An enduring love story in Central City


Ladies, there’s nothing like a good meal to win a man

By Linda Jones

She was an ‘old maid’ by the standards of society in her day. He was literally tall, dark, handsome, and single, and she wasted no time in encouraging his interest in her. Their love story winds throughout early Central City and MiddlePark history and is still resonating.

Mary was the first white woman to permanently live in Central City. She was born in Ireland, but had lived for a time in England because her father was a gardener in the Queen’s garden, but as soon as her parents had saved the money for passage, the family sailed to Canada. One parent died aboard ship and the other soon after arriving, leaving the 13-year old Mary to care for her brother, six years younger. Mary brought them both to America and began working as a maid in households where he would be welcome. When the time came for her brother to strike out on his own, she was employed by the McGee family in Baltimore. When Mr. McGee decided to join the gold rush to western Kansas, the couple invited Mary to join them and the spinster, now in her late twenties, accepted.

But the defenseless woman overheard a chilling conversation one evening while she was strolling along Clear Creek after cleaning up from the evening supper. When Mrs. McGee asked her husband what his financial plan might be since he wasn’t cut out for common labor, he replied that there would be thousands of lonely men in the gold camps and few women and he planned to sell Mary’s services. Hearing this, the proper young woman immediately fled. Fortunately for history, the next camp along the creek was that of William Greene Russell, discoverer of gold in Denver and an honorable Southern gentleman. Russell offered Mary a job cooking for his large group of men and promised that not one of them would harm a hair of her head or they’d answer to him! He also promised that before he and his men left the gold diggings in the fall, they would construct a boarding house for her to run for a living.

In 1860 a stranger looking for clean lodging knocked on the door of her boarding house. When she opened it and saw William Zane Cozens, Mary seized the opportunity. She told him that what he had heard was true, she did keep the cleanest lodging in the area, but she had no rooms to let. However, she added that she also set the tastiest table in the area and would expect him back for supper at 6 p.m. and then shut the door before he could refuse. He came that evening – and every evening after that.

Billy had been born the same year as Mary, 1830, but he hailed from upstate New York, where he had trained as a carpenter. Knowing his skills would be in high demand on the frontier, he came west by stage. Arriving in The Richest Square Mile on Earth, the young carpenter immediately found a job bartending for Jack Kehler. Soon Kehler was hired as the first lawman in this part of western Kansas Territory and he deputized Billy.

Mary’s pluck and cooking kept the newcomer returning for supper night after night. When Billy heard Father Machebeuf would be coming for a special Mass in the new town in December 1860, he asked Mary to be his wife. Everyone rejoiced at this first wedding in the booming community because it signified permanence for the town, and the arrival of their oldest son was the first birth in Central City.

When Gilpin County was created on February 28, 1861, Kehler and Billy were selected as the Sheriff and Deputy. Kehler soon resigned and Cozens became the Sheriff, a lawman whose common sense and courage are the basis of many books and campfire tales. Mary’s brave sheriff-husband created the “line in the sand” incident that led to Colorado’s first legal execution. William Van Horn murdered Josiah Copeland on October 17, 1863. Fearing the killer would be let off with no punishment, the usual outcome of crimes in those early Territorial years, Copeland’s friends crowded Eureka Street around the new Gilpin County Courthouse – built by Billy – and demanded the keys to the jail. Sheriff Cozens refused, actually drawing a line in the street with his toe and vowing he would kill the first man to cross it. No one doubted him. No one crossed it. In 1873 Billy was named a U.S. Marshall for the Second Judicial District.

Billy was an accomplished carpenter and three of his frame structures are listed today on the National Register of Historic Sites. Two are in Central City. Washington Hall, the original Gilpin County Courthouse (1862), is the oldest public building in Colorado. The house he built behind it for Mary and their children, William, Mary and Sarah, still stands and is owned by the City of Central. (A fourth baby, Alexis, is buried in the Central City Masonic Cemetery.) The third of Billy’s surviving buildings is near Fraser.

The Cozens family moved to Middle Park in 1876, supposedly because Mary considered Central City too wicked a place to bring up children anymore. Billy built the first guest ranch in that area and also the original Fraser Post Office; their homestead in Middle Park is now a museum. Billy died first, in 1904, and Mary, in 1909; they are buried along with their three children in the cemetery now called the Maryville Cemetery which they created on their ranch land.

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