Dale Davidson, a member of the Montezuma Historical Society has offered these articles for the Looking Back series.
The Montezuma County Historical Society is pleased to present the next three issues on Stephen J. Smith who wrote letters about early Cortez in the 1890s. Dale Davidson became interested when Bill Lemons loaned him a book full of letters written by Smith. Virginia Graham and June Head were privileged to see the books in 2009 and hoped the early information could be made available. Through the courtesy of Davidson and Lemons, this information is now in print.
“He was just Steve, a family friend,” Vivienne Kenyon said when asked if she had any memories of Stephen J. Smith. Vivienne was someone to ask about Smith because her mother was born in his house.
Where have the letters been over the last 100 years? Smith gave the book, along with two bank ledgers, to a younger Cortez businessman, Creighton Rauh. Bill Lemons received these books about twenty years ago when Mr. Rauh gave him the books.
These marvelous historical documents are bound in a copybook, and are, in fact, copies of the letters Smith wrote. Stationery companies sold pre-numbered pages of “onion skin” paper with the materials for making entries into them. The basic process for making copies into these books was developed early in the nineteenth century. Copies were made by placing documents, written in special ink, against a page in the copybook that had been moistened with a solution that made transferring a copy of the original to the book possible. The copybook, with the original document enclosed, was pressed in a small desktop “letter press” to finish the copying process. In this way, Steve Smith preserved over 400 letters written between June of 1891 and August of 1896. Some letters are half a page in length and some take up four pages; some are not written in longhand, but are typed. He wrote all but six of them; the rest are by E.S. Turner, who wrote them in April and May of 1894.
If a letterhead was used, it is either “The Cortez Land” or “The Montezuma Realty Land Company.” Letters are written to investors in cities including Chicago, Denver and Portland, Maine. There are letters to debtors in Southwest Colorado and to banks and bankers in Durango and Denver. In addition, Smith answered a wide variety of inquiries, plus there are letters that are responses by Smith to his employers.
Why look at these letters as an important contribution to local history? After all, they are only one side of a conversation. We don’t know what Smith was asked in the letters he received, or what responses he received to the letters he wrote. These are first-hand accounts from the development of Cortez and the Montezuma Valley, written in the course of making business decisions. Then, many are intended only for Smith’s employers, so they contain frank opinions of local people and business possibilities. They are all from the same author so there is a consistency of reporting that makes for a steady flow of information about Cortez and Montezuma County over six very important years in local history.
So, what do we know about Stephen J. Smith, who began his life in Cortez at 23 years old and fresh from the eastern United States? There is some information in the interview he provided to Anna Florence Robison in 1934, a year before he died. He was born in Newburgh, N.Y., in 1865, and was still living there in 1880, according to the U.S. Census. Smith told Robison he arrived in Cortez with E.S. Turner as bookkeeper and cashier for Mr. Turner. He conducted the business of the Montezuma Valley Bank, which Turner opened in 1887, until it was discontinued in 1891. He then had charge of the office of the various town companies developing Cortez and the water system in Montezuma Valley.
Smith married Jessie Fisher, a Colorado native, in 1894. By 1897 they had two daughters: Helen, born in 1895, and Ethel, born in 1897. The Montezuma Journal reported in March 1899 that Smith had accepted a position with the Colorado State Bank in Durango. In 1901, the Smiths were back in Cortez. In 1901, he was elected as the county clerk for a two-year term. After 1903 he was employed in the county clerk’s office when Harry Sprague was elected clerk. The Montezuma Journal reported his salary from Montezuma County in early 1904 was $87.50 a month.
During this time, Smith owned property in the area and both he and his wife had taken up homesteads in the Montezuma Valley. They were involved in local issues. Stephen is listed in the newspaper among farmers who have “put up money to send attorney Carpenter to interview Judge Mullins in regard to shutting off the water.” Jessie is listed as making petition “for exclusion of land from Water District” on property she owned in the vicinity of the present day junction of Empire Street and Highway 491.
The Montezuma Journal reports a variety of Smith family activities over the years. He is on the county Fair Board and she is on a fair committee and wins a prize for the three pounds of butter she entered one year. Mrs. Smith is involved in the activities of the local Woodmen of the World lodge and Mr. Smith is a Mason. The girls are involved in school activities and “The S.J. Smith residence is undergoing a beautiful coat of paint. S.J. is handling the brush. Many others need to take a step in this direction,” the paper reports.
Smith and his family were living in Cortez when the 1910 census was conducted. He was apparently active in various businesses during these years, and he and his family continued to be involved in local school and social activities according to the newspapers of the time. A significant event for them in 1914 must have been the Fourth of July wedding of Helen Smith to Mr. Paul Walker. In 1920, Stephen and his daughter Ethel were living in Cortez, but sometime prior to that, he and Jessie divorced.
On February 21, 1907 the Montezuma Journal reported “S.J. Smith is comfortably located in the room back of the bank” and in the next edition, “Mrs. Smith and the girls started for Boulder last Monday morning where they will spend the summer.”
In 1930 (per census), Stephen Smith was in Denver where he was working. In 1935 he died and was buried in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. A photograph of his headstone shows a Masonic symbol at the top of the marker followed by Smith, Stephen J. — 1865-1935 and at the bottom, the word “Daddy.”
In the context of this sketchy biography, the letters that will be the subject of the next two articles were written in the early part of Smith’s working life. They cover the period of time of his marriage and the birth of his first daughter, but neither of these events is mentioned in the correspondence. Over the six-year span of these letters, the subjects being dealt with come and go. The business and political issues in Cortez and Montezuma Valley change. The letters are being sent to different areas, and to whom they are sent also changes.
On the other hand, there is remarkable consistency in the letters Smith wrote to E.S. Turner. Turner, who remained president of the companies Smith represented, gave little assistance to Smith who was living here in Cortez. He wrote to Mr. Turner on at least a monthly basis, and usually more frequently, depending on the demands of business. In all there are 89 letters written to Turner in Denver, New York City, and London. They show Smith’s dedication to his work and to the interests of his employers. They are also newsy, forthright and as timely as possible.
In response, there is insight into how much Turner values Stephen Smith in a letter from Turner to George Hunt of Portland, Maine, dated Jan. 16, 1893. Turner writes, “Mr. Smith has done all that anyone could in his position and is thoroughly competent and reliable.”
The next article will focus on Smith’s letters to the investors in the development of Cortez and the Montezuma Valley.
Dale Davidson, a member of the Montezuma County Historical Society, came to Cortez about 25 years ago when he became lead archaeologist for the BLM in Monticello, Utah. After retirement, Dale became involved in many projects including the Hawkins Preserve and the printing of the publication “Images of America.”
June Head is the historian of Montezuma County Historical Society. She can be contacted for comments, corrections or questions at 565-3880.
Membership in the historical society is open to any person interested in “Preserving Our History to Enhance the Future.” Please contact Louise Smith (membership) 564-1815. Membership year is Sept. 15, 2012 – Sept. 15, 2013. $15 for single person; $25 for family. Early payment of the dues will be credited for the upcoming annual year.