Charles Boettcher (1852–1948) was an entrepreneur and philanthropist best known for founding the Great Western Sugar Company and the Boettcher Foundation, an organization that made the Boettcher name synonymous with generosity in Colorado. Boettcher built his wealth through a series of sound investments in hardware, mining, sugar beet processing, meatpacking, cement production, hotels, and more. This diversity helped amass his large fortune, protected it from the perils of Colorado’s early boom-and-bust economy, and developed Boettcher’s reputation as a savvy businessman. The Boettcher Foundation, founded by Charles Boettcher and his son Claude in 1937, continues to provide millions of dollars in grants and scholarships across Colorado.
Charles Boettcher was born in 1852 in the German town of Kölleda, where his parents Frederick and Susanna owned a hardware store. When he was seventeen, his parents sent him to Wyoming to visit his older brother Herman, who was also working in a hardware store. Once in the United States, Charles saw the opportunities for hardware sales in booming mining towns and decided to stay.
The business career of the Boettcher brothers began when they purchased two hardware stores, one in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and one in Greeley, Colorado. The brothers were taught from a young age to save their money and work hard, and this led to the rapid development of a hardware empire. They purchased a third store in Evans, Colorado, in 1871. He then purchased another store in Fort Collins in 1872. Charles would later open another store in Boulder by himself, and it quickly became a landmark building that still stands at the corner of Broadway and Pearl.
While living in Fort Collins, Boettcher met Fannie Augusta Cowan and quickly proposed. Eager to start a new life with his bride, Boettcher sold the goods from his Fort Collins hardware store and rented out the premises. He chose Boulder as his next destination, and Boettcher later recalled the next four years as some of the happiest of his life. The Boettchers married in 1874 and had two children, Claude in 1875 and Ruth in 1890. Charles and Fannie would travel the world together during their long marriage but eventually grew apart. Although they remained civil, the couple officially separated in 1918 and lived apart for the remainder of their long lives.
The silver boom in Leadville soon attracted Charles, and he opened another store there in 1879. Business boomed in this mining town that soon boasted 30,000 residents. Charles and his family lived in Leadville for the next ten years. During this time, he used profits from his hardware empire to purchase mining properties in and around Leadville. He also invested in Leadville’s first electric company and bought a ranch.
According to legend, Boettcher started banking as soon as he arrived in Colorado, but he did not officially incorporate until much later. In the 1890, Boettcher joined the board of the Carbonate Bank in Leadville as director. His wife, Fannie wanted to move to Denver, and this new business venture provided the necessary funds. Boettcher’s business acumen would be sharply tested in the Panic of 1893, but in part thanks to his diverse portfolio, he escaped relatively unscathed. Boettcher later operated and invested in his own bank, Denver US Bank (now part of Wells Fargo). With his partner H. M. Porter, Boettcher also opened an investment firm later known as the Fifteenth Street Investment Company, which became the largest landowner in Denver. In 1910 his son Claude would take over and create the investment firm Boettcher, Porter, and Company.
In 1900 Fannie and Charles Boettcher embarked on a pivotal trip back to Germany. It was during this vacation that Charles visited several sugar beet farms and became interested in the potential of sugar beets back in Colorado. He learned all he could during the trip about growing and processing sugar beets, and he even collected seeds, which he experimented with after his return. This new interest changed the course of Colorado’s economic history, especially for the eastern plains, where sugar beets could be grown in large quantities.
Boettcher founded the Great Western Sugar Company in 1900, but his wasn’t the only one. Between 1900 and 1920, beet-processing facilities opened across the plains in Greeley, Loveland, Eaton, Fort Morgan, Brush, Sterling, Longmont, and Brighton. Each facility opened independently but was then purchased by Henry O. Havemeyer and in 1905 was acquired by Boettcher and his partners. Boettcher’s Great Western Sugar Company flourished and supported a multi-million-dollar industry in Colorado.
Ideal Cement Company
During the construction of the first of several sugar beet–processing facilities, Boettcher realized that he and his partners paid a premium price for concrete mix produced in Germany. To remedy this, Boettcher decided to open his own cement company to produce high-quality cement locally. In 1901 he and his partner John Thatcher incorporated as the Portland Cement Company, which provided cement for sugar beet factories. In 1924 the name would change to the Ideal Cement Company, which became the largest privately owned cement company in the world. The first two cement production facilities were in Florence and just outside Fort Collins, but the company would later expand to twenty-six states and employ more than 3,000 people.
In 1908 Boettcher completed construction of the Ideal Cement Building in downtown Denver. Located at Seventeenth and Champa Streets, it was in a prime location for demonstrating the strength and safety of concrete. According to legend, Boettcher set fire to the building soon after its completion to demonstrate the superiority and safety of the all-concrete structure. It still stands today.
In 1901 Boettcher founded the Western Packing Company in Denver to slaughter the cows from his ranch. The company was sold to Swift and Company in 1912 at a substantial profit. He also invested in the Denver Tramway Company, the city’s largest streetcar company. Boettcher’s diverse portfolio also included the Capitol Life Insurance Company and Bighorn Land and Cattle Company. In 1903 he created the National Fuse and Powder Company, which produced dynamite for miners.
In 1915 Boettcher became president of the Denver & Salt Lake Railroad, also known as the Moffat Road. This group of investors wanted to build a railroad across the Continental Divide through Colorado to Salt Lake City. Plagued by financial difficulties, the group appealed to the legislature for funds to build a tunnel. The legislature approved the funding, but the governor disagreed, and the ensuing fight in court went against Boettcher’s company. After a stalemate, Boettcher decided to raise the funds via bonds, but that was also unsuccessful. The tunnel was eventually completed in 1928, but by then Boettcher had already vacated his position and sold his shares.
Boettcher also purchased the Brown Palace Hotel in 1922, and after separating from his wife, Fannie, he lived there full time. Boettcher used his large collection of European military memorabilia to decorate the Palace Arms Dining Room. Although he owned the hotel, he liked to buy Coca-Cola across the street at a vending machine, saying the prices at the Brown Palace were too high.
Over the years the Boettcher family lived in Boulder, Leadville, and Denver in increasingly larger and more stately houses. Their Denver residence, at 1201 Grant Street in Capitol Hill, was one of the many elegant houses on Grant Street, which became known as “Millionaires Row.” In 1917 Boettcher completed his summer retreat, Lorraine Lodge, in the mountains near Golden, and would typically spend summers there hunting, fishing, and entertaining his business partners and guests.
Both Charles and Fannie Boettcher valued education. They each donated generously to schools. Fannie supported the Kent School for Girls (now Kent Denver School), while Charles and his son Claude opened the Boettcher School for Crippled Children for children receiving care at Denver’s Children’s Hospital. In 1937 he and Claude created the Boettcher Foundation to give back to Colorado, his adopted home.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Boettcher worked at the Ideal Cement Company until his death on July 2, 1948, at age ninety-six. One of the most significant businessmen in Colorado history, Boettcher made his approximately $16 million fortune in a variety of industries. His gratitude was expressed in the Boettcher Foundation, which has provided millions of dollars in grants to schools, hospitals, and other worthy causes throughout Colorado. Denver’s Museum of Nature and Science, Center for the Performing Arts, and Botanic Gardens all have spaces dedicated to the Boettcher family. A series of murals in Denver’s Capitol Building was also donated to the state in Boettcher’s memory.