Lesher Referendum Dollars have been part of the Guide Book of United States Coins—the hobby’s perennially popular “Red Book”—since 1957. That year, in the 11th edition, the “dollars” (so called, but actually privately issued tokens, and not really legal tender) were described thus:
Coined by Joseph Lesher in 1900 and 1901 at Victor, Colorado. Used in trade to some extent, and stocked by various merchants who redeemed them in goods. Coins were numbered and a blank space left at bottom of 1901 issues, in which were stamped names of businessmen who bought them. All are quite Rare, many varieties extremely Rare.
This text was accompanied by a black-and-white photograph of the obverse of a 1900 piece and the reverse of a 1901, and retail valuations in two grades (Very Fine and Uncirculated) for 14 types and varieties.
Oh, to be able to go back 60 years and scoop up these numismatic delicacies at those low, low 1957 prices!
The most affordable Lesher Referendum Dollar in 1957, the 1900 A.B. Bumstead, was listed at $65 in Very Fine and $100 in Uncirculated. The most expensive, the 1901 Goodspeeds & Co., was $300 in Very Fine and $450 in Uncirculated.
Collectors who look at everything in bottom-line terms might wonder how much $450 invested in the stock market in 1957 would be worth today. But not everything needs to be boiled down to money. Part of the value of owning a Lesher Referendum Dollar is the opportunity to hold in your hand a rare piece of American history and marvel at its strange birth and 100-plus–years’ journey.
Still, for those who are counting: Prices for Lesher Referendum Dollars quickly increased over the years following their first inclusion in the Red Book. Today the Bumstead variety is listed at $1,600 in Very Fine and $4,000 in Uncirculated. The Goodspeeds version? $27,000 in Very Fine and $47,000 in About Uncirculated, with fully Uncirculated examples now considered too rare to be definitively priced.
Publication in the Red Book gave the Lesher Referendum Dollars the widest publicity the elusive silver tokens had ever enjoyed. By 1959 coin collectors were buying 100,000 copies of the book annually, and in 1964, during the peak of a modern coin-mania in the United States, the 18th edition alone would sell more than 1,200,000 copies. However, the Red Book wasn’t the first place where the experimental silver pieces were studied by numismatists. Farran Zerbe had interviewed Joseph Lesher, the man behind the Referendum Dollars, and he wrote a seminal exploration of the tokens in a 1918 article in the American Journal of Numismatics. A few other researchers wrote and lectured about them in the decades that led up to their publication in the Red Book. Later, in 1978, The Numismatist, the official magazine of the American Numismatic Association, published Adna G. Wilde Jr.’s important study, “Lesher Referendum Dollars: Where Are They Today?”
Still, for sixty years the average coin collector’s exposure to Lesher Referendum Dollars was their one-paragraph definition in the back of the Red Book, a couple photographs (upgraded to full color in later editions), and a chart of their values in different varieties.
The landscape changed, and quite substantially, in 2017.
That’s the year numismatic researcher and author Robert D. Leonard Jr., along with Colorado Springs coin dealer and hobby leader Kenneth L. Hallenbeck, released Forgotten Colorado Silver: Joseph Lesher’s Defiant Coins. The late Adna Wilde, who passed away in 2008, was credited as a third author of the 128-page book, for his foundational work in the field.
In five introductory chapters, Leonard and Hallenbeck lay out the history of these fascinating tokens, starting with the rise of the Cripple Creek Mining District in the late 1800s.They delve into constitutional questions of legal tender, and the right to coin money, that the early United States wrestled with as all sovereign nations do. Private (non-governmental) coinage, the American Civil War, the German Empire’s massive dump of silver in the 1870s (after adopting the gold standard), the Free Silver movement, and Congress’s silver-related boondoggles and hijinks of the era all set the stage for chapter 3—”Joseph Lesher: Pioneer, Promoter and Minter.”
Joseph Lesher was a character, as one might expect of someone audacious enough to try to mint his own private silver coins in 1900. That was more than 35 years after the federal government explicitly outlawed private production of “any coins of gold or silver or other metals” for use as money. He was a volunteer Civil War veteran who later tried to milk his military service for as much government pension as he could finagle (claiming “senile disability” and physical ills despite his active engagements in real estate, prospecting, mining, and other endeavors).
“Joseph Lesher would be little known today,” write Leonard and Hallenbeck, “but for his one great success: he minted his own coins and put them into circulation, notwithstanding the Act of June 8, 1864. He decided that if the Treasury wouldn’t buy any more silver to coin into dollars, then he would. . . . And even the U.S. Secret Service couldn’t stop him.”
What inspired this effort? In chapter 4 the authors describe the situation faced by Colorado after 1893, when Congress repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890. This act had been a very generous congressional gift—a subsidy to Western mining interests. It required the Treasury to buy 4.5 million ounces of silver every month to be coined into dollars. This accounted for almost 100 percent of the nation’s silver production. After the Sherman money dried up, the precious metal’s artificially high price plummeted, leaving the Silver State’s miners scrambling. Various private interests, and even state politicians (right up to the governor!), floated various hairball schemes to start a silver-based Colorado coinage that would keep demand high and the local mines running. Of course, the federal government’s 1864 prohibition of such coinage was a roadblock. Leonard and Hallenbeck tell how Joseph Lesher started his coining operation, and how local businesses, newspapers, the U.S. District Attorney’s office, the Treasury Department, the Patent Office, coin collectors, and eventually the Secret Service reacted to the exploit.
For readers hungry for more than those few sentences in the Red Book, this historical information alone is worth the price of Forgotten Colorado Silver!
The authors provide much more, after having laid the foundation with the Referendum Dollars’ history. Their study of dies, mintages, and surviving populations builds on the research of Farran Zerbe. Robert Leonard went not only to Zerbe’s 1918 American Journal of Numismatics catalog but also to an unpublished, corrected version of Zerbe’s manuscript from 1934. He lays out discoveries of the 1930s and later research, and tells what happened to each of the dies used to produce the tokens (including some seized by the Secret Service, and some presumed to have been discarded by Lesher’s widow). He gives evidence of the total mintage calculated by Adna Wilde, who, after exhaustive study, accounted for 1,869 pieces struck in total. And he updates the known quantity of survivors—thought by Wilde to be 384 pieces, but now numbering about 600.
The quantity of roughly 600 known examples leaves about 1,200 pieces missing in action. Chapter 6 is devoted to the confusion and legends that have sprung up around rumors of a treasure or hoard of Lesher Referendum Dollars stored in coffee cans (or salt-pork tins). Could the 1,200 or so unaccounted-for pieces be hidden somewhere in a basement or attic in Colorado? It’s enough to set a treasure-hunter’s heart pounding—especially with each “lost coin” being worth at least a couple thousand dollars! Leonard does some serious myth-busting (for example, pointing out that salt pork in the early 1900s wasn’t canned but was shipped dry in kegs or sacks). Even so, ultimately he leaves the idea of a hidden treasure tantalizingly open. Says coauthor Hallenbeck, who has studied and dealt in these tokens since the 1970s: “The possibility of the tin can full of Lesher dollars might actually have been a reality.”
The rest of the book is a rich biographical study of each of the agents, merchants, and businessmen who bought into Joseph Lesher’s plan for private silver coins. These partners were intended to be the backbone of his enterprise, the network through which his tokens would be issued, accepted as cash, paid out in change, and ultimately redeemed by Lesher as their backer. (In reality the Referendum Dollars never took off as a private currency. Most of them were actually bought by tourists and coin collectors as Western souvenirs and novelties.)
The authors dig into the stories of A.B. Bumstead, a popular grocer in Victor, Colorado . . . the jeweler Sam Cohen . . . shoemaker George McMullen . . . saloonkeeper D.W. Klein . . . and about a dozen other Lesher supporters. It’s clear that a huge amount of labor went into this research. Much of it was based on the work of amateur historian Robert S. Kincaid, who started exploring the Lesher dollars in 1984 and eventually hired a genealogist, photographers, and other researchers to aid in the project. Robert Leonard carried this work to its completion, examining related Secret Service papers in the archives of the American Numismatic Society, and verifying and expanding Kincaid’s genealogical research.
Among the issuers of Lesher Referendum Dollars, you’ll find one who lies buried in the same cemetery as Mickey Rooney; one who spent time in an insane asylum; one who worked as a “legal adjuster” for a traveling circus; one with an airport named for his wife. One of the jewelers supervised his store from an easy chair on the balcony. One merchant ended his life as a poultry farmer. Another vanished and was never seen again! One assaulted a co-worker with a paperweight; one prospected for uranium; one died a pauper; another filed to divorce his wife on grounds of “cruelty and desertion.”
This research explains why certain types and varieties of Lesher Referendum Dollars are rarer than others. It also gives numismatists the meat and potatoes we love: stories of real people, flesh and blood, that connect the coins of the past to our lives today.
For the generations of coin collectors who have tasted the Red Book’s “appetizer” coverage of Lesher Referendum Dollars and hungered for more: now you have it. Forgotten Colorado Silver is a delightful numismatic feast, served up with authority and panache, highly recommended.
Robert D. Leonard Jr., Kenneth L. Hallenbeck, and Adna G. Wilde Jr.
Published by The History Press, Charleston SC; © the authors
128 pages, softcover, illustrated, $21.99 retail