Leopold Carl Gottfried Grasse (pronounced “Grassy”) and his wife, Augusta (nee Shoneboom) Grasse, came to Cortez about 1909. Both descended from German immigrants and spoke German as well as English. They commonly spoke German to each other in their home.
Before residing in Cortez, they lived in Paonia, where three of their children were born, Viola, Philip and Gladys. Leo had a bicycle shop in Paonia. Augusta did not like it there and wanted to move. Leo and a prospective partner made efforts to open a liquor store in Lake City, which was a bustling mining town. The Temperance Society got wind of their plan and physically ejected them as the town was “dry” and not wet.”
Leo had heard that Cortez was the up-and-coming community. About 1908, with a small inheritance from his father’s death in Wisconsin, Leo decided to move to Cortez to open a boot and harness shop.
Augusta and Leo had lived in Wisconsin and were married there in 1902 before coming to Colorado in 1903. Leo grew up on a Wisconsin diary farm. No doubt, that’s where he learned some of what he knew about harnesses, with the harness skills being employed for a number of years in Cortez. Augusta’s mother was a child of the orphan trains that went to Wisconsin, carrying other orphans to be adopted.
Their first child, Viola, was born in Paonia in 1903; and the second child, Philip, in 1905. In 1907, there was a diphtheria epidemic. Viola was stricken and died June 20, 1907. That same year, Gladys born in July, and became Augusta and Leo’s third child. Augusta’s dislike of Paonia was exacerbated by the loss of the firstborn there. Three more children were born to the family – Esther (1911) and Mildred (1914) in Cortez. The other, Leo, was born in Wisconsin when Augusta visited her family there in 1909. The younger Leo was a lifelong resident of Cortez and a barber by trade. Skilled at pool, poker and tipping a glass, the young Leo was regarded by many as a mischievous scamp. He also loved hunting and fishing and had an appreciation of the out-of-doors inherited from his father.
Besides being a harness shop, the shop in Cortez offered custom-made boots. How Leo, the elder, learned the bootmaking trade is not known, but he had an excellent reputation for making custom boots, including measuring, cutting the materials, the sewing, the ornamentation, if desired, and completion of a durable product that served well in a rugged environment.
In those days, there were boardwalks on the main street in Cortez, and the street, although usually wide for an early western town, was dirt. When mixed with rain or snow, Main Street was a quagmire. Early residents well remembered what the streets were like before they were paved, which was later than you might think. There were numerous small farming communities (school, store, post office, etc.) surrounded by the large Cortez. A good pair of boots was essential for those riding a horse or conveying a wagon or buggy when traveling in the area, the only earlier means of transportation, other than shank’s mare. Hitching posts and hitching rails were everywhere anybody might want to stop and tie up a team or a horse. There were also lots of cowboys about the country and in need of good boots suitable to the work.
An advertisement from 1927 tells how the customer can do his or her own measuring to order a pair of boots by mail. A photo of a sample western-style boot is included on the ad. The apparent simplicity of it all might make one yearn for a nostalgic past when business transactions were more straightforward and a promise of satisfaction was taken as a man’s word.
Another ad from that same late date in the shop’s existence lists products that represent its more recent history. It says “Hides and furs tanned.” Leo was not a tanner, but could send these items to a factory that tanned hides. Upon request, the items could be made, the ad says, into robes, coats and gloves.
Other items listed in the ad were auto tops and tires, indicating that by this time cars could be found in Cortez. Leo’s first car, purchased about that same time, was a Chevy. In this ad, the items of the longer existing harness and saddle repair are also included.
If this sounds like more work than this individual proprietor might handle by himself, you’re right. Leo employed a man who did most of the shoe repair, and perhaps others at time.
Also, critical equipment in that time was harness. Leo fabricated harnesses and repaired them. In the back of his store, Leo had a large vat filled with neatsfoot oil. A wagon or buggy could be parked in the back of the shop. The harness was then removed and placed in the oil vat for a soaking as a leather restorative.
Because Leo had the equipment for sewing boots, it was natural to also repair shoes, boots and saddles, and make other leather repairs. Leo maintained an inventory of related kinds of goods and odd sundries available for sale. Leo traded with Navajos and Utes, and often took in Navajo rugs, and a little Indian jewelry for resale.
Location of Leo Grasse’s boot and harness shop was at the Southeast corner of Main and Ash streets. This was across the street from today’s Cortez City Hall at 201 E. Main St. location today of The Abundant Life Health Food Store in Cortez.
The family lived in four different houses during their stay in Cortez, mostly at one location near the shop but north of Main. Leo, the elder, often kept a cow and chickens as was common to families at the time. Also, a gardener who raised much of his family’s food each summer. As the head of the family, Leo also supplemented the family larder with bird hunting, particularly waterfowl. Totten Lake was a favored place to hunt ducks. Later, he also owned a car, and like many others, was able to travel more distance in the area.
Leo was a member of fraternal organizations including Elks-Durango Lodge and of the Woodmen of the World.
Augusta was a homemaker and mother. She liked needlework, especially tatting and knitting, and spent many hours crafting and ornamenting doilies, pillowcases, scarves and table clothes. She also liked a flower garden. After her husband died, she traveled to visit her children’s family and was much loved by her grandchildren.
Philip and Esther left Cortez early and settled in California. Gladys lived in Durango all her adult life, and Mildred who graduated from nursing training in Durango and Denver, lived in Aurora. Leo developed brain tumor symptoms in 1928 and died that same year as a result. There was not treatment for his tumor at the time. He is buried in Durango, and his wife, Augusta, beside him. Augusta lived to 96 before she died in a nursing home in Durango.
Article by Paul Crawford, grandson of Leopold and Augusta Grasse and son of Gladys Grasse. June Head, historian of the Montezuma County Historical Society, can be contacted at 970-565-3880 for questions or comments.