Roughing It in Indian Country
By Ernie Bulow
In the May 1938 issue of Desert Magazine there was an article about the famous Chinle trader Cozy McSparron by regular contributor Mrs. White Mountain Smith. Smith was one of the first female employees at the Grand Canyon whose job wasn’t to cook or make beds. She became moderately famous with her book I Married a Ranger, about her adventurous life with Park Ranger Mr. “White Mountain” Smith.
In the teaser at the top of the first page the editor throws out this provocative statement: “For real human drama there probably is no more interesting place on earth than a remote trading post.” The Santa Fe railroad had been selling this idea for forty years already through hotels, trading posts, magazine articles and their “Indian Detours” program.
Mrs. Smith’s article makes it clear that Cozy McSparron was selling the “Indian experience” as much as anything, and it was clearly an asset that he was well liked by the local Navajos because “if there is a Squaw Dance or a sing within a hundred miles the Indians will tell ‘Cozy’ and he and his friends are welcome guests.”
Elizabeth Compton Hegemann, another Grand Canyon employee turned trader at the remote Shonto post wrote of McSparron that in the late 1920s, “Cozy’s trading post and guest accommodations were given the name Thunderbird Ranch and publicized as such. This struck many of us locals as rather pretentious and touristy, but probably in a brochure the word “Thunderbird” sounded more picturesque than “Cozy’s place at Chin Lee.”
Though Hegemann seems to disparage McSparron, she admits in her own book that she eventually built guest accommodations at the remote Shonto trading post. They made it seem more authentic by building three Navajo hogans near the store. They had the Betatakin and Keet Seel ruins in the vicinity to lure visitors.
Both the word Thunderbird and the stylized image became symbols of Southwestern tourism. Early on the Fred Harvey Company adapted Frank Cushing’s Bow Priest shield as their logo. It was prominently displayed on their Albuquerque facility. C. G. Wallace borrowed it from them for his letterhead when he got into the trading business. The Zuni knifewing figure was easily confused with that other iconic bird.
Thunderbird Trading Ranch was soon changed to “Thunderbird Lodge” and when the national monument was created in 1931, the old trading post was inside the park’s boundary. What would Hegemann think of the later name change to “Sacred Canyon Lodge”? Political correctness rejects the legendary Thunderbird as not being Navajo in origin.
Lorenzo Hubbell and his partner C. N. Cotton had the first trading license issued for Chinle. Hubbell had far-flung business interests on the Navajo Reservation and he worked to get some tourist business going at Canyon de Chelly off and on for years. In 1900 he built an impressive hotel just west of the canyon mouth. According to one description, the upstairs boasted sixteen bedrooms and the lobby measured forty feet square. The only thing it lacked was guests. Hubbell was just a little premature.
Sam Day built the original post in the mouth of the canyon in 1902 and kept adding to it. The Kennedy family of Gallup fame took it over in 1917 and a fledgling tourist business began. Leon “Cozy” McSparron, a Gallup native, was coaxed out to Chinle by Hartley Seymour, C. N. Cotton’s son-in-law. Hartley wanted Leon to teach him to box.
McSparron was soon in the Indian trading business. He and Mike Kirk both worked for J. L. Hubbell in Chinle for a time and Cozy later said he was the best employer he ever had.
McSparron took over the Canyon de Chelly post in 1919. He never left. “Cozy” and his wife Inja are given credit for having a major role in the Navajo weaving revival of the early twentieth century. Traditional designs and natural dyes proved popular.
Don Lorenzo, as Hubbell was known, was famous for his hospitality at the home trading post in Ganado, but at one time or another he owned more than thirty trading posts and he liked it when they made money. There was even a catch to his generosity at the “big house.”
Martha Blue, in her definitive biography of Hubbell, writes, “For Hubbell, the ideal guest bought Navajo blankets, appreciated the West, extolled his hospitality . . . demanded no special treatment and sold Indian arts and crafts, particularly blankets, after his or her departure.” He also took pay for his guided trips into Canyon de Chelly and elsewhere. Hubbell charged seven fifty for a day trip, ten dollars a day for longer excursions that involved camping.
Sam Day and his boys were more successful in Chinle at developing a tourist business. Gallup photographer and trader Simeon Schwemberger took photos of a wedding party the Days guided into the canyon early in the last century.
Bill Cousins, scion of another important trading family, was working for Cozy McSparron about the time of the Desert Magazine article and he talks about the tourist jaunts he undertook at Thunderbird Lodge. “Part of my duties was to help with the ‘dudes’ as Cozy called the tourists.” He describes the Ford four-door, open topped model A they called the “galloping showcase.” He says, “One of those ‘dudes’ that I toured around was John D. Rockefeller. Hegemann also hosted Rockefeller.
“Somehow, Cozy was the custodian in charge of Canyon de Chelly. I think it was made legal by giving him a salary of a dollar a year,” Bill added.
It is difficult to tell a hundred years later just how widespread the tourist business was among the traders, but it was close to universal. What varied was the element of “roughing it” and the Indian contact. On a letter dated 1930 the Wetherill and Colville Guest Ranch letterhead advertised horseback and motor trips to Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Mexico – clearly the “dudes” were a big part of their business.
In the early years of the last century the Crystal Trading Post, made famous by trader J. B. Moore and his rug catalog, was owned by Charles Newcomb. Nestled in the Chuska Mountains it was truly remote and reachable only by the most primitive of roads. Charlie Newcomb’s brochure advertised trips to Rainbow Bridge, Canyon de Chelly, Hopi country and Mesa Verde.
Charlie was an avid hunter and offered fall hunts for bear, deer and mountain lion, among other things. On the foldout of his brochure he pictured a very large black bear stretched out in front of two of his little daughters. His daughter Shirley thinks there was no special permit required in those days.
There was a separate building called Pinon Lodge used as a dorm by the visitors, but they ate with the family. The hunting trips were strictly horseback affairs, but other tourists could choose either horse or motor travel. There are photos of both kinds of trips and it is clear that his young wife Madge often went along on the trips.
Luckily he wrote captions on his pictures and identifies his Navajo helper as John Yazzie. Though John is holding a frying pan, the caption adds, “I always did the cooking.” On the back of another photograph he notes, “Anybody can cook over gas or charcoal, but try it over greasewood or Russian thistle.” (That’s the proper name for tumbleweeds.)
In the early days Newcomb preferred to do his traveling in a Hupmobile which appears in many photos. For the Rainbow Bridge trip he used a four-door convertible Studebaker and a pickup truck. It was common in that country to carry several spare tires and a repair kit as well.
There is an interesting photo in the Newcomb collection that features a Gallup legend, Dick Mattox, with a small group in twenties fashions. Though Mattox made money in a variety of ways, in the 1930 census he lists his occupation as “tourist guide.” Seldom is the word “legend” so appropriate. He starts popping up in Gallup newspapers early in the last century.
A little story appeared in Desert Magazine in the thirties, long after Mattox had left Gallup. It tells of a party of tourists dropping in at the Chamber of Commerce and asking, “Where can we find a guide to show us the reservation?” Just then Mattox walked into the office. The secretary told them he was just the man they wanted, and he charged $10 a day for his services.
“Oh, we didn’t expect to put in a full day at it,” replied the tourist, “We thought we’d have a look around before dinner time.” Even Dick Mattox wasn’t that good.
Lorenzo Hubbell once said of him, “Dick Mattox is a good fellow, but the worst guide on the reservation.” Certainly he said it jokingly. It is surprising how often Mattox pops up in recollections about the Gallup area. Part of his fame must have come from his appearance.
His lawyer and one-time mayor of Gallup, A. T. Hannett (later governor of New Mexico) described him thus: “Dick had the largest moustache I ever saw in my life. He also had a huge set of eyebrows, either one of which would have made a handsome beard for a Russian admiral.” At one time he was the house detective at the El Rancho.
One reason Mattox was a popular guide was his gift of gab. He had personal stories about growing up with Plains Indians (some say he spoke Sioux), knowing sign language, working with the Buffalo Bill Wild West show, acting in several movies, and being a personal friend of Will Rogers, Douglas Fairbanks and Tom Mix.
A teaser in the Carbon City News in 1918 bears out the truth of this. “Johnnie Ford (the director who would put Monument Valley on the map with his John Wayne movies), who is with the Douglas Fairbanks Films Company…writes that Hollywood is a beautiful place. He said: ‘All the cowpunchers here are awaiting the coming of Dick Mattox.’”
The story goes that later in life, when things were a little slow, Mattox would hang around the Santa Fe train station and greet likely looking women tourists, alone or in small parties. He would take them into the bar and give them a sales pitch.
Years later an anthropologist, recalling time around Gallup, said Dick “could tell more tales over a glass of beer than one could hear elsewhere in a year.” Gallup promoter M. L. Woodard had a photograph of Mattox and famous Zuni stone carver Teddy Weahkee. According to Weahkee’s family, he also sold his services as a guide.
Weahkee was one of the wealthiest men in Zuni. His wife had oil money from her tribe in Oklahoma and Teddy invested some of it in livestock. He was a painter (on hide and canvas), a fetish carver and a jeweler. Some Zunis criticized him for painting Zuni religious figures. He was the first Zuni to own a car and he was quite generous with it.
With his gift of gab and his familiarity with white people, Weahkee was comfortable around Anglos and started his own tour business as a local guide. His granddaughter says she can remember when the street in front of their house was lined with cars. Some of his customers included cowboy actor Rory Calhoun, opera star James Melton and a young Muppeteer, Jim Henson.
His tourist business explains the photograph of him with Dick Mattox. They were in the same line of business. His family also describes Teddy’s generosity. He once brought home a drifter who stayed with them for two weeks before moving on.
Though the Santa Fe Indian Detours are well known and well documented, there was a more interesting business just out of sight. The railroad brought the tourists but it was the traders and the guides who kept them around the area to spend money.
A NOTE CONCERNING TERMINOLOGY
The title of last month’s piece drew a surprising amount of criticism. I have been advised that I was in error to refer to an almost impossible – impracticable at the least – situation as “herding jackrabbits.” The correct phrase, I am told, is “herding cats.” In my defense I offer the following true story.
A young tourist visiting a reservation trading post expressed the opinion that herding sheep was not an occupation. “Anyone can do it,” he said smugly. He was immediately challenged. The man was a recent graduate of Princeton or Yale and had been on the track team.
The trader took him to a nearby sheep corral where the animals had not yet been turned out for the day. It was a smallish group, housed in one of those old pens built by sinking cedar posts into the ground touching one another, so as to make a nearly solid wall.
The athlete was told to keep the sheep in order and bring them home at the end of the day. Toward evening he staggered into the post, haggard, dirty and covered with sweat – actually a little wild eyed. The man managed to talk after a good drink of water.
“The sheep weren’t so bad,” he groaned. “It was the baby animals – what do you call them? – the lambs.” It was the wrong season for lambs so everyone rushed over to the corral. On the far side of the enclosure, huddled together, were half a dozen jackrabbits, frightened and exhausted.
I rest my case.