As a boy, Enos Mills was frail, sickly and not expected to live long.
He was born April 22, 1870, on a farm near Pleasanton in Linn County.
When he was 14, he left home — with his parents’ approval — believing that a different climate might improve his health.
He hitchhiked to Kansas City, worked briefly at a bakery to earn enough money to buy a train ticket, and took a train to Colorado.
It was 1884.
He began working at the Elkhorn Lodge at Estes Park as a housekeeper.
His health steadily improved. Within a year, he had climbed Long’s Peak, one of the tallest mountains in Colorado, and built a homestead.
He taught himself about nature.
Nearly four decades after that he became one of the nation’s foremost environmentalists. He was a photographer, writer, lecturer and guide. Mills became the guiding force in persuading the U.S. Congress to establish the Rocky Mountain National Park. His friends included John Muir, President Theodore Roosevelt, J.D. Rockefeller and Helen Keller.
Nature, he was convinced, could in itself heal the wounds and hurts of a troubled society.
“Here Nature will care for you as a mother for a child,” he wrote. “In the mellow-lighted forest aisles, beneath the beautiful airy arches of limbs and leaves, with the lichen-tinted columns of gray and brown, with the tongueless eloquence of the bearded, veteran trees, amid the silence of centuries, you will come into your own.”
From the late 1880s through 1901, Mills spent his winters working at a copper mine in Montana.
But each spring and summer, he would return to Colorado. In 1889, on a trip to San Francisco, he met naturalist John Muir and they became lifelong friends.
In 1901, he purchased the Long’s Peak Inn and for the next two decades encouraged his guests to focus on nature, banning smoking, drinking, card-playing and music to help people focus on the beauty of the wilderness.
“To have made friends with one tree is better than to have learned the names of many trees,” he wrote. “To have shared its experiences through the seasons, to have watched the play of sunlight through the branches, the storms bursting over its head, the rain deepening the color of its bark — this is to feel the universal kinship of nature.”
He published 17 books on nature and photographed more than 15,000 images.
In 1903, Mills climbed Long’s Peak during the winter and crossed the Continental Divide over Flattop Trail to Grand Lake, a journey that had once been considered impassable during the winter.
He began writing for major magazines and newspapers and was a Colorado Snow Observer, measuring snow depths to help predict spring stream surges.
At about that time, he became friends with F.O. Stanley, who manufactured the Stanley Steamer, one of the earliest line of cars made, and the founder of the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park.
In 1915, Congress established the Rocky Mountain National Park, a 415-square-mile refuge.
Mills died Sept. 21, 1922, at age 52.
By then, the Kansan had become known as the father of the Rocky Mountain National Park.