One of the earliest mercantiles in Cortez

Thursday, March 9, 2017 6:18 PM
Main Street, Cortez, 1906-1907, left to right: Harrington Drug Store, E. R. Lamb Furniture Store; Hotel Clifton; Wilkie McLin Meat Market; Stone Block Building with Guillet's Mercantile; R. R. Smith Grocery and Lamb's Drug Store. Across the street: Bill Jordan's Saloon.

The Guillet Brothers, one of the earliest mercantile establishments in Cortez was that of P. T. “Pete” and H. M. “Herm” Guillet.

The Guillet boys came here from Carroll County, Mo., in the early 80’s. P.T. came in 1881, and H. M. in 1883 after spending a year in Wyoming. After working in Durango during the winter months at various jobs, having met Indian Traders, the boys went to a trading post on the San Juan River near the Four Corners where they went to work for O. E. Noland, Sr. One story I remember my father telling of their years there was a spring San Juan flood. The water was extremely high. After much discussion, it was decided that the young men could swim the horses across the swollen river taking Mrs. Noland and two children across to safety. Happily all went well.

In the late ’80s, the Guillet Brothers established their own trading post and the first at Aneth, Utah, farther up the river from Noland’s but closer to Durango. Here they were joined by a step-brother, S. P. Thomas and a half-brother, E. L. Guillet. Perhaps one of the most tedious duties of the early traders was driving a 4- or 6-horse team with tandem wagons from Aneth, Utah to Durango, Colo., for supplies and all sorts of merchandise. The round trip usually took six weeks, although in bad weather it was longer. To avoid crossing McElmo Creek, the road below Cortez followed a route between the Mesa and the Creek and over the Divide to Mancos and to Mancos Hill. The grades were very steep and necessitated leaving one wagon at top or bottom, as the case may be, unhook the team, and take one wagon at a time over or down the hill. The road from Hesperus too went around the hill and down Wild Cat Canyon. On one trip my father, Herm, was almost out of Wild Cat Canyon and stopped his horses to rest. He got down from the wagon to rest and to stretch a bit when horsemen came on the run from the east out of Durango. The leader saw my father and decided on some fun. On the shout of “Dance” and a burst of gunfire and spurt of dust at his feet, Papa danced. The men were outlaws putting in their time robbing banks in the area. Except for a real fright, Papa and the outfit were not the worst off for the experience. I remember his telling me of the bitter cold and deep snow on some trips, especially in the area west of Hesperus.

There was never any really serious Indian trouble at Aneth except a few minor incidents with individuals or small groups to whom they refused to sell goods or to “shoo” out of the store. One time when there was Indian trouble throughout western Colorado, groups of war parties would appear on the cliffs of the river but soon rode on. Lasting and sincere friendships were formed during these years as was attested to the many visits from Indian friends in our house during the early 1900’s and as late as the 20s after we moved to Mancos.

In 1893 or 4 Pete & Herm left the San Juan and established their General Merchandise business in Cortez. The Guillet boys were involved in local and area problems. When the Town of Cortez was incorporated, my father, H. M. became the 1st mayor. He served several terms as Mayor throughout the years that followed as well as many terms as commissioner and on school boards and town board. They first set up business at the location of what is now the Skoog Drug Store. (Area of 25 E. Main St. of Cortez). When the Stone Block as it was originally known now the Wilson building, was completed Guillet Brothers moved into the west half. Next on the east was a grocery store owned by R. R. Smith. On the corner was the drug store owned by E. R. Lamb.

Guillet Brothers General Mdse. was really general – needles, pins, shoe buttons, candy, gum, plug tobacco, shoes, yard goods, thread, lace, rings, watches, men’s suits and hats, ye olde pickle barrel, kerosene, saddles, harness, Navajo rugs, farm machinery such as hay rakes, buggies and even Case threshing machines (on order of course). Guillet Bros. also established a flour mill. The mill and pond were in the area east of Cortez (and west of the bowling alley.) The mill burned and was rebuilt in Mancos.

Part 2: Coming Feb. 6

The second part of this story will be published in the Feb. 6, 2015, issue of the Cortez Journal. Mrs. Hart describes Cortez “at the Turn of the Century.”

June Head is the Historian for the Historical Society and may be reached for questions, comments or corrections at 970-565-3880.