Mary Hauck Elitch Long (1856–1936) was the first woman in the world to own and operate a zoo, located at Elitch Gardens in Denver. She and her husband, John Elitch, Jr., opened the attraction in 1890, and after his death in 1891, Mary continued on as a pioneering businesswoman and entrepreneur. At a time when women held relatively little power in business and politics, Long defied the odds by catapulting herself to success as the “First Lady of Fun” and famed “Lady of the Gardens,” which she ran until 1916.
Mary Hauck was born on May 10, 1856, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Frederick and Augustina Hauck. Her family soon moved to California, where her father owned and operated a farm. At the age of sixteen, she fell in love with twenty-two-year-old John Elitch, Jr., and the couple eloped. After their marriage, they moved from San Jose to San Francisco, where they opened a restaurant in a theater building. During their time there, the couple made many valuable connections in the theater industry.
In 1880 the Elitches decided to relocate to Colorado. Initially they moved to Durango and opened another restaurant. Two years later, the couple moved to Denver, where John Elitch and his father opened a restaurant together. The Elitch Restaurant and Oyster House was a success and was eventually relocated and renamed Elitch’s Palace and Dining Rooms.
Elitch’s Zoological Gardens
Soon after their move to Denver, Mary and John Elitch decided to open a zoo. At the time, none existed west of Chicago. They also hoped for a space where they could grow vegetables to supply their restaurant. They began their search for land and discovered Chilcott Farm in the northwest Denver area known as the Highlands. The farm included a lake, an apple orchard, countless trees, and a farmhouse that had once operated as a country school. In 1888 the Elitches bought the property, renamed it Elitch’s Farm, and began the process of establishing their zoo. Their initial layouts for the property included a theater and animal houses. They began acquiring exotic animals from close friend and circus leader P. T. Barnum as well as his rival, Adam Forepaugh. Through Forepaugh they bought monkeys, lions, camels, and cockatoos, among other animals.
The couple’s dream was realized on May 1, 1890, when Elitch’s Zoological Gardens opened its doors to much excitement and fanfare. The gardens were so successful after the first season that John Elitch decided to expand his interests and invest in a touring performance group. In March 1891, the group was touring the Pacific Coast when Elitch fell ill and died. Although devastated by the loss of her husband, Mary Elitch was determined to propel the business to new heights of success.
Mary Elitch, Owner and Operator
After John Elitch passed away, funding for the gardens became tight because his investment in the touring group was lost. In 1891 Mary sold a controlling interest in Elitch Gardens to a group of investors, which became known as the Elitch Gardens Amusement Company. She remained as manager of the zoo. The Panic of 1893 deeply affected many residents and businesses in Colorado, including Elitch Gardens. Attendance dropped, and the park was forced to close early for the season. Many banks closed their doors, too, and the Elitch Gardens Amusement Company went into receivership. In 1894 Elitch was able to regain control of the business when she purchased the controlling stock back from the syndicate in a sheriff’s sale. She thus became the first woman in the world to own and operate a zoo. Back in full control, she continued to expand the gardens and add exotic animals, including kangaroos.
Elitch was also one of the first women in the United States to own a theater. The theater and summer stock program at Elitch Gardens were huge successes. Elitch brought in famous names and newcomers alike, including Sarah Bernhardt and Douglas Fairbanks. She had a great love for children (though she didn’t have any of her own) and made every Tuesday at the gardens Children’s Day, when children could come even without their parents and be looked after by Elitch herself.
In 1900 Elitch married her business manager, Thomas D. Long. They continued to manage the gardens together. In 1904 they added the park’s first ride. Over the next decade, they continued to add more features, including a merry-go-round and a train.
Mary Elitch Long was active in Denver society from the time she and her first husband settled in the Mile High City. She was involved in many local clubs and organizations. In addition to her love of the theater, she had a great interest in art and painting. She was also a dedicated associate member of the Denver Woman’s Press Club. She hosted many club events, and to this day a large portrait of Long hangs on the north wall of the group’s clubhouse. In her spare time, Long wrote two children’s books.
The amusement park industry started to face stiff competition in the early twentieth century. With the increasing popularity of movie theaters and automobiles, Denverites had the option of choosing from a variety of entertainment venues. Revenue began to drop at Elitch Gardens, and in 1915 the park declared bankruptcy. Long’s personal life was not faring any better than her beloved park. By that time, she and her second husband had separated.
In 1916 the park was sold at auction to Oscar L. Malo. Two months later, Malo sold the property to John Mulvihill with the stipulation that Long could remain in her cottage on the property. She continued to live at the gardens until 1932, when her health grew poor and she moved in with her sister-in-law, Jeanette Arnold.
Mary Hauck Elitch Long died on July 16, 1936, after suffering a heart attack. She is buried with John Elitch, Jr., in Fairmount Cemetery. She is remembered as a pioneering Colorado entrepreneur who made a name for herself in an industry where women had previously had no place. She was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Colorado Business Hall of Fame in 1998. Her legacy continues to this day through the operation of the Elitch Gardens amusement park, which moved from Highlands to downtown Denver in 1995, as well as the restoration of the historic Elitch Theatre on the site of the original gardens.