A photo of the Sauer-McShane Mercantile in Central City, Colorado, shows a number of men lounging on the sidewalk in front of the building. Some of them undoubtedly were waiting for the women who frequented one of the fanciest stores west of Denver. Otto Sauer and John McShane, merchants and liquor dealers, had their own pioneer stories, but nothing to match the notoriety of two female customers, legendary women known as “Baby Doe” and “Poker Alice.”
Shown here, Baby Doe, a.k.a. Elizabeth McCourt Tabor (1854-1935), was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. After divorcing a neer-do-well husband named Doe, she moved to Leadville, Colorado, where she met Horace Tabor, a wealthy silver magnate and future U.S senator almost twice her age. He promptly divorced his wife of 25 years, married the beautiful Elizabeth, and set off a major scandal in Colorado. Baby Doe, as she became known in media coverage nationwide, had plenty of money to spend with Sauer-McShane until Tabor lost all of his in the Panic of 1893. At the end of her days she was rendered destitute.
Alice Ivers was Irish, born in England, whose parents moved to Virginia when she was twelve. While she was still in her late teens her parent moved to Leadville, Colorado, and she soon found a husband. When he was killed in a mining accident, she was in difficult financial straits and turned to playing cards for a living. Shown here, Ivers used her good looks to distract men at the poker table. She always had the newest fashion dresses, some bought from Sauer-McShane. She was also very good at counting cards and winning big pots, which helped her become known throughout the West and earn the name “Poker Alice.”
Otto Sauer and John Mcshane wrote their own legends, opening the first general store in a Colorado mining town that was virtually nothing but an assemblage of wooden shacks, and eventually made their enterprise a retail giant. Sauer (1838-1915) was the original mastermind of the mercantile, founded under the name of Sessler & Sauer but subsequent run solely by Sauer, shown left. A biography noted that “Mr. Sauer is a man considerable wealth, the greater part acquired by close attention to this concern.”
In 1882 Sauer sold a majority share of the company to McShane, a Pennsylvania-born son of a wagoneer, born about 1835. As a youth he had relocated first to Iowa, then to Kansas, and from there emigrated to Colorado. In Gilpin County he engaged in gold mining and came to own a part of the renowned Gunnell mine, shown here. After achieving considerable wealth McShane gained political attention and was elected to the Colorado territorial legislature in 1875. Later he would serve on the Central City School Board.
The partners recognized that an immense amount of money from gold, silver and other metals was being unearthed and available in that part of Colorado. Area mines annually were producing the current equivalent of $75,000,000, mostly in gold. Men of wealth often had wives or mistresses that they wanted dressed in the best finery, as exemplified in the photo above at Sauer-McShane. The women are wearing tea or floor length dresses, laced shoes with heels, straw or fabric hats with elaborate decoration and bows, gloves, and brooches. While such fashionable garb might have been available in Denver, that city was over the mountains. Sauer-McShane could provide haute couture close to home and the male partner’s cash box.
We can imagine one or both proprietors greeting Baby Doe Tabor at the entrance of the store, aware of wealth she represented. Then they would turn her over to their best millinery and dress salesperson. They also knew the value of selling liquor in their mercantile company. From the mine owners to those who “moiled for gold,” thirst for alcohol was virtually unanimous. Sauer-McShane could fill that bill as well. A gallon ceramic jug shown here suggests that the partners were getting shipments of whiskey by the barrel via the railroad, decanting it into their own containers and selling it to saloons and over-the-counter customers.
McShane became particularly known for his business savvy. Beginning in 1868, according to his biography, he was “actively identified with the mercantile interests of Gilpin County….” The implication was that McShane first had been employed by Sauer and then bought into the company that under the Irishman’s management had become “extraordinarily successful.”
The local newspaper reported that in 1894 the company had shown an increase in sales of $20,000 over 1893. “They have increased their storage capacity for receiving goods in car-load lots, and the present year will be better enabled than ever before to please their customers.” That additional storage capacity likely was a new warehouse the partners had constructed. It still stands today, bearing their name, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
By 1895, the company was doing the current equivalent of $5,000,000 in sales annually. This wealth allowed the partners to branch out into other endeavors. Sauer became a founding director of the first National Bank of Central City, accounted one of the most successful financial institutions in Colorado. Later McShane joined as a stockholder, director and vice president.
At the age of 77 Otto Sauer died in 1915 and was buried in the Block 23, Lot 12, Section 3, of the Fairmont Cemetery in Denver. John McShane followed in 1920 at the age of 85 and is buried nearby. Their gravestones are seen here.
Both men were outlived by their famous customers — both Elizabeth Tabor and Alice Ivers lived into the 1930s, and in a sense beyond. Baby Doe’s rags-to-riches and back to rags again story not only made her a well-known figure in her own day, but inspired other treatments. “The Ballad of Baby Doe” is a 1956 opera by American composer Douglas Moore that continues to be popular with American audiences. She also was the subject of an 1932 Hollywood motion picture. Called “Silver Dollar,” it starred Edwin G. Robinson as Tabor and Bebe Daniels as Elizabeth. The story of Poker Alice has inspired several short stories and a 2014 prize-winning song, “The Ballad of Poker Alice Ivers.”
Note: Much of the material on McShane and Sauers, including quotes, was taken from History of the State of Colorado, Volume IV, by Frank Hall published by the Rocky Mountain Historical Company, published in 1895.