June 15, 1902 to July 28, 2002
by Dr. Paul Homan
At the turn of the twentieth century, life on the high plains of Colorado could be characterized as a constant struggle, a struggle between man trying to eke out a living, and forces of nature which often created impossible barriers. It was also a time when the fences of homesteaders began to dot the landscape, ending the free range essential to the historic cattle drives of an earlier day.
Such was life when Mary Elizabeth Gordon joined the family of Barbara and Mett Gordon. Born premature, while her mother was working cattle on the ranch, she was declared at birth to be "no bigger than an ear of corn." As one of ten children, Mary became part of a family that struggled for survival near the town of Kutch, Colorado. Mary grew up learning to be frugal and to "take care of the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves." In this land of extreme weather conditions and little rainfall, even the smallest of crop failures or loss of stock could spell disaster.
That day of disaster came when a Denver bank took over the Gordon property. Rather than foreclose, the bank insisted the family could pay off the money due. An agreement was made where the bank agreed to pay the parents $30 per month to stay and work the ranch. The boys received $20 per month, and the girls received $15. In approximately six years the mortgage was paid and the bank gave the ranch to the boys, leaving the girls very upset. It was then that Mary stated, "To hell with you; I?m not working for my relatives!" With that declaration of independence, she set the stage for a life that ultimately allowed her to provide major philanthropic gifts to the Colorado Springs community.
After moving to Colorado Springs, Mary found work as a domestic for the Tom Powers family. She noted, in a taped interview, that was a time when "she had her own room, uniforms were furnished, and laundry was done for her." As a cook, she also had a man who washed the pots and pans. It was "like heaven."
It was during this era that Mary met James Starsmore at a party given by mutual friends. From this meeting grew an extended courtship of approximately twelve years! Mary said she really liked him, and he "would always take her home." Jim helped to build the now famous stone house, worked as a gardener and helped his father at the Myron Stratton Ranch, while Mary attended to the Powers family and traveled to Maine with them each summer. During one of these summer separations, Mary?s letter to Jim included an ultimatum regarding their relationship: "It?s either quit or go." Jim chose "go," he proposed and they were married 2-3 weeks later.
In 1938 Jim started the Ivywild Evergreen Nursery at the present Safeway location on the corner of Nevada Avenue and Cheyenne Road. Jim soon felt the pressure of several jobs and his father?s failing health, and he needed to turn the nursery operation over to Mary. She remembered, "he gave me the nursery, and I sat on a rock and cried because I had too much work. I never trimmed a tree, I never dug a tree, but I tell you, I fell into it like a brick in water. So, I took over," and take over she did. Her hard work, physical prowess, and strong business sense contributed greatly to the success of the business. When reminiscing, she spoke of early confrontations with dishonest whole-salers who cheated the nursery business and of her successful trades of trees for her dining room table and other fine furnishings.
After Jim retired in 1965, the 35 juniper trees that Jim and his father had planted in 1918 had grown to become a landmark of their corner property. Thus began the saga of Mary manicuring each tree. With sun bonnet on and trimmers in hand she would climb the ladder and carefully trim and sculpt each tree. Mary became as much a landmark as the trees. As the story goes, she was in her mid-80s when the family prevailed upon her to let someone else do the trimming. When the man came to do the job he took a look at their 35-foot height, and declared that he wasn?t going up there. Mary?s classic reply was, "O.K., you hold the ladder and I will!"
James Starsmore died on June 10, 1978, and this marked a new and radical transition in Mary?s life. It was a time for grieving for "my dear Jim", and a time for action. First she sold the nursery where Safeway now resides. With the funds from that sale she established the Starsmore Center for Local History (SCLH). This facility, located in the Pioneers Museum (on the web at www.cspm.org), has proven to be an invaluable resource, and honors her husband, who always had a penchant for local history.
Shortly after the dedication of SCLH, Mary took another bold step by agreeing in 1989 to sell the stone house property to McDonalds. Through an agreement with the Colorado Springs Parks and Recreation Department, the stone building was moved, and in 1992 became the visitor center and the focal point for a wide variety of activities in the North Cheyenne Cañon area. Mary said, "I was elated with the move, and proud of the end result, a perfect setting for my former home." It took 3 days for the house to make the 3-mile journey. Mary, at 88, walked with the truck and then rode and waved to the crowds that had gathered to watch.
This was Mary, a person of strong values, often opinionated. One time, she called a bank president after she had often cleaned up trash around the bank property, and he agreed that she should be paid for her time! Mary also exhibited strong spiritual and moral values, and "prayed the rosary at least three times a day."
We the public are the beneficiaries of Mary?s generosity and her foresight. The passing of Mary Starsmore on July 28, 2002, shortly after her one hundredth birthday, means the loss of her physical presence, but her legacy will continue to inspire future generations in Colorado Springs.
Starsmore Discovery Center is able to offer a variety of programs in part as a result of Mary Starsmore?s generosity:
- Outdoor Education Program --
Early Childhood and School-age Programs
- Natural History
- Cultural Programs
- Variety of Family and Child-oriented Programs
- Special Events and Workshops
- Guided Hikes
- Climbing Wall