Mills in the Valley
The best fry bread makers know Blue Bird Flour is the best to use. Cortez Milling, which grinds the famous flour, has been in business for more than 80 years, but it was not the first flour mill in Cortez. Those fry bread makers, and anyone else who uses the local flour, probably don’t know farmers and flour mills have had a very interesting relationship here in the Montezuma Valley. Firsthand accounts, the local newspaper, and other sources tell fascinating stories about that relationship and how it affected the early development of our farming economy. Farmers growing wheat, and flour mills were absolutely dependent on each other, but they were not always the best partners. The mills needed to be able to process a dependable supply of wheat that could be ground into flour and other products to pay their bills. Farmers needed a dependable mill that could purchase the wheat they grew at a price that could keep them in business. This is a simple enough equation, but one that did not always work out in water-short Montezuma County. Ups and downs in local wheat production made operating a mill financially risky. This point was clear when Stephen Smith wrote to an eastern investor in October of 1895, “The mill has been rented for the coming year at $600. I had considerable difficulty in finding a tenant, and this was the best that could be done.”
The mill he wrote about was built in 1891 at a cost of about $15,000 and was equipped with milling equipment manufactured by Nordyke and Marmon in Indianapolis, Indiana. It was located on the edge of Cortez because of the fire danger it represented and investors owed almost $7,000 on the equipment. So, $600 rent came nowhere near making the mill a promising business venture.
Smith negotiated with several potential buyers of the mill, including a group of local farmers. He was finally able to sell it in 1896, and by 1898 it had sold again to the Guillet Brothers who apparently moved it north of Denny Lake. In February of that year the newspaper reported that fire had destroyed the mill, along with 300,000 pounds of wheat and 60,000 pounds of flour. Accidental fires at flour mills were common, but this one was arson. The arsonist was caught, tried and sentenced to eight years in prison.
Just how critical a flour mill was to the local economy was made clear in several articles in the Montezuma Journal from the early Spring of 1901. A Mr. B.A. Statz proposed to build a mill in Cortez. In his development of that proposal he was asking for local subscriptions of from $5 to $15 dollars to ensure the success of his project. The newspaper editorial writer was very enthused about the project, pointing out that anyone in business in the area would benefit from the new mill. The editorial ends, “Don’t be backward in coming forward in aiding in every way you possibly can this enterprise — the life of the valley.” There is no report that Mr. Statz was successful in building his mill.
Other enterprising individuals did develop mills in Cortez and our area. The Guillet Brothers rebuilt a mill in Mancos after the fire in Cortez. By the Fall of 1900 they produced ‘Famous Silver Leaf Flour’ at the new location. In Cortez there were as many as three mills operating between 1900 and 1930. One of these was the Moser Mill, which began operating about 1900 at the northwest corner of Beech and North Streets. It had been abandoned for some time when it burned in 1930. Another was the Montezuma Valley Mill on Fourth Street between Market and Chestnut, operated by K.L. McGalliard, which the Montezuma Journal reported opening for business in November of 1902. Further south still was the Cortez Milling Company on Seventh Street, perhaps operated first by J.F Mowry, then by A.F. Hopper before it burned in 1936.
Local farmers were growing both winter and spring wheat. With these mills close at hand, farmers could increase their production without the fear that they would have the cost of shipping their wheat out of the area to have it ground. The mills had several markets for flour. The Guillet Brothers used the slogan “Eat good bread and be happy.” They must have had a local market in mind. Larger amounts of flour were purchased by the government for distribution on the Indian reservations around the Four Corners.
We are back to the beginning of this story. That early familiarity with Cortez Milling Company flour has turned into a steady market in communities from here to Gallup, New Mexico.
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.” June Head is the historian for the 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.