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Levy’s legacy

Biographies by Henry Wise continued from last week

by Nancy Christofferson

Exterior vierw of the Alex Levy General Merchandise store between 1880 and 1890, in Walsenburg, Huerfano County, Colorado. Men pose by storefront windows, and the ornate lettering reads: “A. Levy, Whole-Sale, and Retail Dealer in Dry Goods Clothing, Boots, Shoes, Hats, Caps, Carpets, Glass and Queensware, Groceries, Hay and Grain, Highest Market Price Paid For Wool, Hides, Pelts & Grain.” Photo courtesy Karen Mitchell

HUERFANO — Major Henry Beauregard Wise, or more accurately, Mr. Bisch, wrote a number of biographies of early Huerfano settlers for the newspaper the Walsenburg World during 1902. To accomplish this, he interviewed his subjects, many of whom (including him) would not live long enough to share their personal stories again.

Several of those interviews must have taken up quite a bit of his interviewees’ time, as the resulting write-ups were lengthy, but do include personal recollections not found anywhere else. An exceptional example of this was the one he conducted with Walsenburg pioneer Alex Levy.

Levy was one of the best known of the city’s early merchants, and his life was interesting enough it occasioned many biographies.

As a business partner of Fred Walsen, one might assume it was Walsen’s friendship and influence that made Levy so successful. After all, Walsen was a driving force for the development of a small Spanish settlement into a flourishing city. But perhaps it was the other way around, that it was Levy who enabled Walsen.

What has been published about Levy is the straight-forward account of a young man going west, entering the mercantile business, finding financial success and then branching out into other endeavors.

Levy told Wise about his path through life. Born in Austria in 1849, he said, he followed his brothers, number unstated, to America at the age of 16. He landed in New York and joined them in St. Louis, where he began working with a mercantile establishment. Ten months later he resumed his travels when he went on to Ocate, New Mexico, not far north of Fort Union, an 800-mile trip that required 42 days. From there he joined a government grading outfit in building Fort Lyon on the Colorado plains. After a year and a half of that labor, he went to Kit Carson, a small town not far from Fort Lyon that was just beginning to be developed in anticipation of railroad construction.

Evidently not impressed, Levy returned south to New Mexico, landing in Rayado where he became a store manager.

In December 1870, he moved on to Las Vegas, which was booming at the time. Still not satisfied with the prospects, he continued to Trinidad, where his brother Isaac Levy was operating a general mercantile store.

The next year he went to Plaza de los Leones, where the first person he met, he said, was Leandro Gonzales. He was so impressed with what Gonzales told him about the settlement, its residents, and its potential that Levy went directly back to Trinidad, bought up a large stock of goods, and returned to the future city of Walsenburg to open a general store. The doors opened on August 27, 1871, according to his account.

That the business was a total success is proven by the fact that just a little more than three months later, on December 2, Fred Walsen bought him out with the understanding that Levy was not to reopen a business in the community for at least three years.

Levy moved then to Pueblo and returned to clerking for others before rejoining Isaac in Trinidad.

In January 1875 Walsen asked Levy to not only return but to join him in a partnership to run the store. In 1878 Levy bought out Walsen’s interest, but he sold it back in 1880. It was known as Walsen and Levy and located at Seventh and Main streets. They soon had a huge store, dealing in everything from everyday groceries to hay and feed, hardware to household furnishings, and coal.

1880 was a big year for Alex Levy. In July, he married Lillie Louise Sporleder, the daughter of pioneer August Sporleder and sister of Mrs. Fred Walsen. In January he had taken office as Huerfano County treasurer. This was also the year Levy went into construction when, in partnership with Walsen, he won a contract to build a railroad grade in New Mexico. Walsen was an early promoter and developer of Las Vegas, NM.

In 1882 Walsen was elected state treasurer and relocated to Denver. Levy took over the entire business. In 1887 he took in a new partner named James Perdu to assist with the grading projects. Perdu was killed by a disgruntled employee whom he’d told to “hurry up”. Levy replaced him with J.H. Ward of Las Vegas. They contracted to grade for the Santa Fe railroad from Pueblo to Denver. Ward died not long after and Levy took on one J.B. Moore for future projects. Among his works were, he said, building the irrigation ditch between Taos and Arroyo Hondo in 1895. Another job was building a dam at the lakes west of Walsenburg to provide the city with a water system; he also graded the streets there, including removing some steep hills.

In the late 1890s Levy went into partnership with George Bell of Pueblo. When the Denver and Rio Grande replaced the old narrow gauge over La Veta Pass with standard rails in 1899, their company had a share of the work. They were still partners at the time Wise wrote his Levy article in 1902, when their crews were working in Utah and Nevada for the Southern Pacific.

Wise also wrote a fine story about one Henry D. Gillespie, who is basically forgotten in Huerfano history. They were neighbors at North Veta, and Wise noted Gillespie had an excellent site for his farm that included an old adobe home surrounded by shade trees. He had several barns and numerous hay stacks. Gillespie, Wise wrote, was 72 years old in 1902, “but looks 50”. He’d been born in Tennessee in 1830 but his family had gone on west to Missouri when Henry was just two. At age 18 Gillespie joined the [freighting] outfit of Bullard and Russell for the trip to New Mexico, working as a bullwhacker. From New Mexico he took work that had him visiting all over Colorado, Arizona, Utah, California and Wyoming. He returned east to marry Elizabeth A. Wood in Missouri about 1858. He returned again to enlist with the Confederacy in the Civil War.

In the fall of 1868, Gillespie moved to Huerfano County and the next year he brought out his wife and three children, Robert, Clara and Henrietta, later Mrs. Thomas Good.

For a while the family made their home at the “head of Cucharas Canon”, northeast of Walsenburg. By the time Wise spoke with him in late 1902, the Gillespies had been living in North Veta for 18 years, indicating an arrival in 1884. Since Gillespie had a 16-year-old son named Henry D. Jr., born in Nebraska, included in the 1885 census, one assumes the family tried out the Midwest again before settling in North Veta.

Gillespie said his children John and Stella were born in Huerfano County. Stella was actually Mary Estella, born in 1871, and John came along four years later. [Stella married Dick Wiley and their daughter Nola became Mrs. Ralph D. Saunders, once a bigwig Walsenburg businessman before moving to Alamosa].

Elizabeth Gillespie died in December 1893. She and seven other Gillespies are buried in the La Veta Cemetery.

In 1900 there was a mention in the newspaper of Robert and John, sons of Henry D. Gillespie, herding 100 horses through Walsenburg on their way to “their prairie ranches on the Apishapa”.

Robert Gillespie was said to be an invalid, and, with his wife, lived with his parents on the farm. He listed himself as a stock raiser. At least three of those buried in La Veta were his children. When Robert died in 1914, his father was 80 years old and still in the household.

Whatever happened to the Gillespie clan is unknown, but the property was still called by their name as late as 1938.

Major Wise, despite being a defrocked military officer living under an alias, definitely left his mark on Huerfano County not only through his teaching of young minds in various country schoolhouses, but by immortalizing the personal memories and stories of our pioneers.

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