It’s still dark outside at 6 a.m., when Denver Park Ranger Jessica Johnson arrives at her office in the Eugene Field House in Washington Park. She often looks around the Victorian cottage, with its flocked, rose-colored wallpaper, hoping she’ll meet a ghost. The ghost of former occupant Eugene Field, to be exact.
“No luck, so far,” the park ranger said of her ambition to encounter the journalist and poet who lived from 1850 to 1895.
The Eugene Field House is a house with a storied past.
In the late 19th century, Field was somewhat of a literary rock star, known for his lively wit. His classic children’s poem, “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” was set to music and became a popular lullaby. His naughty boy’s confession, “Jest ’Fore Christmas,” ushers in the holidays with a large helping of comedy.
Although Johnson is eager for a chat with Field’s spirit, she doesn’t have much time for ghost-hunting. As one of 25 park rangers responsible for patrolling Denver’s 314 parks, she has plenty to do — teaching busloads of elementary school kids how to fish in nearby Smith Lake, settling arguments over picnic sites and cleaning up formidable amounts of trash.
The ebullient park ranger, who said she’s too much of a “people person” to have continued in her former career as a paleontologist, clearly loves her job. She especially enjoys working out of the Field House, once a Denver Public Library branch. In the foyer, bookshelves lined with aged volumes keep company with a fleet of mountain bikes the rangers use to patrol the park.
House with a past
The Field House, 715 S. Franklin St., serves as one of seven park ranger offices throughout the city. Before that, it spent 40 years as Wash Park’s neighborhood library. Johnson said people often stop by out of nostalgia for the library years.
“People come by and say, ‘I used to come here when I was a kid. My mom’s signature is in the book,’” Johnson said, pointing out a leather-bound library registry dating back to 1971.
The fact that the little cottage survived is a minor miracle. So is its current location, over four miles from where it was originally built in 1875. Back then, the house occupied a lot on a woodsy dirt road known as Colfax Avenue, across from what is now the Denver Mint. Field and his wife, Julia, lived there from 1881-1883, while he served as managing editor of the Denver Tribune.
So why is their former home now in Washington Park?
According to an online account from History Colorado, the cottage “fell into disrepair” after the Fields moved out. By the 1920s, it was slated for demolition. To save the writer’s house, a group of female journalists, The National League of American Pen Women, turned to someone experienced at rescues — Titanic survivor Margaret “Molly” Brown. They chose well. The redoubtable Mrs. Brown had performed Field’s poems onstage in her youth and revered him as one of America’s greatest poets.
In 1927, Brown purchased the cottage and presented it to the city of Denver. She also helped pay to move it to its current site, on the east side of Washington Park at Exposition Boulevard. At the time, the house reputedly sported two bullet holes —acquired during the robbery of the Denver Mint in 1922.
When the Eugene Field branch library opened in 1930, Washington Park was already home to an imposing memorial inspired by the poem, “Wynken, Blyken, and Nod.” Near the center of the park, a sculpture surrounded by a large fountain depicted three sleepy children in a wooden shoe sailing across a circular pool. Sculptor Mabel Landrum Torrey created the statue in 1918, at the behest of Denver Mayor Robert W. Speer.
Torrey’s sculpture was moved closer to the newly-arrived Eugene Field House — but unfortunately the pool didn’t make the trip. In its current spot, the magical wooden shoe looks a bit stranded, sitting on a water-stained concrete base that was meant to be submerged.
Over the decades, Wash Park’s small but popular library outgrew its space. In 1970, the city dedicated a newly-constructed Eugene Field Branch Library at 810 S. University Blvd., capable of housing over 30,000 volumes.
The old cottage wasn’t empty for long. That same year, The Park People, a volunteer group that plants thousands of trees and helps maintain park buildings, moved in and renovated the house, restoring its period decor. They also planted the Hazel Woodruff Gates Tribute Garden, which surrounds the house on two sides.
In the early 2000s, the volunteers moved out and the park rangers moved in. The Park People now operate from quarters in Platt Park, although they continue to install commemorative brick pavers in the tribute garden at the Field House.
“We still have a special relationship with that space,” said Kim Yifan-Farrell, executive director of The Park People.
The old cottage is hardly the only building honoring Eugene Field. For a writer who is rarely read nowadays, Field has his name on a lot of Denver real estate, including an apartment building on Poet’s Row in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.
The honors don’t stop with Denver. Across the Midwest, Field’s name is emblazoned on many elementary schools and other civic buildings. In St. Louis, his boyhood home is now a museum displaying original manuscripts and childhood toys that inspired his poems.
A poet, prankster and newspaperman
A born prankster, Field was a bad student who terrorized three colleges with his practical jokes. He found his calling when he went to work as a newspaperman in 1875. For the next 20 years, he worked for papers in St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver and Chicago. At the same time, he began publishing light verse, much of it for children, earning him the sobriquet, “The Poet of Childhood.” Since he and his wife had eight offspring, he definitely knew his subject.
Field’s poems for kids still make great bedtime reading. A good selection can be found in Helen Ferris’ classic children’s anthology, “Favorite Poems Old and New.” The book includes Field’s “The Sugar-Plum Tree,” a ballad that whisks kids away to a magical kingdom where candy grows on trees. In Field’s poem “The Duel,” two stuffed animals engage in a ferocious midnight battle.
More soothing verses can be found in “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” written in 1889. The statue next to the Field House takes on a whole new meaning once you read this lyrical poem. It tells the story of three little children who set out on a nighttime voyage in a wooden shoe, to fish for stars with “nets of silver and gold.” The words have a rocking motion. You can almost feel the breeze that “ruffles the waves of dew.”
There’s no telling if Ranger Johnson will encounter Field’s ghost this December, but if he does appear, chances are he’ll recite something that harkens back to his prankster past.
“Jest ’Fore Christmas” fits the bill. In this poem, a rascally boy shares his strategy for fooling his parents during the holidays. It has the ring of autobiographical truth.