Lesher Referendum Dollars

an article on the Lesher Referendum Medals
by Adna G. Wilde Jr.

Joseph Lesher

Original article November, 1978;

updated September, 1998 and February, 2003.

 (aditional information:  Lesher Referendum Medals)
 (medal details and   images:   Zerbe Varieties 1 to 6
    Zerbe Varieties 7 to 12Zerbe Varieties 13 to 18)



Numismatic history was created in 1900, in the small town of Victor, Colorado, located on the southwest slope of Pike's Peak. The Tuesday morning issue of the Victor Daily Record, November 13, 1900 carried the headlines:






The Coins1  From His Mint Contain Just One Ounce of Pure Silver2 But Are Worth $1.25 Apiece Because Redeemable in United States Money - A Scheme To Open Idle Mines.

The enterprise of Victor citizens is proverbial and whether they undertake to set the fashion in the reception of political spell binders or break the record in gold production, they are pretty likely to succeed.

They believe that Victor should have everything any other city has. Denver has a mint3, so a Victor man  has established a mint also. The Victor mint will coin nothing but silver dollars and the dollars will be worth 25 cents more than the Denver product.

The proprietor of the new mint is Joseph Lesher, one of the pioneers of Colorado. For 20 years he has lived and labored in the silver camps of the state. Georgetown, Central (City), Leadville and the Silver San Juan have known him. When silver declined and gold was found south of Pike's Peak he came to Victor and prospered. Fortunate investments in real estate multiplied his small capital and at this writing he is one of the monied men of the camp.

Mr. Lesher has faith in silver. He also has a sincere desire for its enlarged use. This desire is not entirely unselfish, for Mr. Lesher owns a silver mine near Central (City) that was worked at a profit before the slump of '92, but has since been idle.

For years Mr. Lesher has believed that it would be possible as well as beneficial for Colorado to coin its depreciated silver and use it to facilitate exchange and promote business. The same idea has been suggested by Governor Waite4 and entertained by no less person than Senator E. O. Wolcott5, but Mr. Lesher is the first man, since Colorado became a state6, to carry the theory into execution.

First he had a die manufactured in Denver7, then he purchased silver bullion from the smelters. The metal was next rolled out in thin sheets and cut by the die into octagonal pieces, each containing exactly one ounce of pure silver.

Before installing his mint Mr. Lesher applied to Senator Teller8 for information and was advised that there would be no legal objections to his enterprise if he refrained from imitating government money. This he has carefully done and his coins differ so greatly both in shape and inscription from legal tender that a blind man can not be deceived by them.

With his present facilities the money maker can turn out 100 dollars a day. The silver costs at present quotations about 65 cents per ounce and the expense of coining is about 15 cents, so the Lesher 'referendum' dollar represents an outlay of 80 cents. The manufacturer charges $1.25 for one of them.

He calls them 'referendum' dollars because no one is compelled to take them against his will. In other words they are referred to the people for acceptance or rejection. Although Mr. Lesher is convinced that the intrinsic value of an ounce of silver is $1.29, he does not insist that everyone shall accept his valuation and is prepared to guarantee the parity of his dollars by redeeming each coin in lawful money of the United States. He keeps his cash at the Bank of Victor and expects to arrange with the cashier to cash the 'referendum' dollars in the same manner that checks are cashed.

The coins are a little thicker and much heavier9 that the U. S. dollars, but no greater in circumference. They are quite handsome in appearance. On one side is the inscription: 'Joseph Lesher's Referendum Souvenir, one ounce of pure silver, price $1.25 Mf'd Victor, Colo., 1900.' and on the other 'A Commodity, Will give in exchange currency, coin or merchandise at face value. No--.'

Each coin is numbered consecutively10. Mr. Lesher believes that the merchants of Colorado could put his souvenirs into circulation by accepting them for goods and using them to pay clerks, rent and local expenses. The silver mine owners could pay off their miners in referendum dollars and so open many idle properties. The mint has turned out 100 of the coins, but no effort has been made to put them into circulation. The manufacturer will first sell them as souvenirs and at the same time try to induce the business men to adopt this scheme.

The money factory is located at the Lesher residence on West Victor avenue. The proprietor is well known to Victor people and all of them wish him success in his patriotic enterprise."

Who was this man? Joseph Lesher was born on July 12, 1838, in Fremont, Ohio, far from the Colorado Rockies and his claim to fame. As a young man he served in the War Between the States with the Union Army, returning to civilian life as a merchant. But the wanderlust soon got the best of him and he headed for Georgetown, Colorado and the life of a miner. Within two years Lesher was prospecting on his own. After four years in Colorado he returned to Ohio for a time where he engaged in livery business with W. S. Wait, but Colorado could not be denied and he returned to the mountains.

Lesher mined in the areas of Georgetown, Leadville, and Silver San Juan, and owned a productive silver mine near Central City. Consequently the demise of silver coinage by the U. S. government in 1873, better known as the "Crime of 1873," hit Lesher along with most Colorado miners as a disaster. Banks, business houses, and mines failed, and thousands were unemployed. William Jennings Bryan built a national platform around the free coinage of silver and Lesher was on his side all the way, but gold was to have its day and the discovery of gold in Cripple Creek saved the day for Colorado. Lesher followed prosperity to Cripple Creek and Victor, gaining wealth from real estate investments, but he remained a believer in free silver, and his plan for silver referendum medals was an effort to see silver utilized once more.

There are only six types and twelve varieties of Lesher's medals, the first type being dated 1900. All types of this same year are 35mm in diameter, and weigh 480 grains, equivalent to one troy ounce of .950 fine silver. The pieces of 1900 are stamped with a price of $1.25. In identifying the known locations of these medals, the author has shown the names of previous or present collectors, or in those cases where the piece was last known in a dealer's possession, that dealer's name is identified. In many instances dealers' names are known as the intermediary between collectors; however, in those cases the dealer's name is omitted.

Farran Zerbe was the first to give Lesher medals a number11, and this writer has used his same numbering system. As an example, Zerbe No. 1, number 25 is shown as: "25 V Good Chatillon - Burton - Porter - Bowers & Merena Coin Auction 5/25-27/1994." This means, 25 is the serial number, V Good the condition, the medal is known to have been in the collections of Chatillon, Burton and Porter, and was last known sold in the Bowers & Merena auction of June 25-27, 1994.

 (aditional information:  Lesher Referendum Medals)
 (medal details and  images:   Zerbe Varieties 1 to 6
    Zerbe Varieties 7 to 12Zerbe Varieties 13 to 18)


(acknowledgments, footnotes, and bibliography)

( information about the author: Adna G. Wilde Jr.)