On a hot summer day in 1955 two boys lean impatiently against the red Texaco gas pumps in front of their uncle’s store in Tiffany. They’re waiting for their Uncle Morris to drive them in his red, five-passenger DeSoto to his ranch north of town.
He had promised the boys that they could help him move his cattle to the summer range. They like riding in that car with its flashing chrome – even if their uncle is a notoriously slow driver, and it’s exciting to see the pistol Uncle Morris always carries with him on the front seat.
With their cowboy hats, stitched boots, Roy Rogers cap pistols and holsters, cousins Ives and Buddy were serious cowboys, at least during the summers they always spent at their uncle’s house.
For more than 40 years, Maurice Levey’s Tiffany Mercantile Co. was the heart of this small town southeast of Durango. Morris’ kindness and generous spirit along with an inventory ready to fill any need made his store a sanctuary for Tiffany residents and visitors.
It was said of Morris that, “If he didn’t sell it, people didn’t need it.” The slogans in his newspaper advertisements echo that sentiment: “Everything to Eat and Wear,” “Bring Your Basket Here & Fill it With Better Groceries for Less Money” and “These Prices Tell Their Own Story.”
The store’s floors were wood-planked and there was a dusty smell inside, a muskiness from all the goods on display. There were cigars, straw hats, typewriters lined up in a row, bolts of cloth, black speckled copy books and Hubba-Bubba bubble gum for the kids. Big logs of bologna and cheese sat on the oak counter and bottles of soda pop filled a refrigerated cooler humming by the counter.
Underneath the counter were wooden bins that held seeds and fresh produce. In the back was the Tiffany Post Office, and Morris, when he put on his regulation hat, was the postmaster. On the counter an ornate, hand-cranked cash register with multicolored keys rang up customers’ purchases. (Today, the cash register and post office can be seen at The Pine River Valley Heritage Museum in Bayfield.)
Outside was a Denver & Rio Grande Railway platform and stockyards from which Morris shipped livestock, mostly cattle. The heady aromas of cattle, turkeys, sheep and hogs wafted on to the front porch.
Why, in 1907, did Morris Levey move across the country to the flyspeck that was Tiffany?
He might have seen advertisements in The Durango Democrat by H.N. Linebarger, “booster” of newly formed Tiffany.
“COME TO TIFFANY, COLORADO!!” read one such ad, “THE DEEPEST, RICHEST AND MOST PRODUCTIVE SOIL IN COLORADO.”
Tiffany surely was the promised land to young men like Morris and his older brother, (Isaac) Edwin, who were from Titusville, Pa. Tiffany was a land of milk and honey, sugar beets, potatoes, alfalfa, clover, wheat, tomatoes, apples, peaches, cherries, abundant sunshine and opportunities.
All these things drew Morris at age 20 to Tiffany. His brother came a year before him for a different reason – he had asthma and needed the clean, dry air.
The brothers were excited by the boundless opportunities in the West. When Morris arrived, he had their widowed mother with him. Her husband, Isaac, had been a prominent businessman in Pennsylvania until he was killed while trying to stop a runaway team of horses. Morris would care for his mother for the rest of her life.
For a while Morris worked at Isidor Kruschke’s clothing store in Durango. Around 1911, he bought the Tiffany Mercantile store from Mr. Linebarger, the town’s original booster. Morris had a knack for buying and selling things. During his lifetime, he would own, rent, sell and buy back several ranches, homes and stores.
His store in Tiffany was the center of the community. In the back, near the stove, locals gathered on the couch to reminisce and tell stories.
In 1946, a man ran into the store yelling, “They’re shooting off V-2 rockets from Los Alamos and some have gone astray! They’re going to land in Durango in 15 minutes!”
There was a big commotion as some of the regulars roused from their naps.
“Call the mayor of Durango!” they cried.
When the mayor heard the alarm there was a long, irritated silence before he replied, “So, what the hell am I supposed to do about it?”
The rockets never arrived.
Morris’ nephew, Ives, remembers he loved to hang out in the store because all kinds of characters used to come by, including real cowboys with real guns on real horses.
“My cousin Buddy and I used to sit and listen to their stories,” Ives said. “One day a tough looking man came in wearing a pistol in a holster and asked Uncle Morris the whereabouts of a certain man. Suspecting trouble, my uncle said, ‘Well, why are you interested?’”
The man replied: “Because I’m gunnin’ for him. That’s why!”
Ives said his uncle tried to soothe the man. “You don’t want to do anything rash, do you?” Morris asked the man.
“I was smart-alecky in those days,” Ives said. “So I interrupted this exchange to ask, ‘You must be pretty good with a gun, but how do you know the other guy won’t get you before you can get him?’
“The man answered, ‘Because I’m good.’
“Well, why don’t you show me?” Ives replied.
The gauntlet was down. So they all walked outside, and Ives pointed across the road.
“See that pile of horse manure over there? Hit that,” Ives said.
“Before I even finished talking, the man whipped out his gun and blasted the pile of manure into smithereens, manure flying everywhere,” Ives said. “Uncle Morris wasn’t happy with me for egging the guy on.”
Many people felt the Tiffany Mercantile was a sanctuary, including one very famous man.
On a hot day in 1956, while filming “Around the World in 80 Days,” producer Mike Todd drove up to the store in a big car and a cloud of dust.
“Do you sell beer here?”
Morris told him he didn’t. “I don’t like the crowd it brings in.”
Seeing the bologna on the counter Todd asked for some with cheese, which he ate while talking with the regulars gathered in back by the couch.
From then on, for the rest of the shoot, Todd came in every day for lunch. One day, he pulled Morris aside and asked if he could “sack out” on the couch, saying no one knew where he was and the store was the only place he could get any peace.
He did that every day until the filming was over and stayed in touch with Morris until his death in 1958.
Morris was good friends with a family that lived outside of town. Decent and hardworking, the family struggled to make ends meet, and Morris let them buy on credit.
One year before winter, the family needed to stock up on staples such as pinto beans, lard, flour and chili powder. Morris said, “Take what you need, and I’ll put it on your tab,” and he entered the amount into his book.
In the spring, the wife came to the store sitting on a horse-drawn wagon. She told Morris she was sorry she hadn’t come sooner to pay the bill, but her husband had died during the winter and things were hard. Ives, who was there at the time, remembers seeing his uncle visibly upset.
When Morris asked her “How are you fixed for food?” she told him they had none. He said, “Don’t worry, take what you need, and I’ll add it to the tab.”
So she took what she needed, and Morris wrote the amount into his book. He helped her carry the parcels outside, and while she packed up the wagon, he went back in the store to gather more things for her – extras like candy, toys and peaches – and quietly put them in the wagon.
After she drove away, Ives watched Morris go to his book, scribble something across the bill, tear the page and throw it into the wastebasket. When his uncle left, Ives pulled out the crumpled piece of paper. On it Morris had written: PAID BY GOD.
For more than 20 years Morris served as secretary of the local school board, seeing that teachers, janitors and tradesmen were hired and paid, and that the schools were kept in good running order. He also was secretary of the Tiffany Percheron Horse Co., a Mason and a member of the Elks.
Morris had one great love in his life, a teacher named Lucille. They planned to marry, but her family objected. Neither of them ever married.
Morris enjoyed simple pleasures. He was a comfortable man with no ambition to be other than what he was. He loved his ranch, his cattle, his dog Sport, his friends and customers and listening to music on his Philco radio. His life was defined by the small, often unremarkable gestures that revealed a gentle humanity toward everyone.
When Morris and Ed decided to sell the store in 1954, they published a “farewell letter” in the Ignacio Chieftain that said, in part:
“We have and shall always have faith in the great Pine River Valley and her good people. No section of Colorado has any better opportunities than found here and no land beneath the sun is peopled by a better class of men and women than those with whom we have so pleasantly lived for the past years.”
In an oral history compiled in 1991, a man was asked, “When did the town of Tiffany start to go downhill?”
“When Morris Levey left,” he replied.
When Morris died in 1965, at 78, The Durango Herald wrote, “Maurice Levey’s kindness, generosity and anonymous gifts to help his fellow men are legendary.”
According to Ives, himself a kindly, gentle man, “My Uncle Morris was the most wonderful man I’ve ever known.”
Durango resident Esther Greenfield’s book Tough Men in Hard Places: The Electrification of Rural Colorado will be published Sept. 2 by West Winds Publishing. She would like to thank Dr. Ives Murray for sharing his memories, and K.C. Robertson for the inspiration. Reach her at [email protected]