Arvada's McIlvoy House

The Story Behind the Cigar Smoke

Philanthropist Clamency McIlvoy rarely left her Arvada home. In a biography written for Arvada Profiles—a magazine celebrating the city’s centennial anniversary—local historian Gayle Laidig says McIlvoy “loved books but knew little of the outside world.” Legend has it that she visited Denver just once in her life, though she lived within sight of it for more than sixty years. But McIlvoy was no recluse. She loved her hometown as much as her home—a fact that has enhanced Arvada’s already-progressive historic preservation efforts.

Neighborhood kids knew McIlvoy as “Auntie Mac,” Colorado pioneer and storyteller extraordinaire. They looked for the “quaint old lady” as they walked down Grandview Avenue, sometimes finding her working in the garden, “carrying a heavy cane about her arm.” Occasionally, Auntie Mac stopped what she was doing and indulged the little ones’ curiosity.

Sitting in her garden, or perhaps in the parlor of her beloved Edwardian home, Auntie Mac spun, according to Laidig, “wonderful tales of animal and plant life and the history of the infancy of the state.” Obscured only by the smoke curling up from McIlvoy’s signature cigar, these stories impressed the kids more than any history book ever could.

No doubt some of those tales included chapters from McIlvoy’s own past. Born in French Lick, Indiana, she married Dennis David McIlvoy in 1854. Already afflicted with gold fever—he had joined the rush to California in 1850—Dennis didn’t hesitate to go west again when Kansas newspapers announced in 1858 that gold had been found on Cherry Creek at the foot of the Rockies. The couple hit the trail shortly thereafter, bound for the new Eldorado.

Upon arrival, Clamency discovered that women were even more scarce than gold. She may have been the “first white woman” in the mining camp of Central City, though the claim sounds a little dubious. In any case, the camp was not only dominated by men, it was dominated by lucky men, and Dennis was not lucky. So the McIlvoys moved north to Montana, where their bad luck continued. A year later they moved to the high plains near Denver, figuring they could make a better living feeding the miners than being miners.

Their farm, ironically located near the site where Lewis Ralston found gold in 1850, sustained the couple better than mining ever had. And Clamency, after traveling the nation’s midsection from Indiana to Colorado to Montana and back to Colorado on horseback and by covered wagon, decided to stay put.

In the late 1890s, the McIlvoys sold the farm and moved into a big new house on Grandview Avenue. Today’s architectural historians have a lot of technical words to describe its features—asymmetrical massing, intersecting hipped and gabled roofs, decorative vergeboards, and segmental arched windows—but to Clamency it was just a place where she could tend a garden, smoke her cigars, and tell stories.

In 1919, the aging storyteller donated three acres of the land surrounding her home to the city of Arvada to be used as a public park. Civic officials immediately hired master landscape architect Saco de Boer—who designed many of Denver’s parks—to beautify the grounds. Clamency McIlvoy, pioneer and philanthropist, died three years later. 

Like McIlvoy Park, the house became city property. Succeeding generations knew it as the American Legion and Ladies Auxiliary, the Arvada Community Building, and the Arvada Public Library. A blue spruce planted in Clamency’s garden became the city’s permanent community Christmas tree. All of these uses prolonged the building’s life, but it was the home’s continued ability to tell a story that ensured its permanent preservation.

The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties states, “A property will be used as it was historically, or be given a new use that maximizes the retention of distinctive materials, features, spaces, and spatial relationships.” A historic structure assessment, funded in part by the State Historical Fund, reflected the spirit and letter of the standard when it reported that “The McIlvoy House is well suited for use as a home for the Arvada Historical Society, due to its size, location, and historic integrity and importance of the building.” Not to mention the fact that the historical society, as the steward of the city’s historical documents, is in the best position to continue Auntie Mac’s storytelling legacy.

The city of Arvada requested $99,857 from the State Historical Fund to make the plan a reality. Spending $164,722 in matching funds for the grant, the city completely rehabilitated the McIlvoy House, inside and out.

Today, the home provides patrons with a first-floor exhibit area and a reading room for historical research. The building also houses the Arvada Historical Society’s entire archival collection and hosts half-day history programs for kids organized by the Arvada Center. “It’s great to have all those little voices back in the building,” says City of Arvada grants administrator Kim Grant.

Now anyone can visit the McIlvoy House and find the resources to research their own family stories. The only thing missing is the cigar smoke.