Deep Roots Excerpt

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Gathering up her long dress, Mrs. D. Russ Wood hurried toward a room near the center of town. It was early evening and the grey shadows of the newly planted cottonwood trees stretched thin across the streets. In La Font’s livery stable, the horses knocked against their stalls. Carpenters and brick masons had quit for the day, leaving their tools inside the half-finished cottages and large brick homes taking shape on Nevada and Cascade avenues. Mrs. Wood knocked lightly and then entered a room. In the gloom, she made out the shape of a young man sitting on a low box and surrounded by “all manner of rubbish.” There was no table, no chair, no bed. The man’s eyes shone with fever and his emaciated body swayed on the low wooden box. He told her he was a schoolteacher and had come to Colorado Springs in hopes of regaining his health so he could resume his profession. When he got off the train at the depot, he was met by a man who knew of a place to rent. He had paid the man and this squalid place is where he had been left. Glancing around at the miserable surroundings, Mrs. Wood felt a wave of pity. “I saw the poor young man must be cared for immediately, as he showed unmistakably that his hours were few,” she would later write.

Mrs. Wood called another member of the town’s newly formed relief society. Together, they procured a carriage and transported the young man to more decent surroundings. A woman and her daughter were hired to watch over him. “He could scarcely believe that, stranger as he was, so much kindness and comfort could have fallen to his lot,” she remembered. Afterward Mrs. Wood returned to her own luxurious home, which was called “Woodside,” and was one of the most beautiful residences in Colorado Springs. It had a flower-filled conservatory, a rolling green lawn, spacious rooms and every luxury available to a homeowner in the 1870s. Her husband, D. Russ Wood, was from Montreal, Canada. He was suffering from ill health and in 1873 the family had moved to the Springs. With the help of a carpenter named Winfield Scott Stratton, Wood had begun building villas on Weber Street for wealthy invalids such as himself. At the time, Mrs. Wood would have been about 55 years old. She had three children and in keeping with custom, she went by her husband’s last name. As a member of “society,” she could have spent her time fretting over servants or going to afternoon teas, but she was a serious and compassionate woman and was not about to fritter away her days.

The young schoolteacher lived through the night. The next day he died and was buried in a pauper’s grave. His wallet was forwarded to Mrs. Wood. Inside, she found enough money to pay his caretakers and a sheaf of “testimonials” recommending him as a teacher. She put the letters back into the wallet and sighed. There would be more like him. Many more. One of the greatest migrations in history was underway. Between 1865 and 1900, more than 12 million people boarded ships to come to America. After they were processed through Ellis Island, millions continued their westward journey. Also traveling across the rutted girth of the continent were former soldiers of the Civil War; farmers fleeing droughts and low commodity prices; young men seeking their fortunes and invalids who sought to exchange the vitiated air of parlor rooms for the disinfecting sunshine and high altitude of the Rocky Mountains. The westward movement, writes General William Jackson Palmer, was the “natural law.”