As a young child, I looked forward to spending the night with my great-aunt Mary Cronin. Cooking cinnamon rolls was our thing. Using time and patience, we’d create a cinnamon-sugar-butter concoction that blanketed flat dough, which we rolled into a continuous loop of goopy, reddish-brown swirls. As we worked, Mer—that’s what we called her—sometimes mentioned Aunt Ella and Aunt Frances in passing. The two sisters were ephemeral to me at the time. My life began about fifteen years after their lives finished. Without faces and memories, the names mostly vaporized from my head.
Even today, the aroma of baking cinnamon rolls sends me back to Aunt Mary’s kitchen. Maybe the lovely smell and the affection I felt is why I recall the scene so often—and why I’ve spent a lot of time learning more about the women that Mer didn’t want me to forget.
Ella Moffat McLaughlin and Frances Moffat were Colorado's top women golfers in the first decades of the twentieth century. They were a sister duo. They were also my great-great-aunts.
These Irish-Catholic, Victorian-era women chased little white balls around fields of green grass. But they drove more than golf balls. What they couldn’t say or do because of social restraints met no such restraint on the golf course. Tee it up. Set a stance. See the ball. Let it sail.
Over the years, I have found plenty of evidence of their spirits and drives in newspaper clippings, photo albums, and family stories. Ella and Frances left a message to the future: Use whatever vehicle is available to mark your existence. Shout your life so loud that three generations later, a history sleuth like me is left to wonder: How did they do that? Why did they do that?
The old saying is that Ireland’s greatest export was its people. During a tumultuous seven-year period from 1845 to 1852, the Great Irish Famine sent millions of starving emigrants out of Ireland. That included my maternal great-great-grandparents, Thomas and Mary Moffat. Orphaned at four years old, my great-great-grandmother Mary lost her parents to the Irish famine. As a teenager, Thomas watched typhus wither his father to an unrecognizable sight before death extinguished the gruesome scene. Life was anywhere but Ireland, so they fled the seaside farming community of County Mayo and joined the flood of Irish immigrants bound for the United States.
Thomas and Mary’s first child, Mariah (my great-grandmother), was born in England as they made their way to America aboard the ship Bridgewater in 1863. They docked in New York City as Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing enslaved people in Confederate states. As the Civil War raged around them, twenty-three-year-old Thomas Moffat took the first job he could find: He joined the Union Army.
Frederick, Maryland, was alternately occupied by both Union and Confederate soldiers in the days before the battles of Antietam (1862) and Gettysburg (1863). Thomas Moffat was part of the effort to transfer the wounded from the battlefields to Frederick, which became a major hospital center and is now home to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. Ella Moffat McLaughlin was born in Frederick, Maryland, in 1868 to a family finding its footing as newcomers in a chaotic and divided nation that was just beginning to reckon with the carnage of war. The end of the war meant that Ella’s parents could finally take a breath and look around. Where did they want to live and how did they want to live?
Thomas came to the United States as a rural farmer with no education, but he had an important skill set: hard work and muscle. The ambitious Transcontinental Railroad project and the lure of the West moved the Moffats away from the east coast to Independence, Iowa, where Thomas took a job as a laborer with the D&I Railroad. The Moffat family would grow to include eight children in Iowa. Eleven years apart, Ella was the third oldest; Frances was the youngest.
But the Moffat family’s westward journey was not finished, especially as railroads continued to grow. With Ella, Frances, and their six other siblings in tow, the Moffats loaded a covered wagon and headed for Denver in 1880 (I still have one of the chairs they brought along). The McLaughlin family joined the 800-mile westward voyage. Ten-year-old Ella Moffat and eleven-year-old Mac McLaughlin traveled the dusty trail together, leading not only to their new home in Denver, but to a lifelong partnership.
By now a railroad man for life, Thomas Moffat went to work for the Denver & Rio Grande Railway and settled his family at 276 Eleventh Street in the original Auraria neighborhood. Mac’s family lived nearby, at what is now the Denver Center for the Performing Arts parking lot. I have walked the path of their childhood steps endless times. I now work on the Auraria campus and have taught several classes in the North Classroom building, which stands in the footprint of Ella and Frances’s former home.
You don’t need a large frame to carry a heavy load. Around five feet tall and never more than 110 pounds, Ella’s dainty dignity belied the weighty responsibilities of a pioneer girl growing up in poverty on the Iowa plains with five younger siblings to help look after. Early photographs of Ella reveal underlying kernels of grit and determination. In one photo, Ella is walking with one of her nephews toward a car when her face turns toward the camera with an “oh yeah, watch me” glance. Ella holds eye contact revealing a dogged, determined look, a telling sign of her later approach to golf.
In contrast, Ella’s caring nature was front and center in an 1889 Rocky Mountain News article that described Ella tending to her future brother-in-law Willie McLaughlin after Willie fell seventy-five feet down a mountain. According to the article, Ella “tenderly cared for the little fellow from the time he was hurt till he landed in Denver.”
Ella married star Denver baseball player Michael (Mac) McLaughlin in 1892 at St. Leo’s Catholic Church. The sponsor of Mac’s baseball team, Sanden Electric, sold medical electric belts. Mac was an agent for the company for a few years but eventually started his own successful company, making enough money to gain access to a wealthy lifestyle. Ella and Mac were a team throughout their lives and they temporarily moved to San Francisco, California around 1901 to promote the business.
In contrast to Ella’s petite figure, Frances had a more muscular build. Her round-rimmed glasses rested on puffy cheeks, which gave Frances a bookish air. A few impish glances in old photos reveal a jovial nature, as if she were about to crack a joke. While Ella’s hats were stylish and modern, Frances wore ones that shaded her eyes, kept the sun off her face, and got the job done. Frances was a single woman operating in a married woman’s world. Automobiles were barely on the scene in 1914 when several Colorado newspapers described Frances behind the wheel of a shiny new car. Unfortunately, her fame was the result of hitting a pedestrian, Captain George Thatcher of Aspen, who suffered minor injuries and recovered.
Mac and Ella shared their good fortune with their families, especially Frances. Without the status of a husband and children, unmarried women during that time period could expect a dowdy life. Not Frances. She traveled the United States and Europe with the McLaughlins, attended fancy tea parties, and donned elegant gowns for dances. And Frances learned to play golf—really, really well.
It was during their time in San Francisco that the golf bug bit the trio. Mac missed the thrill of hitting a baseball and watching it fly, so he adopted golf (you can read more about his career in the Spring 2021 issue of this magazine). He took lessons from Scottish golf pro James Melville at the famed Del Monte Hotel. Ella and Frances didn’t rest in the shade, they learned to play, eventually participating in, and winning Del Monte women’s golf tournaments.
Ella and Frances were cut from the same cloth of determination. A golf tournament at Lakewood Country Club in September 1921 describes Frances and her opponent Mrs. F.W. Maxwell ending their match with a tie. According to the Rocky Mountain News: “As they finished all square at the last hole and believing that they should play it out to conclusion, the two ladies played twenty-three holes in all before Miss Moffat won.” Although, according to the rules, the extra holes did not count. The match was recorded as a tie.
For many women, life in the early 1900s was preordained: Marry young and have enough children to field a baseball team. My family was not different. Thomas and Mary Moffat had eight children: two sons and six daughters. Three of the daughters, Mariah, Kate, and Bridget, married and had families of eleven, two, and three children, respectively. Although Ella would eventually adopt two of her nieces, the sisters remained childless. Ella and Frances broke the mold and left a small mark on golf history.
Through golf, Ella and Frances found a way to express who they were in a world that often saw women as vague figures in the shadow of men. Golf was the megaphone through which they shouted their lives. Ella and Frances were eleven years apart, but the age difference collapsed as they went head-to-head competing for championship golf titles.
The McLaughlins and Frances moved back to Denver around 1908, bringing their love of golf with them. Mac was one of the founders of Lakewood Country Club (LCC) in 1908 and the founding president of the Colorado Golf Association in 1915. Ella and Frances became part of LCC’s formidable women’s golf team. At the time, the highest level of play for women golfers was in formal tournament competitions, and Ella and Frances were at the forefront of a national movement to organize women’s golf. The sisters helped to establish the Colorado Women’s Golf Association (CWGA) in 1915. Frances was elected the first secretary for the CWGA and served for several years. Mac enabled Ella and Frances to play golf and was their biggest cheerleader. A 1917 The Denver Post news account describes Mac climbing the fence at Lakewood Country Club to get a better view of Ella’s playing.
The Mac-Ella-Frances trio became a golfing juggernaut. Mac quickly rose as one of Colorado’s top amateur golfers, winning the first Colorado Golf Association Match Play Championship in 1915 and again in 1919. Mac was posthumously inducted into the Colorado Golf Hall of Fame in 2003. The Colorado Golf Hall of Fame plans to permanently display Mac’s 1915 championship trophy and honor Ella and Frances when the new Hall of Fame opens at the Broadmoor Hotel in 2023.
Ella and Frances were right in there with him. Several years later, Ella imparted words of advice on the eve of her niece’s (my grandmother’s) marriage to another top Colorado golfer, my grandfather Louis O’Brien. “If you don’t want to be a golf widow,” Ella wrote in a letter, “learn to play.”
The first Colorado Women’s State Championship tournament was held in 1916 at the Colorado Springs Golf Club. Ella and Frances faced each other in the semifinal round of the 1916 match play tournament. The Rocky Mountain News reported that Ella played her usual brilliant game and led Frances by three strokes. Ella went on to win the 1916 championship by beating Mrs. L.M. Van Meter on the last putt of the eighteenth hole. According to the Rocky Mountain News, “Their match was the closest and most exciting of the tournament.” Ella’s driving was almost perfect and her putting was of high caliber.
The rivaling sisters were back in 1917, each determined to win. Frances made it to the semifinals but lost the match by two strokes and quashed her hopes of advancing to the finals. Ella, however, was still in the game. Ella’s drives from the tee did not travel the furthest, but her strategic approach to the green, flawless putting, and steely-eyed concentration made Ella a champion. Ella won the 1917 final match and retained her state championship title for the second consecutive year.
The following year, the sisters battled through a slate of top Colorado women golfers. Ella won her semifinal match. Frances defeated her semifinal opponent after a “hard tussle” and went on to challenge the defending state champion: Ella. The Denver Post reported that this created a rather unusual affair. Two sisters would decide the 1918 Colorado Women’s State Championship.
As the sisters played golf, world events resonated at home. Two nephews were overseas serving in the Great War. One nephew, John Cronin, came back and was never quite the same. A beloved aunt and uncle, both of whom made the treacherous journey out of Ireland with Thomas Moffat decades earlier, died within three months of each other, both victims of the 1918 flu pandemic.
The two prior days of grueling matches took a toll on Ella and Frances. As they faced each other for the final match, neither was on top of her game. The Rocky Mountain News reported that Ella overran the hole on approaches and missed a few putts. Commenting on her lack of the usual command, particularly with her two wood, which golfers often referred to as a “brassie,” the News noted that “Mrs. McLaughlin had a tendency to smother her brassie shots, showing she was not hitting with the same precision, which is her custom.” On the flip side, “Miss Moffatt allowed her opponent to win the ninth hole by messing things up in general after Mrs. McLaughlin had put her shot in the ditch.” Later, Frances “drove a splendid brassie to the green.” After a long day of battling back and forth, Frances won the 1918 championship.
There would be plenty more championships. Ella regained the Colorado Women’s State Championship title for a third time in 1921. And Mac was winning more trophies as well. Between 1915 and 1921, a Colorado State Championship title stayed within the McLaughlin/Moffat family for six of the seven years.
Ella’s and Frances’s quiet story had a loud impact on women’s golf in Colorado. The Colorado Women’s Golf Association (CWGA), now merged with the Colorado Golf Association (CGA) is a multi-million-dollar enterprise. According to Nancy Wilson, co-chair of the CWGA Centennial Celebration 1916-2016, CWGA is recognized as one of the best women’s golf programs in the country. It organizes tournaments, encourages young golfers through clinics, and supports all types of golfers, not just the elite. Ella and Frances would be proud of the golf organization they started that has touched the lives of tens of thousands of women golfers over the last 100 years, including me.
Last year, I joined the Applewood Golf Course CWGA league as a first-time golfer. In doing so, I learned more deeply what Ella and Frances knew as they went head-to-head to set the bar for golf in Colorado: Golf is a game of character. The job is not to wish ill on your opponent. Applaud good shots—then hit better ones. Winning at golf is about digging deep to find out what you are made of and putting it all on the line. And so it was with the Moffat/McLaughlin sisters. Ella and Frances were fierce competitors who lived, traveled, and played golf together. They took care of each other until the end of their lives. Frances was fifty-seven when cancer ended her life in 1936. Mac died from heart disease in 1938 at sixty-nine, and Ella followed him the next year, also from cancer, at age sixty-nine.
I never knew these great-great-aunts, but I have come to know them through cinnamon rolls and golf. Their legacies weave in and around the edges of my life: Find your niche. Make a statement that sends a message to the future. You breathed. You dreamed. You existed. Keep the ball in play. Never give up on a hole. And take your shot.