Speer house or not needs more research. Eventually the Speers moved to Country Club at 300 Humboldt. The architects, Albert J. Norton and Willis A. Marean, for 300 Humboldt were the same that designed the Greek Theater in Civic Center. It is at 300 Humboldt where Robert W. Speer died in 1918 and Kate lived until her death in 1954.
Kate’s position on the Colonnade was because of her stewardship of two fountains. Before a donor was found, she was looking for a patron for the Winkin, Blinkin and Nod statue. A fellow Denver Country Club member, Frank L. Woodward and his wife, May, eventually were the donors of the statue. The second fountain was the Children’s Fountain in City Park. The Children’s Fountain is a duplicate of a fountain called “The Six Legs” that the childless Speers saw in Dusseldorf, Germany.
Robert W. Speer and his wife, Kate traveled to Europe in 1911. They were guests of the Boston Chamber of Commerce who sponsored the trip to investigate municipal conditions in Europe. The trip started on June 17 and ended on August 25. Speer took the time to learn what he could about cities and their governments. It was during this time Denver was trying to determine how to manage privately owned city services. For example the water department was privately owned but was a city service. His education how European cities managed municipal utilities convinced him that the city had to take over important city services for the betterment of the population. In the era when many city services were held privately it was a controversial idea.
Eventually, permission was granted to copy the Childrens fountain in Germany and the copy was placed it in City Park. Now, it is a sculpture, rather than a fountain.
When Speer took a break from politics in 1912 he got involved in the newspaper business. He was the editor of the Denver Times. Prior to Speer’s involvement, the Times was owned by Thomas M. Patterson and considered liberal. William G. Evans bought the Times and was the secret owner. The arch-rival of the Times was the conservative Post owned by Harry H. Tammen and Fredrick G. Bonfils. Added to the conservative stance was Crawford Hill and the Denver Republican paper. The Rocky Mountain News was considered liberal, as was, the Denver Express that was swallowed up by the Rocky. Speer had to fight the papers when in office and then was in the middle of disputes when he was out of office. He was glad to be done with the newspaper business by the end of 1912.
After Robert W. Speer died Kate stayed involved as a civic benefactor. She donated the four bells to the City and County building’s bell tower in 1932. In 1950 she donated six more to complete a full musical scale. These would were donated after Kate’s name was already on the Colonnade.
The bell tower in the City and County building.
Denver ‘s Mayor Speer, by Charles A. Johnson, 1969
Robert W. Speer A City Builder, Editor in Chief Edgar C MacMechen, 1919
Find A Grave
Municipal Facts, pg 10, Vol #5, July 1918
Denver Landmarks & Historic Districts, by Thomas J. Noel, Nichols Wharton
United States Congressional Serial Set, Vol 9035, pg 24
Denver Post, Sara Burnett, 12-24-2011 at 4:45pm, updated 5-2-2016 at 4:10
Sketches of Colorado: being Analytical Summary and Biographical, Vol 1, William Columbus Ferril, Western Press Bureau Co., pg 362-363
Business Denver, 3-2-2017, Amy
DPL photo RH-86
History.com/news/the-disease-that-helped-put-Colorado-on-the-map, Erin Blakemore
City Directory, 1889, DPL