Perley Wason, business pioneer

Courtesy/Montezuma County Historical Society Wagonloads of visitors in front of the original Montezuma County Courthouse.

Dale Davidson, a member of the Montezuma Historical Society has offered these articles for the Looking Back series.

It was no easier over a hundred years ago than today, to move to the Montezuma Valley for business success. Luckily, there were tough individuals willing to try their best to succeed. This article uses the Stephen Smith letters and other sources to follow the story of one of these early-day Cortez businessmen.

Perley Wason was one of these pioneers. When he arrived in Cortez is uncertain, and where he came from is not recorded, although the newspaper refers to connections to Thornton, Colorado. Several sources do recount that he was operating a stage and mail line here by 1887 from a livery stable at the northwest corner of North Market and North Street, and that he was the first Cortez sheriff.

Wason was a customer of the first bank established in Cortez, the Montezuma Valley Bank. This bank was probably financed by outside investors, including the Chamberlin Brothers from Denver, and opened for business in 1888. As a bank customer, Wason would have met Stephen Smith, who was Cashier for the bank.

We are certain that Wason did business with the Montezuma Valley Bank from what Stephen Smith says in a letter to E.S. Turner dated August 1891: “old paper of the M.V.B. is getting down pretty well. Were we rid of Wason, we would be in good shape.” This letter was written several months after the bank closed when investors were left with its liabilities.

Wason was not the only liability, but he was by far the largest. At the end of a “Statement of Receipts and Disbursement” attached to that August 1891 letter, Smith lists what is still owed the former bank. Wason had two separate mortgages totaling $3,800. There were five other mortgages totaling just over $500.

We don’t know when or why Wason’s financial problems began. In August of 1891, Smith reported “Someone set fire to one of his jerkies last week.” Several days later Smith wrote his Durango banker about the problems besetting Wason. His mail contract, which represented a significant part of his income, was changing. The railroad had been completed west from Durango to the La Plata River so the mail route to Cortez became shorter. At the same time, Wason had old creditors in Durango who “may try to attach some of his stock,” wrote Smith.

So, it seems Wason was beset from several fronts. He owed payments to the Cortez Land and Investment Company, and he had debts that others demanded payment on. It is not hard to imagine the kinds of bills that could pile up for a stage and livery operation. In addition to the costs of equipment and horses, there would have been upkeep for the animals, salaries for drivers and other workers and the other costs of running a business, including taxes and interest on loans.

By November of 1891 the length of Wason’s route again shortened as the railroad reached the top of Mancos Hill. This was another business setback because, as Smith writes, “This places a number of idle horses on Perley’s hands, and, unless closely watched he is likely to sell or trade them off.” Smith did not want to see the loss of the animals that were part of the chattel mortgage for which he was responsible. On the other hand, Wason did not want the costs of caring for animals for which he no longer had a use.

The next problem for Wason becomes evident in a Smith letter to E.S. Turner in December of 1891 when he reported “mail money due Nov. 15th has not yet been received,” so Wason had missed another mortgage payment. It is likely he had used the money for payments to other creditors. Smith lays out his solution in the same letter, saying “it is nearly time to take the outfit and dispose of it as best we can.”

In February of 1892 Smith writes to his bank in Durango, “the time has now arrived for us to take steps in the Wason chattel mortgage matter.” Action has to be taken, as Smith sees it, because Wason has again used funds that were to come to him to pay other debts. Smith is also concerned because the County Treasurer “will next week attach certain horses for taxes.”

A final resolution to Wason’s mortgage problems came about with the sale of his ‘outfit’ in April of 1892. He seems to have been cooperative throughout the process, giving Smith a bill of sale on two houses he owned in Cortez toward what he owed. Also, he worked to get Smith clear title to the chattel mortgage held by Cortez Land and Investment Company. Wason was a tough individual trying his best, but he did not find business success in Montezuma County.

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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