Helen Rich was a bestselling author, a traveling writer and the first female journalist for the Colorado Springs Telegraph.
Helen was born on August 9, 1894, in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, the daughter of a dentist. Helen spent 21 years of her life in a small town in Minnesota and wanted to see the world. She studied to become a teacher, but soon realized she was more interested in newspaper reporting instead. Helen worked as a reporter at the Sauk Centre Herald and later at the Eau Claire Telegram in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Sinclair Lewis and Helen Rich both grew up in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. They had been good friends as children and both became prominent writers. Sinclair Lewis was the first American to win the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature. When Sinclair died in 1951, Helen helped his legacy by remembering their childhood together. Sinclair wrote books, poems, articles, short stories and many novels during his career.
Helen was incorrectly diagnosed with tuberculosis, leading her to move to Colorado in hopes of recovering her health. In Colorado, she became the first female reporter for the Colorado Springs Telegraph. Helen later decided to travel the country working as a freelance writer. Helen was able to make it all the way to France, where she lived until she ran out of money. Helen then moved to New York City where she continued to do freelance work, until she decided to return to Colorado Springs.
When Helen was working as a reporter for the Colorado Springs Telegraph, she met Belle Turnbull. At the time, Belle was the head of the English Department at Colorado Springs High School. They bonded over their love of writing and went on vacations together. Since Helen was the first female reporter at the Telegraph, she was expected to write about parties and all things social. Helen disliked this work and became a top reporter on crime instead.
In 1937, Helen moved with her companion, Belle Turnbull to Frisco, Colorado. Both women longed to have a place where they could focus on their writing. A few years later, they moved to a log cabin in Breckenridge, Colorado. The cabin had no plumbing, electricity or telephone. The two women learned how to live off of the land. Helen liked Breckenridge because there seemed to be no great hurry in the mountains.
In the late 1930s, Breckenridge was just a small mountain mining town and not the big ski town it is today. In Breckenridge, Helen was employed as a social worker. She looked at job placements and welfare payments for the Department of Public Welfare in Summit County, Colorado. Helen continued to work on her writing even with her new job. She worked as a social worker until she retired in 1959.
In 1947, Helen published The Springs Begins, which was her first published work. The novel became a bestselling work and Helen got to meet and sign books for fans. The book was set in the Colorado Rockies, which was known for its rough terrain. Helen then published The Willow Bender in 1950, which dealt with family and mining strikes in Colorado. Helen was very interested in mining laws and spent time researching her novels by hiking through mining areas. Helen lived through Colorado’s mining era and was able to capture what life was like with her writing.
After Helen retired from her job in the Department of Welfare, she focused on a novel that was inspired by the legend of Silverheels. The legend describes a beautiful dance hall girl who shows up to help miners heal from smallpox. Silverheels healed the town, but she caught the disease and disappeared forever. The legend of Silverheels continues in the history of the West. Mount Silverheels in Park County, Colorado, has been named in honor of the mysterious girl. The novel about the legend of Silverheels was sadly never published.
Helen Rich died on November 14, 1971, a year after Belle Turnbull died. She died in her beloved mountain town of Breckenridge, Colorado, when she was 77 years old. Both Helen and Belle had learned how to live off the land and had been accepted by their counterparts in Summit County, Colorado. They were influential authors who wrote about the beauty and heartbreak of the Colorado mountains before they were tamed. Helen Rich made history in Colorado by becoming the first female reporter for the Colorado Springs Telegraph and broke through female stereotypes with her writing.
Prominent - well-known, important
Legacy - what will be remembered of a person
Terrain - land
Welfare - the health and happiness of a group
Tuberculosis - This is a lung disease that is very rare now. It causes people to have an extremely bad cough for weeks.
Diagnose - to identify what sickness someone has based on their symptoms
Smallpox - A virus that is very deadly and contagious, but it is very rare now. It causes rashes and a very high fever.
Tame - to calm
Beloved - something very dear and loved
Counterparts - peers
Freelance Writer - a self-employed writer who finds jobs on the go
Nobel Prize in Literature - a very prestigious award that is awarded to the best work in literature
Prestigious - very important and honorable
Stereotype - a belief or classification about someone or a group of people that is not necessarily true
Could you imagine living in a place without running water or electricity? What would it be like to live off the land?
If you could write a novel about anything, what would you write about? How does the setting you live in impact what you would write about?
Helen Rich Papers (pictures, letters, drafts, Helen’s novels and much more. This can be viewed in person on the 5th floor of the Denver Central Public Library.)
Also available at Denver Public Library:
Belle Turnbull Papers (scrapbooks, personal papers, ephemera and more)
More on Helen Rich and Belle Turnbull in Colorado Women: A History
Another DPL article on Helen Rich in "Wild Women of the West"