‘Just Steve’ — Part II

Courtesy/Montezuma County HIstorical Society Stephen J. Smith about 1910 — Steve Smith preserved over 400 letters he had written between June of 1891 and August of 1896. The letters are an excellent record of early Cortez history.

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 second 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 second article about Stephen Smith and the letters he wrote while Secretary of the Cortez Land and Investment Company. Based on the letters, taxes, water and the local economy were the big issues — as they still are. From March to June of 1891, Chamberlin Investment of Denver put $8,250 into the Cortez Land and Investment Company. This would be $200,000 in 2012 dollars. The early 1890’s were a time in local history when the future of Cortez and our area was still very speculative. So, why did Chamberlin make such hefty investments? A return on their money was one motivation and they saw potential in Cortez and the Montezuma Valley.

Smith wrote frequently to the investors in his company. Some of them held a single mortgage on a local property, and others owned the assets of the Company. So, what were the principal assets of the Company at the time? There were two buildings, the Stone Block (Wilson Building) and the old County Court House, a flour mill, a stable building, and the original Cortez town site along with its first addition, known as the Chamberlin addition. The Company also held two mortgages, one on the first hotel in Cortez and the other on the first church building. These assets had a value of about $15,000 according to Smith’s letters.

The letter that begins the copy book deals with a business matter for an East Coast investor. Dated June 8, 1891, it is to Mrs. M.E. Hunter in Smith’s hometown of Newburgh, N.Y. With the letter is a “money order $18.50 being the balance of old rent account from the late Mr. Harper, less $.25 for cost of money order.” The letter goes on to say: “Tell the girls I will be in Newburgh as soon after I receive the invitations to their weddings as possible.” This is a departure from the usually very businesslike tone of his letters.

Payments are made to individual investors in Newburgh as well as other cities on the East Coast. These are usually interest on loans that have been made on properties around Cortez. Typical loan amounts are between $250 and $500, and amounts being sent east range from $5.70 to over $500, depending on the size and number of loans an investor might hold. Smith also updates his investors on the efforts he makes to collect on loans, and reports that interest rates ranging from 11 to 18 percent are a good inducement to borrowers to keep their accounts current. He also makes clear the reasons why payments might be late when he says “This is a bad time of year with the ranchmen, and money is scarce” in a letter from July of 1891.

There are two investors, or investing companies, who really keep Smith busy. One is F.J. Chamberlin, Esq. of Denver and the other is H.M. Payson, Esq. of Portland, Maine. It is apparent from reading the letters that these two companies are acting together as regards their investment in Cortez. For example, when Smith has need of funds quickly they are often arranged for with Payson, but come from Chamberlin.

F.J. Chamberlin was one of several brothers who came to Colorado in the 1870s. They were successful in property and other investments around Colorado so would have seen the possibilities of the southwestern corner of the state. H.M. Payson began business in 1854 and is still doing business in 2012 as an investment advisory firm. They originally focused on financing public water companies and underwriting growing communities, so opportunities in Cortez and the local water development were of interest to them.

The first letter in the copy book to either of these entities is to Chamberlin, dated July 8, 1891. Smith provides Chamberlin an accounting of how he spent the $8,250 discussed at the beginning of this article:

$948.80 — half of 1890 property taxes

$6,280.38 — Stone Block construction.

$466.33 — Church construction.

This leaves $569.59 which Smith goes on to say will be applied to “salaries, insurance on Court House Building and sundry current expenses.”

Next month, the article about these letters will look at Smith’s business dealings with local people on behalf of the Company. It is an intriguing story!

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.

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