Mystery letter finds its way home
February 22, 2012
One afternoon in early December, a Moffat County Fuller Center for Housing volunteer found a trace of the past.
She was helping the nonprofit group dismantle the Simmons Rooming House and was removing baseboard trim in one of the downstairs rooms when she discovered a letter postmarked July 1948 wedged between the baseboard and the wall.
The envelope bore only the typewritten initials and last name of the addressee: “M. W. Lefferdink” with “Craig, Colo.” on the line below. No street address was listed.
The postmark indicated that it had been sent from Wauneta, Neb.
The envelope had been opened and it contained a handwritten letter. The writing was difficult to decipher, but the signature was clear enough.
It read, “Love and Kisses, Mamma."
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Questions surrounded the discovery.
Had it purposely been hidden there, or, probably much more likely, had it slipped down into the narrow space and disappeared?
The letter's mysterious history was rivaled only by the rich past of the house that sheltered it.
The building located at 731 Yampa Ave., has been known for years in the community as the Simmons Rooming House.
The 16-room structure, originally known as the Stewart House, was used as a rooming house from the beginning, ever since Rhoda Stewart had it built in 1910 by Robinson and Aiken, and it can be seen in many old photographs of Craig.
In 1924 it was sold to Hattie Sherman, whose grandson, Glen Sherman, was formerly Craig’s chief of police. It changed ownership several more times before Lillian Simmons purchased it in 1951.
After a period of vacancy, it was purchased with the intent of renovating it into an apartment building. However when it was discovered the foundation was badly deteriorating, the owner decided to donate the building and land to the Moffat County Fuller Center for Housing.
Formerly known as the Moffat County Chapter of Routt County Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit group is dedicated to making more decent, affordable housing available in Moffat County.
When doing business as the Habitat for Humanity a few years ago, this group was responsible for completely renovating a home two doors north of the rooming house.
But, after careful consideration, it was decided that the best way to use the donated property would be to tear down the old rooming house and build a new home on the site. Rather than simply razing the structure and sending all of the material to the landfill, Fuller Center officials chose to recycle what they could.
As it turned out, the Augusta Wallihan Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution needed dimensional lumber for its restoration of the Lay School, which was also built in 1910 and very likely used lumber milled at the same sawmill as the Simmons House.
Volunteers started the demolition work with the aim of salvaging whatever materials could be reused or recycled. Old metal siding, roofing and trim was turned in as scrap metal, with the proceeds going toward building the new home.
Wood beams, siding, studs and trim pieces were removed one by one to be reused to help bring the Lay School back to life as an interpretive center.
However, the project yielded more than wood and metal. The letter's discovery uncovered a mystery.
No matter how it ended up there, the letter appeared to have been tucked away for quite a while. A quick check of the most recent Craig phone book showed no one with the last name of Lefferdink currently living in the area.
The following week, the letter was brought to the Museum of Northwest Colorado in hopes that the staff might be able to help piece together some information about M.W. Lefferdink.
Jan Gerber, the museum's assistant director, pulled out an old Craig phone book from 1946 and found a listing for Martha Lefferdink at 731 Yampa Ave.
The address was right, but it seemed strange at first, since the property was a rooming house. It was unusual that a tenant would have her own phone, unless maybe she was the manager.
Further research showed Martha listed in the Craig phone books from May 1946 through January 1951, which seemed to support this theory.
Museum Director Dan Davidson pulled out a file on the Simmons family and found the names of some relatives still living in the Meeker area, thinking that maybe someone might remember Martha.
Davidson and Gerber recalled that when the building belonged to Lilly Simmons, the manager’s apartment was located in the part of the building where the letter was found, so it made sense that it had been the manager’s apartment before that, too.
Next, Gerber started looking at old census records and found Martha Lefferdink living in Lancaster, Neb., in 1920 with her two small children, John and Elizabeth (Betty), and after that in Denver during the 1930 census.
Since the 1940 census records have not yet been made public, Gerber turned next to the Ancestry.com database. There she found more information about the family.
Martha’s son John had settled in Lamar, but the records showed that he died in 2010. Following a hunch that he might still have family living in the area, she contacted the Lamar newspaper for more information.
They knew the family, and they told her that John J. Lefferdink had a son, John S. Lefferdink, who was still living in Lamar and serving as the Prowers County attorney.
Gerber called him and told him about the letter and asked if he would like her to send it to him. He said that he would love to have it. He knew quite a bit of the family history and was able to fill in some of the details about Martha Washington Lefferdink’s time in Craig.
He told Gerber that Martha had been teaching school in Denver and answered an ad in the paper for a rooming house manager in Craig in the late 1930s. Through her daughter Elizabeth, Martha ended up purchasing the rooming house and continued to live there until 1951 when she sold the property to Mrs. Simmons and moved back to Denver.
After disappearing 60 years or so ago, Martha’s letter from her mother has been returned to her grandson.
For anyone who might be curious about the letter’s contents, a transcribed copy can be viewed at the Museum of Northwest Colorado.