John Otto: Trials and Trails
About the Book
Author Kania dedicates his book “to the eccentrics of the world. May they never give up their dream.” John Otto did not give up. Though he died in poverty in California in an abandoned post office building that he had painted red, white and blue, his spirit lives on at Colorado National Monument, along Rimrock Drive, and along the many trails which provide the solitude he sought. [Reviewed by Andrew Gulliford who teaches environmental history and directs the Public History and Historic Preservation Program at Middle Tennessee State University. During the spring of 1997, he was the Wayne N. Aspinal Visiting Chair of History at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colo.
Dr. Thomas Noel, “Doctor Colorado”: This is the strangest tale since Alferd Packer, the man eater. After his 1903 release from a California insane asylum, John Otto came to Colorado, apparently to straighten out Gov. James H. Peabody. Peabody was in the process of exterminating the Western Federation of Miners, a union on strike because Colorado employers were failing to observe the eight-hour-a-day law.
Otto was arrested and charged with attempting to assault the governor with the well-sharpened tip of his miner’s candle stick. After an insanity trail, this rover from Missouri was released as a harmless crank.
Otto then settled in Fruita, Colo., where a few years later he forbade Gov. henry A. Buchtel to make an appearance, threatening to “get some dynamite … and have a big blowout.”
After another arrest, insanity trial and release, Otto lived as a hermit in Monument Canyon, a spectacular set of red sandstone formations on the outskirts of Grand Junction. He supported himself with odd jobs on nearby ranches but devoted most of his time to exploring the pinyon-clad canyons and clifftops, building serpentine foot trails and erecting American flags.
After re-emerging in the local press as an eccentric, flag-waving booster, Otto began a one-man crusade to make Monument Canyon a national park. After attracting local support, Otto proudly attended the creation of Colorado National Monument on May 24, 1911.
The National Park Service appointed Otto custodian of Colorado’s first national monument at a salary of $1 a month.
In 1927, local Chamber of Commerce boosters and the National Park Service eased Otto out of his job. The 48-year-old “father of Colorado National Monument” headed for California to resume his life as a hermit.
After living for years in a cave and old shacks, he moved into a vacant post office. There he lived on corn flakes until his death in 1952.
This book resurrects a crank whom, one suspects, Grand Junctionites and the National Park Service would prefer to forget. Author Kania … refrains from judging Otto’s sanity or his accomplishments. Readers are left to decide for themselves.
Although apparently demented, Otto spoke up for the rights of labor, women and non-conformists.
He championed progressive causes, but other reformers apparently felt uncomfortable with someone operating so close to the edge of sanity and society. Tom Noel reviewed John Otto of Colorado National Monument, by Alan J. Kania. Dr. Noel teaches Colorado History at the University of Colorado at Denver.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Alan J. Kania has been a journalist for over 40 years, writing extensively for newspapers and magazines. He also serves his third term as a member of the board of directors of the Denver Press club, the oldest organization of its kind in the United States. He also serves on the founding board of directors of the American chapter of the International Communications Forum, a London-based mass communications organization. He is co-director and American representative of the Southern Africa Media Alliance. He also has taught journalism disciplines at Denver University and at Metropolitan State College in Denver.
He is the author of John Otto of Colorado Nat