John Otto’s adventurous bride sought life beyond rock cave

John Otto and Beatrice Farnham were married on June 20, 1911, at the base of Independence Monument. The other people in their wedding photo are not identified. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Western Colorado.

When Beatrice Farnham married a Kansas cowboy named Dallas Benson in April 1915, she was barely a year divorced from John Otto, of Colorado National Monument fame.

The marriage of Farnham and Otto had effectively ended in August 1911, just two months after it began. That’s when the bride went back to her home near Boston, purportedly to collect some belongings and settle affairs. She never returned to Otto nor the cave dwellings within the newly established national monument that he had designated as their home.

But they weren’t formally divorced until February 1914, after which Beatrice Farnham paid $2,000 alimony to Otto.

Farnham went on to pursue marriage with Benson, a ranch foreman she had met on a train. On several occasions, the couple performed an equestrian trick called “Chasing the Bride,” in which Farnham lept from her horse and into Benson’s arms while both horses galloped side by side.

Benson traveled back to Massachusetts with his bride at least once, and the couple made an impression in their Western garb.

But Farnham’s second marriage may not have lasted much longer than her first. By 1920, according to U.S. Census reports, Beatrice Farnham was living with her mother in Washington, D.C.

The path of Farnham’s long life — she lived to be 103 — is recorded in multiple newspaper articles about her early life as well as in official records.

She had a career as a painter, sculptor and art critic. She was benefactor to the Catholic Church and provided financial assistance to young women attending college. She traded in Navajo rugs and other native products. She lived in multiple places around the country and died in 1979 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

The official records related to her life include the Mesa County “Marriage Record Report” for her wedding to John Otto on June 20, 1911. It gives her name as “Farnham. Beatrice” and her age as 35. Otto was 40 at the time. But the report doesn’t give any information about where either was born.

However, a variety of newspaper articles about the marriage, and the subsequent divorce, list Beatrice Farnham as the daughter of Briggs and Minerva “Minnie” Farnham of South Weymouth, Massachusetts. And U.S. Census records show the three of them — Briggs, Minerva and Beatrice — lived in Weymouth Township in Massachusetts in 1910.

Earlier records include the name “Flora” before “Beatrice,” but she apparently dropped it during her years in the West.

However, she later began using the initial “F” in front of Beatrice, and eventually resumed use of her full given name, although those close to her late in her life simply called her “Miss Bea.” Flora Beatrice Farnham was born on Feb. 5, 1876. The 1880 census records show Briggs Farnham, his wife “Minnie,” and a 4-year-old daughter “Flora B.” living in Jefferson, Maine. It’s not clear when the family moved to Massachusetts.

Beatrice Farnham’s independence and spirit of adventure were well-documented before she married, then abandoned, John Otto.

One 1910 news article told of Beatrice Farnham, “a Massachusetts girl … and an artist” who was exploring rivers of the mid-West in her own motorboat. “She runs the Aloha herself, has covered hundreds of miles on the Ohio and its tributaries, and contemplates going down the Mississippi on her next outing.”

Farnham first met Otto either in California or New Mexico, before she arrived in western Colorado.

She didn’t stumble upon Otto in his Monument Canyon camp while galloping around the West, as some newspaper reports at the time claimed. But she did spend time painting in the canyon while he worked. They camped near each other and gradually decided they should marry.

Although newspapers in other regions later reported the wedding had occurred “550 Feet in the Air, on the Top of Independence Rock,” the wedding actually took place near the base of Independence Monument. But, after the ceremony, Otto and his friend, newsman Chester Whipple, climbed to the top of the spire.

Initially at least, Beatrice found Otto’s “love for the outdoor life and the trail” both “fascinating and marvelous.” And she seemed eager to live with him in a cave.

“We are both of us tired of houses and four walls and conventions,” she wrote to her mother. “And a tent isn’t always desirable, so we have decided this cave is the thing.”

However, Beatrice’s enthusiasm for such a spartan life didn’t last long.

“I tried hard to live his way, but I could not do it,” she wrote to Whipple sometime after her return to Massachusetts. “I could not live with a man to whom even a cabin was an encumbrance.”

So she never returned to Otto after retreating to her parents’ home in Massachusetts. Her father was still alive at that point, but he died in 1913.

Exactly when Beatrice’s marriage to Dallas Benson ended is unknown, but by 1920, she resided with her mother in Washington, D.C.

They may have lived in California for a time. However, by 1930 Beatrice and Minnie were living in Patrick County, Virginia, which would be Beatrice’s home for the remainder of her life.

Beatrice continued her artistic endeavors throughout much of her long life. On the land she owned along the Dan River in Virginia, she built a private chapel and painted a fresco on its walls. One report said she had “painted similar frescoes in churches in Europe.”

Obituary information described Farnham as a “renowned church artist and patron of Patrick County Youth.” It did not, however, note that she was the one-time wife of John Otto or a Kansas cowboy named Dallas Benson.

Information for this column was provided primarily from the Museums of Western Colorado. Other information came from historic newspapers, from the book “John Otto, Trials and Trails,” by Alan J. Kania, several websites and U.S. Census records.

Bob Silbernagel’s email is .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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