A Quiet Fight for Freedom: The Blue Bird Movement of Colorado

If you were a woman at the turn of the 20th century, your world was filled with immense challenge and change. Women’s organizations were working to gain voting rights, economic equality, and social reform. Yet it was still considered improper for a female to do things like take a vacation or run her own business.

While females fought feverishly for equality, how did a little lodge in middle-of-nowhere Colorado add fuel to the fire, providing women autonomy and adventure?

Two little Colorado mountain homes — and the females who filled them — quietly added to a woman’s sense of independence. This was called The Blue Bird Movement, which lasted for decades yet is hardly known outside of a small circle of Coloradoan historians.

The Woman Behind the Blue Birds: Jean Sherwood

Between 1880 and 1910, the number of women employed in the U.S. jumped from 2.6 million to 7.8 million, where they worked as retail sales clerks, typists, nurses, schoolteachers, and inside factories. However, they were working long hours for little pay. The Suffrage Movement ran state-by-state campaigns which led to voting rights in a handful of states, but The Constitution had yet to recognize a woman’s right to vote throughout the entire nation. In other words, progress was being made — but in small steps.

Meanwhile, in 1904 a well known philanthropist from Chicago travelled to Colorado; her name was Jean Sherwood. At that time, summer chautauquas — an intellectual movement where families gathered for lectures, concerts, and art shows, were popular throughout the country, and Sherwood had the opportunity to teach at a Chautauqua in Boulder. It was a perfect fit. She was passionate about teaching art to women and girls; she received a degree from Oberlin and had founded weekend art tours and concerts for families at the Art Institute in Chicago. One of her main missions was to provide women a creative break from the mundane, working world. Once Sherwood arrived in Boulder, she was taken aback by the scenery. A later Blue Bird bulletin describes where she resided as a “valuable, commanding site,” with sweeping 360° views of orchards, mountain ranges, and wildflowers.

In 1910, Sherwood, along with her colleagues, formed the Holiday House Association of Chicago, a nonprofit organization that helped purchase two lots in Boulder, near where Sherwood lived and taught. The lots took her one step closer to Sherwood’s entrepreneurial dream of turning them into a vacation cottage for self-supporting single women.

It was  reported in The Los Angeles Times, in that year, that Sherwood thought: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if young women who spent long hours in offices and factories had a vacation place of their own like this?

The Blue Bird Cottage Co-Operative

To raise enough money to construct her vacation get-away, Sherwood had a unique idea that would symbolize her progressive beliefs and stimulate a woman’s sense of independence and financial freedom.

Sherwood wanted her cottage to be built from investments, not donations. To do so, she decided to create a co-operative.

“This was another feather in Jean Sherwood’s hat,” proclaims Boyd Brown, founding family member in Gold Hill, Colorado. “Co-op ’s simply weren’t a thing. This was a really progressive move at the time.”

Sherwood turned the building of the cottage into a stock company, issuing stock in blocks of $10 each. All stock owners could have a room free of cost for two weeks in the summer. In just three months, enough money was raised to begin building.

On March 7, 1911, ground was broken for Blue Bird Cottage. On June 15, the cottage opened, with 43 women vacationing there that first year.

The Blue Birds

No one is certain where the name “Blue Bird” came from, but there are theories. The most common one was that Sherwood saw a bluebird making its nest in the cottage porch as the home was being built. Sherwood was quoted in a Boulder newspaper, saying “It was named for our first guest.” Debra Yeager, a resident of Gold Hill and Board President of the Gold Hill Museum seconds this theory: “Blue Bird got its name from [Jean] going to see the construction site and seeing there was a little mama bluebird very studiously building a nest in the backyard. The ladies who ended up following her were the Blue Birds.”

The Blue Birds engaged in hikes, sightseeing, and utter relaxation. A little booklet written in 1929 by Josephine Loonem, titled Bluebird Cottage and Bluebird Lodge recounts the surroundings as a place where one finds all the elements that comprise a perfect vacation. Loonem portrays these elements in fanciful prose:

“The upbuilding ozone of mountain altitude, warm sunny days, night which call for blankets, the inspiration of scenic grandeur, desirable companionships, charming hostesses and recreation to suit every fancy – hiking, motoring, horseback riding.”

She described the cottage itself as a dream:

“Once in a while, dreams come true. Bluebird Cottage is like that – a sort of cherished ideal realized. If you, like Aladdin, could rub a magic lamp and bring about a vacation place precisely fitting your own specifications, you probably would find you had a second Bluebird Cottage…”

While this indeed was a vacation destination, A 1911 newspaper clipping from the Chicago Record-Herald explains how the co-op worked, reminding readers it wasn’t just all for play. Each paying guest had to contribute her service by taking care of her own room and “doing whatever is required by the immediate exigencies of housekeeping.” In the first year, the article, written by Katherine Synon, notes that two young women spent the summer as cooks, two others as waitresses, and two more as parlor maids. However, the household chores did not seem to dampen the mood, as Synon goes on to explain, “The work is light and the spirit of play that pervade the place makes it more pleasant than constant loafing.”

Up the Hill to the Bluebird Lodge

The vacation spot at the Blue Bird Cottage flourished; up to 300 women from Chicago “flocked” there every summer. It became so popular that Sherwood decided to expand her property and business. In 1921 she purchased an abandoned inn in Gold Hill for $350, a small mining mountain town twelve miles up the canyon from Boulder. She named it the Blue Bird Lodge.

While the Blue Bird Cottage in Boulder was closer to the art, literature, and culture near the city-center and university, Gold Hill was a destination for remote solitude and beauty. Women arrived by a daily motor stage from Boulder; a clipping from the Holiday House Association in the mid-1920’s recounts the trek as a journey through “one of the most beautiful canyons in Colorado.” Once they reached, the Blue Birds experienced the healing dryness of the air and a freedom of such open space that, as described by member Catherine Himes in a 1931 Bluebird club monthly bulletin, “made one dizzy at first.”

A 1923 Blue Bird bulletin depicts how the charm of the abandoned mining town stirred the hearts of the tired business and professional women. The vacation spot became so attractive that in 1924 another Blue Bird space was purchased, this time a dining hall, which was situated right next to the Blue Bird Lodge.

More than Mountain Views

The Bluebird Movement began to fizzle out in the 1950s once women gained additional rights and no longer had only one option for a reprieve. Even so, the Blue Birds encompassed much more than women looking to vacation in a beautiful place. They were looking for a semblance of autonomy, adventure, independence, and investment. They were seeking a place where they could be themselves, fully, without society banging down its mighty fist on them — telling them how to look, how to act, and how to be.

Clearly, there was a sense of deep adoration from the Blue Birds towards Sherwood and the overall Movement. 30 years after it ended, a printed anonymous letter from one of the members wrote “An Appreciation,” reflecting back on her time as a Blue Bird:

“When women of leisure little realized the drain on body and mind caused by work in a large city, Mrs. Sherwood conceived the idea of a vacation home in the mountains of Colorado for the employed women of Chicago. It is because of that vision that women who step from the train at Boulder, pale and tired, in a short time, as a result of pure air and sunshine, good food and rest in kindly and beautiful surroundings, find a haven in the ‘deep peace of the silent hills.’”

She ended her note by describing the movement’s unforeseen power:

“In the beginning no one realized the bodies that would be strengthened, the lives that would be made sweeter, and the visions that would be clarified by the contacts of Bluebird Cottage and Bluebird Lodge.”

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