Crain, Mary Helen and Willard

Written by Linda Kirkpatrick on .

Mary Helen (Proctor) Crain

(1903 – 1988)

Willard I. Crain

(1897 – 1975)

Mary Helen Proctor, born in Cincinnati, was the only child of two parents who both died at an early age, while she was in her teens.

Her mother had been found unconscious on the street while walking home from a Red Cross fundraiser. She'd presumably had a stroke which left her ill, and she was eventually put in a sanitarium. Tragically, her first day there, the private duty nurse fell asleep; and the mother, donning her hat and gloves, walked out of the building down to the Ohio River, never to be seen again. Her hat was found floating in the river.

The anguish and unending search for her body were thought to be the cause for the father’s death not long after. He’d prepared a will but never imagined it would be needed before his daughter turned 21; and by the time she was able to access the estate, there was nothing left, assets having been used up in bank fees.

She attended Wellesley College and married florist Willard Crain, also of Cincinnati. Their marriage lasted 50 years, ended by Willard’s death a week after celebrating their Golden Anniversary.

As the oldest of four children in a family of “very little resources,” Willard was called upon to be the breadwinner at an early age. He pursued a career in the floral business and owned a florist shop in Cincinnati until all his designers were drafted to serve in World War II, causing him to shut down the business. For awhile the Crains operated a restaurant in Cincinnati, and Willard was proud of his “bigger-than-life” Victory Garden.

Together Mary Helen and Willard had two children – Dcik and Nancy. When the children had moved on to the armed services and college, respectively, and the florist shop had closed, the Crains left Cincinnati for South Dakota where they operated for three years a seasonal guest lodge in Spearfish Canyon.

Intrigued by the West, they headed to Colorado in 1947, settling in Evergreen, a town they’d heard about years earlier from friends inOhio. They stayed at the Liston Lodge – just below the dam – while house hunting. They purchased a home on Evergreen Hill, on the banks of Evergreen Lake. Their son and daughter would follow them, later moving to Evergreen and putting down roots here as well, each playing a part in Evergreen history.

Willard took a job as the first Master Gardener with the 23-acre Elitch Gardens where he played a role in the advent of artificiallycoloring flowers with food colors. In the early 1950s Colorado’s climate allowed Elitch Gardens to be the largest supplier of carnations in the country.

Willard also became the first president of FTD (Florist Transworld Delivery) when it reorganized in 1965 from its roots as Florists' Telegraph Delivery dating back to 1910.

The yard around the Crain home on Evergreen Hill were terraced and tastefully planted with an abundance of flowers, not unlike some of thegardens Willard tended at Elitch Gardens. Viewing the floral landscape became a destination trip for people on a Sunday drive.

The Crains opened and operated Evergreen Crafters in about 1949, becoming a landmark on Main Street. They sold pieces by local artisans and made some themselves, including many seasonal decorations with pine cones. Willard’s artistry ranged from painting landscapes to hooking rugs, making parchment lampshades and tying flies; Mary Helen liked needlework, knitting and quilting.

“Evergreen’s favorite gift store” would be taken over by daughter and son-in-law, Nancy and Ross Grimes, in 1951. It continues by the same name but under different ownership.

Mary Helen’s teenage scrapbook indicates that she’d read 68 plays by age 13, the year she directed her first play, “Snow White,” with neighborhood children as the actors.

In 1950, inspired by summer stock theatre at Elitch Gardens and Mary Helen’s love for reading plays, they invited others interested in theatre to meet in their home to read plays. It was the start of The Evergreen Players. “Outward Bound” was the first stage production with Willard as director, as he’d had some amateur and semi-professional theatre experience from his days in Cincinnati. They put on productions for 10 years – about 3 each year – before burning out. As of this date, The Evergreen Players is known as the oldest continuously operating theatre company in Colorado.

During their early years in Evergreen, Willard was a founding member of Evergreen Fire Department, Evergreen Ambulance Service and the Chamber of Commerce. Willard and Mary Helen, together with daughter-in-law Sandy Crain, were founding members of the Jefferson County Historical Society.

Mary Helen’s interest in the West was stimulated with opportunities to get acquainted with old-timers in the area, and she began writing down facts and details she’d later incorporate into published columns and historical booklets about the area.

Between 1955 and 1958, the only publication resembling news for the area was a monthly piece called Smoke Signals, published by Vern Manning of Indian Hills and backed by the Indian Hills Fire Department. In 1958 the Crains began publishing a weekly newspaper on Vern Manning’s press; the Crains' daughter, Nancy, suggested naming it the Canyon Courier. It was meant to cover news from a broad area: from US 40 on the north to Bailey and beyond on the south, and from Mt. Evans to the eastern Jefferson County Line.

Willard, who had 20 years’ experience publishing corporate news (for FTD and Elitch Gardens), approached the Evergreen Chamber of Commerce about expanding Smoke Signals and was encouraged to do so. Initially, Vern Manning was Publisher and Editor with Willard named executive editor. It was Willard's responsibility to sell ads as well as to get the paper out on a weekly basis. Mary Helen helped with the writing, She contributed a popular weekly column – initially “Chit Chat,” later “Reminiscing” – until 1975. She contributed more than 150 articles and columns in the Courier.

Mary Helen pursued her interests in history and writing by publishing four booklets: Superstitions, Legends and Such (1978); Evergreen, Colorado (1969); and Circle of Pioneers (1965). She helped Lorene Horton publish the booklet Memory Album of Morrison, Colorado (1976). She also wrote articles for the Florist and Nursery Exchange and the Southern Florist and Nurseryman. She was a member of Colorado Press Women (where she was a consistent winner in competition) and an outspoken opponent of the winter Olympics proposed for Colorado, some of which would have occurred in Evergreen.

In 1978 the Chamber of Commerce named Mary Helen its Person of the Year.

Mary Helen “was always very ‘put together’ – a fashionable woman,” recalls granddaughter Ann Dodson. “She loved to entertain, had a lot of poise, and was very gracious. Even in Evergreen she dressed everyday for the public."

"They loved the West," Ann continues. "They went to the Colorado River and floated before Lake Powell was formed. They were adventurous. They were both fly-fishers, and my grandfather tied his own flies. She was the writer; he was the artist."

Sources: Granddaughter Ann Dodson; Mary Helen Proctor’s scrapbook; letters written by daughter Nancy Grimes; profile about the author on books written by Mary Helen Crain; Evergreen, Our Mountain Community (Sternbergs).