He invested in cattle, beer and milk in Denver, but his legacy is a castle.
Getting rich or going broke can be a simple matter of timing. That’s how it worked out for Baron Walter von Richthofen, uncle and godfather of Manfred von Richthofen, the famed German flying ace of World War I. Frontier America’s von Richthofen got rich once and went broke twice while building up the city of Denver, Colorado—highlighted by his personal castle, which remains a mile-high landmark more than 100 years after the family finally moved out.
Walter Freiherr von Richthofen was born on January 30, 1850, at Kreisewitz, Silesia, then part of Prussia, later Germany, now Poland. Baron is the English equivalent of his Germanic title, which means, roughly, “a man entitled to his own castle.” The Richthofens—whose family name means “court of justice”— were ennobled in 1600 by a childless member of the old nobility who adopted his legal counselor’s whole family. In short order they made up for what they lacked in blue-blooded birthright with ability and energy. Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833–1905) became a celebrated explorer in Central Asia. Several Richthofen daughters became pioneer German feminists. More often, the Richthofen men became solid, if stolid, professional officers. Walter himself attended cadet school from his early teens and served during the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian War. A transatlantic visit in 1869 convinced him that America promised a future involving adventure and wealth—most Richthofens were solvent but not exactly rich. So following the war, Walter returned to America, survived the Great Chicago Fire and made his way to Denver. Casting about for a way to make a living, Richthofen taught German, French and Latin. Discovering that Italian was also in demand, he headed for the Riviera to study it. There he met and married Englishwoman Jane Oakley; Walter was 28 and she was 34. Jane returned with him to Denver, and the couple had two daughters—Margarethe (called Daisy in America) in 1878 and Charlotte in 1882.
Walter was mightily impressed with Denver, telling German friends: “Denver is called the ‘parlor city’ on account of its cleanliness and beauty….It is the center of science, art, intelligence and refinement in the West.” Richthofen decided to grow up with the city, and his timing was perfect. He formed the Denver Chamber of Commerce, along with friend John Cochrane, and also founded the Downtown Denver Real Estate Company. His standing in the late 1870s and early 1880s couldn’t have been better, especially after he used his considerable eloquence to promote a local railroad line, thus helping prospective buyers reach the lots and houses he had to sell.
Then the real estate baron invested in a beer garden—a German family institution, but a rarity in frontier America, where wives didn’t patronize saloons and didn’t much care for the women who did. Beer gardens featured brass bands, and men actually danced with their wives, sometimes right after church. But respectable Denver disapproved. Unable to attract an upscale clientele, the baron staged a farewell party, inviting the gamblers and prostitutes to kick loose before the beer garden dried up. Some of Denver’s respectable family men reportedly showed up without their wives.
Walter took Jane back to Germany for a visit with the extended Richthofen clan. She loved Germany. Walter preferred Denver. The couple separated. English-born Jane remained in Germany to raise their children as members of the German nobility, while Walter returned to Denver alone. He soon met another woman, Louise Ferguson Davies, whom he courted while divorcing Jane.
Meanwhile, Richthofen latched on to two other pursuits—the cattle industry and a baronial castle in Denver. He wrote a book in English called Cattle-Raising on the Plains of North America (1885), in which he proclaimed that the Colorado front-range area was “the largest and richest grass and pasture region of the world, and that it will probably soon become the most important beef-producing country on the globe.” Money flowed in from America and Europe. Unfortunately, the brutal winter of 1886 was a catastrophe for the range-fed cattle industry, and the urban market of the time preferred fattened steers from Chicago-area feedlots.
Undaunted, Richthofen proceeded with the five-year construction of his castle on a 320-acre lot in Montclair, a Denver suburb he helped develop. Referred to within the family as Louiseburgh, after his second wife, the manor house was and remains generally known as Richthofen Castle. The gray, crenellated 21-room mansion featured towers, a quaint stone bridge over a moat and a landscaped garden stocked with deer, antelope and wild canaries. The superb timing of his real estate enterprises in East Denver and Montclair allowed Richthofen to keep afloat and bask in some luxury despite the hit he took when the cattle business failed due to the climate. Walter and Louise moved into the castle in 1887 and lived there happily ever after—for three years.
Richthofen’s next project turned out to be a misguided act of humanity. Throughout the 19th century, tuberculosis, “the white plague,” had ravaged urban dwellers (see “Pioneers and Settlers” in the February 2008 issue). The children of the poor and their mothers proved especially susceptible, but money was no antidote—plenty of rich girls also died of TB. J.P. Morgan’s father was already a millionaire, but Morgan’s first wife died of tuberculosis; to his credit, he married her knowing she was doomed and made her last year as happy as he could. Walter von Richthofen thought he had an answer: Wealthy New Yorkers often recovered, or at least regained moderate health, after summers amid the pure air of the Adirondack Mountains, while German spas pursued whole milk as a remedy. Denver had clean air, and Walter had plenty of milk.
On September 15, 1888, Richthofen unveiled his “Swiss milk cure” for tuberculosis at the Molkery (from Molkerei, German for “dairy”), a hotel and attached dairy farm where TB sufferers could sip unpasteurized milk fresh from the cow and soak up the sun on open porches. The porches and dining area were built directly above the stables so guests could inhale the effluvia—supposedly a natural curative—through grates. The notion that the odor of manure is somehow therapeutic didn’t originate with Richthofen; the Krupp family of billionaire weapons manufacturers took it very seriously for some years. Regardless, the smell put off Denverites who came to the Molkery for the food. Walter’s timing also proved bad: In 1882 his countryman Dr. Robert Koch had isolated the bacillus that caused tuberculosis, and by 1890 Koch was working on a scientific antidote. Quack cures fell by the wayside, and the Molkery flopped. It transformed into an insane asylum, which Denver’s gourmets deemed appropriate. (Today the renovated structure serves as the Montclair Civic Building.)
In 1891 wanderlust seized the baron and his wife. They sold the castle and embarked on a tour of California, Mexico, Alaska and Europe, finally settling on Regent Street in London. All was well until the Panic of 1893, which knocked the bottom out of the Denver real estate market. The Richthofens returned to Denver to salvage what they could and bought the castle back. As Walter worked to open an art gallery and a new health spa and hotel, he was reduced to selling books from the tailgate of a wagon to cover day-to-day expenses.
The baron was in poor health when the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898 and thus incapable of offering his services as a veteran officer. But as the 7th Infantry Regiment left Fort Logan for training, Richthofen insisted on handing out a bouquet to each soldier. This noble gesture finished him. A few days later he checked into the hospital, and he died of shock after an operation on May 8 at age 48. Louise spent the rest of her life living in hotels; she sold the castle during the next downturn in 1903. She lived until 1934, though during World War I she understandably dropped the “Baroness von” and became simply “Mrs. Richthofen.”
The castle remains a Denver landmark. The last time it changed hands, several decades ago, the price was $1.2 million. Timing is everything.
John Koster is the author of Custer Survivor (History Publishing). Minjae Kim assisted with research. Julian Cavalier describes Walter von Richthofen and the Richthofen Castle in American Castles. The Denver Public Library maintains a Richthofen collection and uses Louiseburgh as a logo on souvenirs.
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.