Just Steve Part III
In last month’s column, letters Stephen Smith sent to investors across the United States were reviewed. This month we will look at letters he sent to and about people in our area between 1891 and 1896. As the Secretary of the Cortez Land and Investment Company, he was forced into interactions with local people that could become difficult, but his honesty and fair dealing seemed to have carried the day.
A very common theme in the local letters was money that was owed. Smith wrote locals for either principal or interest that was past due using language that fit the particular situation. For example, in the summer of 1891, one of his letters was very direct: “Of course we do not wish to punish you and will allow you a reasonable amount of time in which to make payment, but your letter does not state when you can do so. “A month or so” may mean almost anything.”
The early to mid-1890s were difficult financial times across the United States and Cortez and Montezuma County didn’t escape. When the crash in silver value hit in 1893, this area was especially affected. The closure of silver mines in this region, including Rico, really disrupted local business opportunities.
One local businessman to receive many letters from Smith concerning late mortgage payments was C.L. Petherbridge, who had business interests in both Cortez and Rico. He owned the Clifton Hotel in Cortez that was mortgaged to the Company, and his payments were often late. In April of 1893, Smith wrote Petherbridge, “We must again request that you make payment on note of yours and Mrs. S.L. Petherbridge to this Company.” The situation was somewhat improved when Petherbridge rented the hotel property to a manager, but then Smith had to write letters to collect the rent.
There are other matters of Company business Smith wrote about to locals. For example, in the spring of 1892 he wrote George Elliott, “You are indebted to this Company for hay in the sum of $9.60. You are hereby notified that if in the future you desire to obtain any hay from us, you will do so in a regular manner.” He often closed these kind of letters with a phrase that carries a little threat, like, “I don’t care to bring about any unnecessary expenses.”
It is important to remember that when Smith was managing business affairs for the Company, there was no bank in Cortez. He conducted banking business by letter, usually to B.N. Freeman at the Colorado State Bank in Durango. Smith must have been well thought of by that bank, because they hired him in 1899.
The banking letters can be simple instructions about deposits or expenditures. Very often though, they are detailed discussions of specific properties and individuals. A good example is a response Smith wrote Freeman in the fall of 1891. Apparently he had been asked some questions about mortgage matters. In reply he demonstrated how well he knew local properties, and provided the most complete information he could:
“With reference to the ranch of Jms. J Brown, I will be unable to go out there for some time, but know fairly well as to improvements and how situated, and will report from my recollection of the same. Situate 4 1/2 miles from Cortez, NE; nearly, if not wholly fenced with barbed wire: about 80 acres, and of this 40 acres under cultivation the past season; about 1/2 bottom land and other half rolling and hillside; the buildings amount to nothing, say $500; no timber. According to present values, this property is probably worth $10 per acre, or $1600.”
Smith must have been asked some questions about Mr. Brown as well. He did not dodge them, and he was as fair as he could be. He wrote:
“Mr. Brown is a hard working man, but not what I would call a successful farmer. His crops during the past two years have been pretty slim. A loan of $1,000 on these properties would be large, and I would prefer not to loan over $800 at present time. Large loans as you know, in a new country like this are often apt to “take” the property in the end.”
Stephen Smith must not have ruffled too many feathers around Cortez while working for the Company. He went on to become County Clerk and after that, successfully conducted other business affairs here. Next month we will look at what he wrote to his boss E.S. Turner. These letters contain some of the most interesting information Stephen Smith left us.
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, Davidson became involved in many projects including the Hawkins Preserve and the printing of the publication “Images of America.”
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.