THE LEGACY OF ‘BEAR MAN’: A THIRD GENERATION OF INDIAN TRADERS
by Ernie Bulow
Joseph Tanner was born in Utah in the formative years of the Mormon Church and his father Seth, the legendary “Bear Man,” was recruited to help settle Arizona for the church. Half of Joseph’s brood of thirteen were born in the tiny, remote village of Tuba City. It was a place without a railroad, improved highways of any kind, telegraph or regular mail service. The only way in or out was to cross the deadly Colorado River.
The Navajos were still dangerous if they felt they were wronged, and prospectors were numerous in the Colorado-Little Colorado territory. They envisioned untold riches, still hoping to find the fabulous wealth of gold the Europeans had been seeking for nearly four centuries.
In the early 1900s the government bought out the Mormon colony at Moenkopi and forced them to move elsewhere. Seth stayed in Arizona but Joseph took his family to the Farmington area where several colonies of Mormons had settled. J.B. had been in the trading business, spoke several Indian languages, and immediately fell to work, establishing his family on the frontier.
Half of his children would stay in the trading business in the Four Corners: Northern New Mexico and Southern Utah and Colorado. The children – already Foutzes on their mother’s side – would extend their ties to the area by marrying into other trading families including the McGees, Hatches, Hunts, and Stolworthys.
Nora Ethel (b. 1891), who went by her middle name, was a beautiful girl. She married Willard Stolworthy in 1915. The Stolworthys and Foutzes owned the wholesale business called Progressive Mercantile. They didn’t run trading posts themselves, but financed others.
Their standard deal was to front an enterprising young man with enough goods to last a year. It was up to him, usually, to build some sort of post to trade out of. He was expected to pay back his stake the first year, and could keep 25% of the net profits.
If the young man wished, he could buy up to half of the post with those profits. Eventually he would own the whole place. Sometimes it worked out, and sometimes it didn’t, but Progressive Merc was somewhere behind most of the trading posts in the area, much like C. N. Cotton in Gallup.
Donald Tanner (b.1895) took over his father’s extensive freighting interests, making the transition from ox-teams and wagons to trucks, basing his business in Long Hollow, Colorado, where there was a flour mill. He also had interests in Ignacio and Bayfield – dryland wheat and pinto beans were being developed at the time for high altitude. His sons Halworth and Harold soon joined the business. Harold ended up with the pinto beans, Halworth with the flour company. Harold drove a freight truck from Colorado to Gallup when still in his early teens.
The flour mill story is more than interesting. When Donald’s mill in Bayfield burned down he decided against rebuilding it, so his boys were on their own.
Cortez Milling Company was failing when Halworth and a man named Bill Palmer bought it. The equipment was aging already in the 1950s. They had two brands of flour, Red Rose and White Rose. The “formula” of dryland red wheat that became Bluebird Flour was considered a second-grade product.
In the Southwest the only flour that a Hopi, Zuni or Navajo will buy is Bluebird, the only brand in the country packaged exclusively in cloth sacks, which have been used for everything from shirts to curtains and pillowcases. The mill runs at full capacity (there’s not enough product to supply the local Wal-Mart) and the same machinery from the 1800s is still in operation.
The mill is still owned and operated by Tanners – Trent and his brother Gary. The huge popularity is due to the high gluten content of the flour. The word gluten is Latin, for glue, and gives elasticity to the dough, allowing it to be pulled into large, flat rounds suitable for fry bread. It also helps the dough rise – a boon at high altitude.
Another of Donald’s sons, Colin, bought into the famous Navajo mecca, T & R Market north of Gallup. The “T” does not stand for Tanner. Colin once won a Baby Beauty Contest. Donald’s wife Mamie was killed in a car accident when the boys were still young.
Arthur (b.1897) was one of the many Tanners who would own – or run – the Aneth Trading Post on McElmo Creek where it flowed into the muddy San Juan. There were many Paiutes in the area as well as Navajos. Klara Kelly translates the Navajo name of the place as “‘One Who Can Barely Make It’ – a trader, probably one of the Tanners.”
The place went by several names in the early years and had to be pretty dismal in those days. All it took to make a trading post was four walls of rock, usually abundant on the spot, and some sort of roof. Plumbing and electricity hadn’t been invented yet.
Ruel Lehi Tanner, who went by the name Chunky, would also take his turn at Aneth. Though he had been engaged to a Burnham girl from the area, he married Stella McGee, which connected the Tanners to yet another trading family. Chunky left for southern Arizona where he worked for an ice cream company. Stella, far pregnant with her first child, joined him as soon as he could send her the money.
She would forever consider the move a miracle because her first-born named JB (no periods) was more than a month premature. “He was so little he fit in a shoe box,” she said. “We fed him with an eyedropper.” Because they were in Phoenix they had access to a well-equipped hospital. “That’s what saved his life.”
They soon moved back north, stopping to see Pappa Joseph in Gallup. Chunky turned down an offer to work for his dad, but he soon ended up out at Aneth, trading his new Model A for a half interest in the post. He spoke very fluent Navajo and when he was mad he spoke fast and loud. The Indians called him “The Little Man Who Is Hard to Get Along With” for this reason.
Ruel, like his father before him, bought lambs and old ewes and put them on pasturage in Colorado. He made a lot more in the livestock business than he did trading.
Stella, whom the locals called “Little Mother,” tells some interesting things about life at Aneth. They still got their water from the river and it was silty as ever. She describes pouring a can of condensed milk into a barrel of muddy water. They stirred it up and all the dirt settled to the bottom. Conditions at Aneth were still exceedingly primitive. The boys remember keeping huge bull snakes in the warehouse to control the rodent problem. Visitors sometimes got a good scare.
Stella deserves her own place in Tanner history. She was an excellent cook and baked bread and sweet rolls that they sold to the Navajos and Paiutes who came to trade. Later, when they built a trailer court just south of Durango she opened Stella’s Café – known far and wide for her fried chicken and mouth-watering pies.
She would run restaurants in several places, including a spell at Keams Canyon. Everyone agreed it was the best food around. Ellis Tanner claims he plucked as many as fifty chickens at a time to keep his mother supplied.
Chunky and Stella had one daughter and seven sons and all of them stayed in the Indian trading business. Chunky’s father had homesteaded down near Chaco Wash at a place called Whiterock. Chunky took land nearby at a place called Crimson Hills, northwest of the trading post at Tsaya – short for a Navajo name that meant “water under a rock.” There was a cave there, hiding a steady spring.
Chunky continued in the footsteps of his father and grandfather when it came to water, the most precious commodity in the Desert Southwest. They had built, or improved, an irrigation system at Tuba City, and Joseph Baldwin had done the same in the San Juan valley. J. B. had put in a water system at a place the Mormons called Jewitt Valley, now known as Waterflow and Hogback.
The first thing J. B. did at Tanner Mesa was build a dam to create a small reservoir. They did the same thing at the two homesteads. Ellis tells a story of how far Chunky would go to get water. There was a wash where the sand stayed damp, but there was no flowing stream. He and his dad buried drain tile to create a French Drain.
A French drain is usually used to pull water away from a wall or structure. In this case it took the seepage from the wet sand and coaxed it into a cistern. Ellis didn’t particularly enjoy ditch digging.
Ralph was the baby of the family and as such a favorite son and he started traveling with his father J. B. when he was very young, traveling down to Arizona to visit the turquoise mines. When he grew up he partnered with brother Chunky at Aneth. It seemed like all the Tanners had to put time in out there.
Ralph was stocky and hairy and as strong as his grandfather. Family legend has it that he could walk as well on his hands as on his feet and once proved it by traveling the equivalent of seventeen blocks to the old Shiprock Hotel. Ralph liked to wrestle and the Utes called him “Bear” which carried on the family tradition.
Ralph would own many businesses in Cortez by the end of his life. He owned ranchland near Durango with his brother Chunky, where, like his father and brothers before him, he fattened sheep he picked up from the Navajos and then shipped them off to the Eastern markets.
Though other Tanners kept in or near the Indian Trading business, it would be Ruel Lehi’s six sons who would provide the next generation of the Tanner dynasty.