Father’s Day is special for most of us, but for one son, it has a particularly deep meaning.
When writers start a story, they never know what threads will weave together. I thought I would be writing about a 19th-century buggy. I had no idea I would learn about Durango’s industrial past and an unexpected son born to an affectionate father who just happened to be 77 years old.
This tale begins with a leather dashboard – the 19th-century term for the front of a buggy that protected the driver’s legs. Lisa and Loren Skyhorse had created the leather panel, which reads “THOMAS G. PIERCE, Peerless Coal & Brick.” The dashboard interested me. Little did I know that this story would take me back to a Durango coal mine, a brickyard and 35 graves from the same family in Greenmount Cemetery.
We started in Danny Pierce’s garage behind his three-story Victorian-style house in Mancos. I had seen an old black carriage in the front yard. Now, I saw a disassembled black buggy scattered in pieces, from the metal carriage steps to the highly varnished oak-spoked, rubber-tipped wheels.
“The Amish still deal in buggy parts, so all my parts come from Pennsylvania,” said Danny Pierce, who has spent two years and hundreds of hours on his wagon restoration. “There’s so much sanding and cleaning. Some pieces have been re-made by a local blacksmith,” he said. In Pierce’s garage, I saw metal parts, wood parts, the folding convertible top, leaf springs and parts painted in a shiny black lacquer as well as a deep maroon red.
“It was an expensive carriage in its day. I’ve made some changes to make the buggy stronger,” he says, smiling. Pierce plans to completely restore the buggy and carefully hand paint original pinstriping on the wheels and body. This is a labor of love. He admits that. And when Pierce is through, he’ll give the buggy away.
“It looks awful now. It’ll take two more years to finish the job. But it was a sound carriage when I bought it in New Mexico. I don’t have a horse. I won’t drive it down a lane. When I’m finished, I’ll put it on display in my yard or donate it to a museum or historical society.”
Why go to all this careful work just to give it away? To honor the memory of Danny Pierce’s father.
Over a glass of wine, I learned of a son’s love for a father who died when the boy was only 6 years old. Danny was the last of 16 children, four of whom died in infancy.
HHHThomas Guthrie Pierce was born in Cheriton, Iowa, in 1869, four years after the Civil War. Because of an abusive father, “Dad left home at age 15 and came out West on his own. He knocked around and did a variety of things,” his son says. Thomas Pierce worked for Charles Goodnight in Texas and later on the narrow-gauge railroad over Marshall Pass near Sargent.
In 1891, while laboring as a miner in Crested Butte, his older sister, Dora, and her young child died in an avalanche at the Bullion Gold Mine near Irwin. Dora was buried in a casket holding her daughter in her arms.
Saddened by Dora’s death, the family moved to Durango by 1892, where he ran Pierce Brothers Restaurant on Main Avenue and baked pies to perfection. The entrepreneurial Thomas Pierce branched out into coal mines west of town, including the Peerless Mine and the Sunshine Mine, producing high-grade coal for blacksmithing as well as domestic coal. He owned other mining properties at Red Mountain, up Junction Creek and in Nevada. He also started and managed the Durango Brick Yard.
Contractors used Pierce’s red bricks to build the western addition to the Strater Hotel, the J.C. Penny Building on Main Avenue and as structural bricks for the Smiley Building. “He was one of the earliest pioneers. He was a generous man, and he literally built the town with bricks,” his son told me. Pierce ranched near Cedar Hill, New Mexico, and ran sheep at Lime Creek, beyond Silverton and to the top of Stony Pass. The nine older children that Danny came to know told numerous stories of tending sheep.
When the Great Depression hit in 1929 and everyone owed money, Thomas Pierce understood. There were few social safety nets. Out of jobs, local people went hungry, and in winter, they froze. Poor families who owed Pierce money came quietly asking for coal. He rarely turned anyone away. “During the Depression, he kept many families warm and alive,” his son tells me, his voice choking up, tears welling in his eyes.
If your father dies when you are young, an important father-son bond is shattered, but Danny said, “I got to know my dad through so many of the ‘Old Timers’ who were still living. Those who knew my dad always spoke highly of him. Family members told stories, too. His word was his bond. When he went into the Burns Bank for a loan, he always walked out with cash. The bank president would say, ‘Come back when it is convenient for you, Mr. Pierce. We’ll have the paperwork ready for you then.’”
HHHThomas G. Pierce employed family members in all his business ventures, whether herding sheep, distributing coal, firing bricks or delivering finished bricks to job sites. He married his first wife, Belle Mathis. When she passed on, he was a handsome, wealthy businessman, suddenly available, who caught many a lady’s glance. “He was a highly sought-after man between his marriages,” Danny says with a wink.
In 1935, in the depths of the Depression, Thomas Pierce married his second wife, Lilah Matilda Stonebarger Powell, a pretty young widow with three small boys. Her husband had worked in one of Pierce’s coal mines before his untimely death in 1933 of kidney failure. It was a marriage of convenience. They were 33 years apart in age. Thomas was 66, Lilah was 33.
“She freely admitted to marrying Dad for his money,” Danny said, “but it was a great marriage. They each gained a good, reliable partner.” Lilah grew to love him. When he died, he left her three houses and a coal mine, not knowing that natural gas would replace coal as a domestic heating source.
They lived at Fifth Avenue and Fifth Street on Durango’s south side. Danny says of his sisters, “Daily they breathed in coal smoke and coal dust from the train. Later, when the winds were right, uranium particles and radioactive dirt blew into the neighborhood from the old smelter across the river. Sure enough, it killed them,” he says, but adds with a grin, “They all lived into their 90s.”
When his mother was 45 and his father was 77, Danny was born. “Dad was embarrassed, so he wouldn’t take mom to the hospital. He called a cab. But after I was born, he came to the maternity ward twice a day. People would ask, ‘Is that your grandson?’ And he’d snort, ‘No, that’s my boy.’”
At 79, Thomas Pierce was still building five-room brick houses in Durango, working 12-hour days, digging basements by hand and laying bricks. “I’m the youngest, but luckily I got to know all my brothers and sisters,” Danny Pierce tells me. He is now 71 with a handsome white beard. “My dad and I got along quite famously. We were buds. He never retired. He just worked.”
To honor his father, Danny Pierce is restoring an old buggy. It’ll have a special strong box under the seat, and in it, will be papers and photos telling his dad’s story. Family history is like that. Sometimes, love for a father deepens the ties that bind. Like the oak spokes of a buggy wheel, family tales go round and round.
Andrew Gulliford is a historian and an award-winning author and editor. Reach him at [email protected].