Helen Dill is the eleventh name on the Colonnade of Civic Benefactors. As a historian I was nervous about finding information about a woman that arrived in Colorado before statehood. J.J. Brown, Margret Brown’s husband, told her a woman appears in the newspapers only three times, at her birth, upon her marriage and at her death. I was able to track Helen Dill’s legacy through two of these events. The first, her marriage, and secondly her obituary. Other sources reveal circumstantial evidence of her life. More is written about what was done with the money she left behind than about Helen Dill.
Helen Dill was born in 1847, in Vermont. Some sources record the year of birth at 1849. Her father was wealthy. Helen wanted to attend the Vermont Normal School which was founded in 1823. A normal school is a school that teaches high school graduates how to become teachers. The “norm” refers to the expected norms of society in areas of behaviors, ideologies, and values. Her father felt it wasn’t necessary to educate women and didn’t want to pay for Helen’s education. Helen attended the Normal School and reimbursed her father the tuition.
After the Vermont Normal School, Helen looked west. She came to Colorado Territory in the early 1870’s. More facts are known of Helen after 1875, this the year she married one of the Territory’s most eligible bachelor, a widower, Robert G. Dill. Dill was a Civil War veteran, he served in the Pennsylvania volunteers. He wrote his memoirs of the war, they are housed at the Denver Public Library. Dill started as a private and advanced to the rank of Captain. In 1875 he is listed in the City Directory as working at Heckman & Company a tobacco store located at 392 1/2 Lawrence (usually the 1/2 in the address indicates they were on the alley). He was living not far away at 631 Larimer. Dill was soon to be in the newspaper trade in Colorado.
Helen Dill and Robert G. Dill’s whereabouts are traced via the Denver City Directories. Helen is always listed as Dill, not her maiden name, Lynch. In 1876 they are listed separately in the directory. Perhaps because they were both working. Helen is a teacher at the Stout Street School. Robert is listed as “local editor Times”. He is listed as living at 700 Lawrence. This would be where the Auraria Higher Education Center is now. The next year, 1877, Helen is listed as “teacher” and Robert holds the same job title, editor. The same year the Denver Press Club was formed and Robert was appointed to its “Committee on Literature”.
In 1878 things change slightly. Helen is now at Blake School. Robert is the City Editor for the Daily Times. Their addresses are the same, 700 Lawrence.
In 1880 Helen is listed as a teacher at Arapahoe School. Amos Steck, one of Denver’s pioneers, donated the land for the school. The Arapahoe School was located on the north side of Arapahoe street between 17th and 18th. Ground breaking was October 30, 1871, the cornerstone was set April 24, 1872. The school was completed April 2nd of that year. It held a library and an elementary school. In 1873 it was the city’s first high school. The first graduating class left the school in 1877. The school building doesn’t last long, it closed and is sold in 1882. Helen was there in the narrow window of time it was open. The next year, 1881, she was at Ebert School.
In 1880 Robert G. Dill was listed as “journalist” in the Denver City Directory, living at 717 Lawrence. It is also the year he founded the Leadville Herald. In May 20, 1882 he and two partners bought the Denver Times. A year later, October 1883, he sold the paper to one of his partners, Frank Woodbury. Helen and Robert G. Dill divorced in 1883. An April 26, 1883 an article in the Rocky Mountain News follows the Dill divorce. It claims Helen “deserted” Robert in April of 1882. She “refused to live with him”. She ignored the divorce action until Robert pushed it through the courts. It appears Robert was trying to push for the decree. The article shows the “haste manifested by [Robert] Dill by having the default entered gives the matter a quite different appearance.” Meaning, Helen was ignoring the procedures. But, Robert wanted it finalized, now. Circumstantial evidence may suggest Robert Dill wanted Helen to spend time in Leadville when she was teaching in Denver. Maybe something else was the motivation to get the divorced decreed as soon as possible.
In 1885 Helen Dill is listed as Principle at the Nebraska street Primary School. The Nebraska School taught 2nd and 3rd grades. There were two teachers, Helen Dill and Nell S. Ford. There were 2 rooms, 2 teachers, and enrollment of 197 students. The average attendance was 141 students for the 120 seats. The record lists no teacher absentees and one case of corporal punishment.
In 1886 Robert G. Dill Junior graduated from Arapahoe High School. There is no evidence that Helen helped or didn’t help raise Robert Junior. Robert Jr. is listed in the 1887 City Directory as a reporter for the Real Estate Record. He is living east of downtown on Humboldt between 29th and 30th. Helen is still the principle of the Nebraska School and living at 1861 Curtis (the Ritz Hotel is now near this site). Robert G. Sr. is also working at the Real Estate Record as the printer and publisher. He is living with his son on Humboldt.
In 1888-1889 Helen is listed as a teacher at Hyde Park School. In 1892 Robert G. Jr. is working at the advertising department of the Colorado Sun and living at 732 Gray. Robert Sr. is listed as a journalist and lived at 1224 4th in the Highlands. Two years later, 1894, until 1896, Robert Sr. is a reporter for the Republican and living at 332 18th street. In 1895 he publishes a book: Political Campaigns of Colorado. The 1899 directory lists Robert Sr. as the mining editor for the Republican and additionally he is listed as a publisher and printer.
The 1910 census puts Helen Dill living at 134 Lincoln street. The occupations shows “own income”. She is 61 years old, listing her birth date as 1849. The relation to head of household is “lodger”. In 1911 Helen is still living at 134 Lincoln. She does not list an occupation. If in 1910 she was living on her “own income” and in 1911 she shows no occupation, at 61 years old, she is retired. Perhaps she is retired as early as 1900. In 1911 both Robert Senior and Robert Junior are living at 1073 South York. Robert Senior’s occupation is listed as “mining”. Robert Junior’s occupation is “editorial dept Denver Post”.
Robert G. Dill Sr. died on April 29, 1914. His obituary gives us more information about his third wife and that family. His third wife is Martha Mitchell-McBride. It lists five children, first is Lewis Mitchell McBride (8/6/1879-6/301959), this would have been Martha’s son. Then there is John V r Dill 1885-1979, Catherine McBride 1902-?, Helen Ehler 1895-? and Jack V. Dill 1884-unknown. Could this marriage be the reason for “haste” to get the divorce finalized in the Rocky Mountain News article? Robert G. Jr., the son from the first marriage, is not mentioned in the obituary. But we know he is still alive. In 1923 he was the Financial Editor of the Denver Post. In 1926 Robert Jr. is living at 2655 Ash. His father’s third wife, Martha is living at 1073 South York.
In the 1920 census Helen is a lodger at 962 Santé Fe street, having “no occupation”. Helen Dill died on December 20, 1928. Her last address is 505 Acoma, close to Denver Hospital. The cause of death is myocarditis (heart disease) and senility. It is after her death at 81 years old that Helen becomes famous.
Helen Dill’s story captivates us. Unknown and without fanfare, a school teacher leaves a fortune in her will to improve a public institution. Helen left $114,000 to the City of Denver to help defray the cost an art museum, an ornamental fountain, a group of statuary and a stone Pergola. The will did not bind the trustee to carry out these exact suggestions so the money was spent on civic improvements, but not Helen’s exact suggestions. In 2017 dollars, the amount she left would be about $1.65 million.
One example of how she built her wealth was recalled in her obituary. She purchased a building on Glenarm for $4,000. She rented it to tenants, a Chinese laundry, for $20.00 a month. She later sold the building for $47,000. In comparison, in Smiley’s History of Denver, he reports the average teacher salary in Arapahoe County in 1900, was $103.79 for males and $68.24 for females.
Part of the money Helen left was in city tramway stocks and bonds. In the vein of a school teacher, she taught the city a lesson. The bonds were purchased for $35,000. They dropped to one-tenth of their value. In her will, Helen wrote: “the stocks and bonds are left as a memento of the wanton crippling of an essential service and possibly an incentive to defend against mob and mayor an indispensable utility in which the city will thus have material interest.”
Helen lived in the city core. She lived in Auraria, on Lincoln avenue near downtown and then near Denver General Hospital. No doubt she relied on public transportation to get to her teaching jobs. She knew the value of public transportation. She also saw great failures, like Horace Tabor’s fortune dwindle to nothing. Her husband was a friend of Tabor in his Leadville days. She saw the transit bond’s value “depreciated by machinations [plots, ruses, tricks] of demigods so that their present value is about one-tenth”. The Denver tramway had its troubles. The mayor in 1899, Thomas S. McMurray, demanded a share of the tramway profits. He was not re-elected because the influence of the tramway owners. Eventually the same mistake that plagued other cities hits Denver. The tramway was expected to pay for street maintenance in a time the auto was taking over the streets. And the transit system agreed on a contract in which they couldn’t raise the 5¢ tramway fare to cover expenses. In 1918 Local 746 was organized to support tramway workers. They won an eight hour work day and a wage increase. In 1920, unable to make money, the tramway company cut wages, a violent strike ensued. Helen would have known about the deaths of seven innocent bystanders during the strike and riots. She wanted to teach the city a lesson.
In an ironic twist of fate, her gift to “protect the tramway prosperity from wanton destruction such as occurred during the street car strike of several years ago” was rejected by the city. The city turned the now devalued tramway bonds back to her estate. Had the value of her tramway bonds remained what she paid for them, her gift to the city would have increased by 33%. It was slap of her ruler on the city’s knuckles.
Helen’s obituary states that she retired in the early 1900’s and traveled. She traveled numerous times to Germany and also studied medicine. She was declared mentally incompetent in May of 1927, a year and a half before her death. She left various gifts of $100 to her nieces and nephews. She also made a provision of a gift of $100 to her brother, he hadn’t been heard of since the San Francisco fire. If he was ever found he would get the $100.
The gift of $114,000 (some reports are $94,000 or $128,000) grew exponentially in the form of fine art purchases. Helen died just before the great depression. Government programs tried to stabilize the economy by providing jobs during hard times. In Denver, the city was building a new City Hall to replace the old 1874 building on Larimer street. The new building is located on the west side of the Civic Center. The fight to gain the property for civic center was controversial. It was best the city tried to show an effort to provide jobs during these rough times. Helen’s money helped.
It was decided the fourth floor of the new City and County would be the city’s art museum. A portion of Helen’s estate, $40,000, was used to finish the fourth floor of the building. In another ironic twist it was the sister of the Denver Tramway owner, John Evans, that made this happen. Anne Evans was instrumental in using Helen Dill’s bequest to finish the space in the City and County Building. The new galleries in the City and County Building opened on December 12, 1932. Technically the money Helen Dill left wasn’t available until 1933. In May of that year a gallery was named after Helen, it was called the Helen Dill Gallery.
In another irony, R.W. Woodbury, that was in business with Helen Dill’s ex-husband, was also a tramway founder. Robert G. Dill sold his share of the Times to Woodbury. Woodbury was also a founder of the Denver Electric and Cable Railway company that was eventually combined with the Denver Railway and Denver Electric company to become the Denver Tramway Company. Helen had deep seated convictions of the tramway company, was this the source? Woodbury is also remembered for the library named for him. Anne Evans was instrumental in creating the Woodbury Branch of the Denver Public Library system.
It was the balance of the money from Helen Dill’s gift that we still enjoy today. The remainder of the money was used to purchase art for the new museum. Purchased works included those done by artists Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Giuseppe Arcimbolodo, Thomas Hart Benton, Winslow Homer, Max Ernst, John Marin, Camille Pisarro, Alfred Sisleg, Maurice Utrillo, John Lafarge, John Martin and Allen Tupper True to name a few. Thirty-seven artists were represented by the purchases. I doubt there would have been a better investment during the depression than neglected impressionist art. The most famous of the group is Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect. It was purchased for less than $15,000 from Katherine Toll. It is one of 41 versions the artist painted of the famous bridge in London. It is vulgar to assign a value to a priceless piece of art, but for those that wonder, it surpasses $10 million.
The legacy society at the Denver Art Museum is named for Helen Dill. That was is a appropriate honor. A donation gains entry into the society. I suspect no one thought a measly $100,000 in 1928 would turn into untold millions in 2020.
From the DAM Website. Helen Dill.
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