Just ‘Steve’ — Part IV The Turner letters

Courtesy/Dale Davidson A letter press, like the one Stephen Smith would have used to copy his letters.

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 final of four 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.

This is the final segment looking at the business letters Stephen Smith wrote from Cortez between 1891 and 1896. Its subject is correspondence from Smith to Emery S. Turner, President of the Cortez Land and Investment Company. Smith was the Company Secretary. While the letters maintain a business tone, they are written in a way that lets us know the two men knew each other well and trusted each other.

Smith originally came to Cortez as Turner’s assistant in 1888, but we don’t know what originally brought them together. Turner, like Smith, was from the Hudson River Valley in New York. They were from towns about 100 miles apart, and Turner, who was about 20 years older than Smith, had served in the Civil War. From the letters it is clear Smith knew Turner’s family, that Turner and his sons spent time in Cortez, and that at times Smith became very irritated with his boss.

Smith’s letters to Turner were sent to London, Denver and New York. After the Fall of 1894 they all went to New York. Typical of what Smith had to say is this from October of 1891: “By last night’s mail I received from the State National Bank of Denver draft $1500., amount cabled them by you for my account. I presume this is for bank taxes and balance to be used for ranch matters; but shall not make any use of it until I shall have time to hear from you.” Many of the letters asked for direction on business or farming matters or money to pay business expenses. Sometimes, Smith’s letters were promptly answered, sometimes they were not. So, it is easy to imagine Smith’s frustration here in Cortez, as he dealt with local problems without adequate funds or instructions.

Smith is capable of a straightforward approach to Turner. In February of 1892 he wrote “I was much disappointed upon my return to the Valley two weeks ago not to find any reply to my letters written before starting east, particularly the one of December 7th, last.” In that letter he had asked for Turner’s direction on a number of pressing matters including: payment of overdue bank taxes; disposal of the unprofitable stage line; property foreclosures; ranching matters; lawsuits brought by the contractor for the Stone Block; and painting of the roof of that building.

Smith kept Turner well informed of local happenings. Politics, farming, the railroad, and the weather are just some of his topics. Often, his writing makes his personal feelings very clear, as this October 1891 example showed: “Our new minister is here with his family. I can not say I consider him any improvement over Mr. Harper. His sermons are not nearly as good, and he believes in buying nothing that he can not borrow or beg.”

Smith provided Turner information critical to the Company. At the end of 1892 he wrote about several important issues. One is the growth of farming and irrigation in Montezuma County. He reported that the number of parties “contracting for water, season 1892, was 130.” He goes on to say “Acreage owned, or held under government filings by such parties about 21,960 acres.” In the same letter he reports “Yesterday made final settlement of Routt suits.” This was significant news because Routt was the contractor who oversaw construction of the “Stone Block” (The Wilson Building), a principal asset of the Company. Until Routt was satisfied, that asset was under threat of foreclosure.

It is perplexing that, given the kinds of decisions Smith was free to make, Turner sometimes reserved decisions to himself. An interesting example has to do with the town band Smith writes about in December of 1894. He was asked by the band organizers if they might rent “the upper part of stone block” for “dances and entertainments to raise funds with which to purchase their instruments.” Band members were willing to rent the space for $10 a month, but Smith could not make a commitment because Turner directed “not to rent it except by the night at $5.00 per night.”

Smith looked to Turner as he conducted Company business. He also looked to Turner for help in his personal business. In August of 1892, he wrote “I wish, if you have an opportunity, you would sell my Realty Co. stock. Will take 60 cents. Could use the money to good advantage, if I had it.” He refers to the Montezuma Realty and Land Company, but we don’t know what “good advantage” he had in mind. The letter did let us know what it cost to invest in the future of Montezuma County.

Thanks for reading about these letters. Stephen Smith has left us an important legacy. The Montezuma County Historical Society is dedicated to adding to that legacy. If you have letters, or other historical records you are willing to share, please let us know at 565-3862.

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.

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