Baron von Richthofen (1859–98) was a flamboyant, versatile booster and developer who came to Colorado in 1878; he was one of many Germans who constituted the state’s largest foreign-born contingent between 1880 and 1910. Richthofen invested in Denver real estate, helped establish the suburban town of Montclair (now part of Denver), opened two extravagant beer gardens, and built a castle that has survived to the present. He also promoted Colorado as a health resort, attracting health seekers and helping to make medical care a major part of the state’s economy.
Walter Lothar Emil Eugen von Richthofen was born on January 30, 1859, in the former Prussian province of Silesia. The Richthofen clan had been promoted to the Prussian aristocracy by Frederick the Great for supporting his 1742 annexation of Silesia. The extensive Richthofen family held various estates, manor houses, palaces, and castles throughout Silesia. Walter was a kinsman of the famed explorer, geographer, and scientist Ferdinand von Richthofen, for whom Colorado’s Mount Richthofen is named, and also of Manfred von Richthofen, who would shoot down eighty Allied planes in World War I as the celebrated “Red Baron.” Two distant relatives, the beautiful and brilliant Richthofen sisters, were early feminists. Frieda von Richthofen deserted her husband and children to marry the English novelist D. H. Lawrence and settled down with him to a Bohemian life in Taos, New Mexico. Else von Richthofen, despite her marriage to a staid Heidelberg professor, pursued an independent career and a secret love affair with the renowned social scientist Max Weber.
Coming to America
As a teenager, Walter served in the Prussian Army during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. Shortly after the war, he sailed for New York and eventually arrived in Colorado in 1878. Impressed with this booming and hospitable state filled with many of his countrymen, he went back to Germany to bring back his English wife, Jane Oakley, and his two daughters. But his family was not as impressed with Colorado as the baron was, so they returned to Europe. The couple soon divorced, leaving the baron free to pursue Colorado women, who had already caught his eye.
Bouncing from Business to Business
The jovial German with a military bearing waltzed through one enterprise after another. During the late 1870s, Richthofen’s Carlowitz Stock Farm near Denver specialized in purebred racehorses. In 1883 he uncorked a large beer garden in Jamestown, a small Boulder County mining town. He bottled well water and peddled it as the “Carlsbad Mineral Water Company’s Ginger Champagne.” Later he speculated in Cripple Creek gold but never struck pay dirt. He invested in the Denver Circle Railroad, which never circled the city.
Some of the baron’s ventures saw greater success. In 1882 Richthofen, a founding member of the Denver Chamber of Commerce, joined Rocky Mountain News editor William Byers, William A.H. Loveland, Lieutenant Governor Horace Tabor, and other movers and shakers to create the National Mining and Industrial Exposition. They built a 150,000-square-foot hall at Broadway and what is now Exposition Avenue. The exposition showcased Colorado goods and services, especially mining and agriculture and other Colorado marvels, including a band of dancing Ute Indians. Next door, Richthofen constructed a large dining hall and concert beer garden, which he named Sans Souci (“without worry”) after Frederick the Great’s summer castle in Prussia. Along with the best imported wine, beer, and schnapps for gentlemen, Richthofen offered strawberries and cream for the ladies, as it was then considered improper for women to drink in social settings. Despite the delicacies, the Exposition closed in 1884, as did the so-called Baron’s Bower.
In 1885 the baron published Cattle-Raising on the Plains of North America, which proclaimed that Colorado’s “former Great American Desert is the largest and richest grass and pasture region in the world.” The baron’s own Carlowitz Ranch cattle venture did not fulfill the book’s promise that a “profit of 25 per cent per annum is the minimum the cattle business will yield.” Richthofen’s ranch, like so many others, suffered in the blizzards of 1885–86, often referred to as the “Great Die Up,” and the subsequent federal crackdown on ranchers’ use of public lands.
Although Richthofen’s cattle business failed, his book sold well. The baron invested the profits in real estate, dabbling in South Denver and North Denver before looking east. He joined Mathias Cochrane’s Montclair Town and Improvement Company. Their 1885 prospectus, Montclair Colorado: The Beautiful Suburban Town, conjured up drawings of a tree-shaded oasis with a horsecar, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, and a castle. Those features actually materialized, unlike the zoological gardens, grand hotel, and a hydropathic establishment reminiscent of St. Peter’s in Rome, all unrealized Richthofen fantasies.
Cochrane, who hailed from Montclair, New Jersey, named the community for his hometown as well as for its panoramic view of the Front Range. “Beautiful Montclair,” crowed an ad in the Denver Sunday Times. “Magnificent Mountain View only 30 minutes east of downtown. Pure Air. Best Public schools. Handsomest suburb in greater Denver.”
As a show home for the infant community, Richthofen built his own castle at East Twelfth Avenue and Olive Street. Completed in 1886 at a cost of about $32,000 ($920,000 in 2019), the huge baronial edifice included a stone gatehouse topped by a large water tower served by an artesian well. With his castle, the baron hoped to catch a bride—a blue-eyed, golden-haired English divorcée, Louise Woodall Ferguson Davies. She married him on November 22, 1887. Following the honeymoon, however, the new baroness balked at moving into the prairie fortress.
“The castle was lovely,” the baroness recalled later, “but it was a lonely place and the grounds were not attractive.” To accommodate her green dreams, Richthofen dug the Montclair Ditch, which he called a “moat” as it circled the castle grounds. This lateral of the Highline Canal allowed the baron to beautify the grounds with trees, rose bushes, gravel paths among marble statuary and fountains, and songbirds. Finally relenting, the baroness took up residence in the castle on their first anniversary.
Transportation remained a challenge. Initially, the baron had horse-drawn wagons take potential Montclair customers four miles east from the Tabor Grand Opera House downtown to see property in his new suburban town. Escorted by the baron and his hounds, the parade soon became known as the “Baron’s Circus.” By the late 1880s, Montclair had coaxed three streetcar lines to the new suburb along East Eighth, Seventeenth, and Colfax Avenues.
To assure customers that they were buying a prestigious address, lots were drawn substantially larger than Denver's standard 25-by-125-foot parcels, and owners were required to spend at least $10,000 on their houses. Richthofen urged buyers to purchase an entire block, which they could farm or subdivide. As new residents streamed in, Montclair incorporated as a town in 1888 and was eventually annexed to Denver in 1902.
The scramble for lots in the suburban paradise came to an abrupt halt with the 1893 silver crash. In Montclair, as in other suburbs, construction froze. Montclair was left with roughly one large house per block. More modest infill housing would not arrive until Denver’s post–World War II boom.
After the silver crash of 1893, Richthofen repackaged Montclair as a health spa, the Colorado Carlsbad. Of Richthofen’s elaborate scheme for a grand health spa, only one building was actually built, the Molkerei (milk house), anglicized to Molkery. Modeled after German and Swiss health spas, the Molkerei offered fresh air and sunshine on its open-air sun porches. Patients drank milk fresh from the Jersey cows stabled below and breathed the supposedly healthy barnyard effluvium rising from the stables. Shortly thereafter, however, the Molkerei was converted to a mental hospital. In 1908 Denver acquired the building and remodeled it as the city’s first community center.
The baron lived only a short while in his castle, which he sold in 1891 to fellow German John von Mueller (later Miller). While not traveling in Europe and elsewhere, he and the baroness lived in downtown Denver in the Hotel L’Imperial. After the 1893 crash and Miller’s default on the purchase, the baron and baroness repossessed the castle, which she sold in 1903 to Edwin Beard Hendrie.
Five years before the sale, on May 8, 1898, the baron had died from appendicitis at the age of forty-nine. The body was shipped back to the family vault in Silesia. He is memorialized in Denver by the castle, the Molkerei, and the Richthofen Fountain, constructed in 1900 by the town of Montclair and his widow, the baroness, at Oneida Street and Richthofen Parkway. All of these monuments are included in the 1975 Montclair Historic District embracing the heart of the old town.