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home : features : people, places & past July 23, 2016

2/1/2011 3:43:00 PM
The Wingfield Ledgers
History told from the dust heap
Ledger books from the Wingfield Mercantile Company offer a rich treasure trove of information about life for the early residents of the Verde Valley.
Ledger books from the Wingfield Mercantile Company offer a rich treasure trove of information about life for the early residents of the Verde Valley.
Begun as the military’s sutler’s store in the 1866, supplying items not furnished by the government, the Wingfield Commercial Company was around for over 100 years before it closed in 1974. Its motto was “Everything Under the Sun.”
Begun as the military’s sutler’s store in the 1866, supplying items not furnished by the government, the Wingfield Commercial Company was around for over 100 years before it closed in 1974. Its motto was “Everything Under the Sun.”

Steve Ayers
Staff Reporter

History has been called a giant dust heap.

For the most part that's true. Bits and pieces of the past do, in time, become dust collectors.

But if thoroughness and accuracy is the objective - if getting up close and personal makes for a better story - then the only place to go is to the dust heap, if you want to get it right.

It is in the dust heap where the source documents are shelved, the old letters are filed and the bodies are buried. It is the only place you can go if you want a "feel" for the past

All too often, though, the dust heap blew away long before anyone arrived, and the only alternative was to refer to a previous account and rely on someone else's "feel."

That is why it is every historian's dream to come across a cache of stuff jotted down and squirreled away, back when things were happening.

Such is the case with the ledger books of the Wingfield Commercial Company and its predecessor, W.S. Head and Company. They are rare keepsakes from the Verde Valley's dust heap. To hold them is to feel the past.

Up from the heap

The historic Wingfield Building still stands on Camp Verde's Main Street. You can still lay your hands on the adobe walls of what was once the center of the universe, around which pioneer life in the Verde Valley revolved.

Built in 1871 by then-owner William "Boss" Head, the store was the link between those who came for a better life, and the world they left behind.

It served as a bank, post office, warehouse, bar, game room, medical center, communications hub, blacksmith shop, stable, hotel, restaurant, stage stop, slaughter house and granary. Customers could buy tickets to the opera in Prescott, send a telegram to San Francisco or have their legal affairs witnessed.

There wasn't much you really needed that it couldn't provide for.

Most of the store's trade was on credit or by barter. When you got paid once a year, when the cows went to market of the crop came in, there really wasn't any other way to stay afloat.

The ledgers, although far from complete for a variety of reasons, contain a detailed accounting of the store, as well as the community's affairs.

Recently, for the first time in perhaps 40 years, the eight remaining account books were brought together in the same room to see what stories they could tell.

This is what they have to say.

Who's who

The first thing that springs from the pages is the customer names. And, surprisingly, there is an abundance of Hispanic surnames in the pre-1875 ledgers. Names like Vargas, Baca and Castillo abound.

Some were residents working on the farms and ranches. But most were civilian employees of the military. Several of them supplied the fort with firewood, but the Army employed most as mule packers.

Gen. George Crook's success against the Yavapai and Apache was based in large part on keeping his soldiers in the field, and he used a steady stream of pack mules to ensure they were well supplied.

The large number of Hispanic names disappeared from the ledgers by 1875, the same time the Yavapai and Apache were herded out and the mules went into retirement.

The other noticeable thing about the names in the ledgers is that if you know something about the valley's history and those who shaped it, the ledgers read like a who's who.

The list of customers includes Wales Arnold (homesteaded Montezuma Well), Al Sieber (chief of Indian scouts), George Hance (justice of the peace), Joe Melvin (the only original settler to stay) and J.C. Bristow (the valley's first minister), along with many officers who figured prominently in the fort's history.

A peek inside

But it is the rare glimpse into the private lives behind the names that gives the ledgers their real value.

For instance, it has been said for years that George Hance, the unofficial mayor of Camp Verde during settlement years, former justice of the peace and vehement opponent of prohibition, was a teetotaler.

The ledgers, however, show he regularly purchased bottles of brandy and whiskey, along with the occasional beer or ale.

It is, of course, possible he kept the spirits on hand to entertain his many guests, but the regularity with which they were purchased would indicate he was not opposed to partaking some for himself.

His charge account also indicates he was a smoker, buying tobacco in many forms on a weekly basis throughout the 1870s.

And, because we have an accounting of his groceries, we know he liked oysters. Hardly a month goes by that he does not stop in to purchase a can, sometimes along with a can of sardines on the side.

Getting by

The ledgers also indicate that most settlers, at least those with farms and ranches, had a high degree of self-sufficiency. However, you can't have everything.

The 1878 account of James Allen shows that during a four-month period he bought flour on two occasions and "horse nails" (we must assume they went on the horse's shoes) once. That's was all he bought, with one noticeable exception.

He must not have had a milk cow. Either that or he didn't like churning and couldn't find someone to do it, because he returned nine times during that same period to buy butter.

Many customers paid their bills by barter. Often it was eggs, fruit, vegetables or (though not in Mr. Allen's case) butter. But not everyone had a farm or a ranch from which to draw exchange items.

In February 1894, John Chilson squared up part of his debt for a new saddle and harness by breaking three horses, at $8 each.

On June 25, 1895, Wilson Snyder bought a jar of "pink pills," six pounds of "Climax(?)," 2.5 yards of canvas, a pair of scissors and a whiskbroom. He paid his bill by working for the store at the rate of $1 a day over the next month.

The settlers weren't the only ones trying to get by. Soldiers, especially the bachelors, found their existence at Fort Verde lacking in many ways. By all appearances, they took their vices when they could.

In back of the store, behind a green door it is said, was the fort's officer's club. The books indicate that often the fort's commanding officer would charge a bottle or more of whiskey, a box of cigars and two or three decks of cards, for him and his junior officers' entertainment.

This and that

The ledgers were not exclusively a financial record. Occasionally, the clerk or proprietor used them to record information he might want to refer back to.

On one page is the draft is a contract template, intended for some sort of public official, pledging to remain in their position for a specified period of time. It is unclear whom it was intended for.

On a page in a ledger book covering the 1890s and early 20th century is a reminder of the birthdays for William Gilmore Wingfield's children. It was about that time that W.G., as he was known, took over ownership of the store. Computers do the same things now for busy businessmen.

Also in the same ledger book is a tally of the cattle branded each year, separated into heifers and steers (and one lonely bull branded in 1897).

The ledgers keep a fairly complete account up to about 1910, when they drop off completely. The last book takes off in 1941. It can be assumed the missing books burned when a fire gutted the store in June 1940.

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