Garments, goods and gossip: Trading posts, once community centers, are disappearing

I parked my motorcycle on the broken pavement and gravel driveway and went to the front of Ismay Trading Post, with its peeling adobe façade and dust-glazed windows. As I pushed the door open the little dog bounded over the counter where he had been lying in the sun and jumped up on my legs.

TRADING POSTS“Don’t jump on me, pup,” I said, brushing at my pants. He’s a nice pup. He sniffed at the crack in the door.

“You want to go outside?” I asked, and opened the door. “Go sleep in the sun,” I said, as if anyone ever had to tell that dog to go sleep in the sun. I opened a Pepsi and strode over to the counter; Robert Ismay, the proprietor, was on the other side, smoking a cigarette. We generally talk about the weather, or peaches, in season.

“How’d you like the paper?” I asked. I’d left him a copy of the Free Press last time. He’d refused to sell them in Ismay Trading Post (“Navajos won’t buy ’em,” he’d said), but he took the free copy I offered.

“Oh, not much,” he said. We were both in a good humor. I laughed. The door opened and a Navajo girl came in.

“You have mail for my gramdma?” she asked in a voice so soft it was like the winter morning breeze stirring the willows along the creek bottom. Ismay reached behind him to a stack of envelopes on a shelf. He picked them up, riffled them expertly with his thumb, brought one out with two long fingers, and handed it to the girl; she turned wordlessly and went back out the door.

Trading posts have provided centers for communication in rural areas of Indian country almost since their inception. In times past you could leave a message or pick one up, obtain the latest community news, get a seed catalogue, order a bolt of cloth, buy or trade a horse, sell your wool, buy the best yarn, find a deal on a used saddle, learn the latest in rug prices or wool prices, buy a chimney for your kerosene lantern, or a wick, or a gallon of kerosene.

Trading posts often sold hay for livestock (some still do) and some kept livestock to sell or trade. There’s one story (it’s just a tale, mind you, and told long ago) of a Navajo who sold a cow to the trader, then stole it back that night and sold it to him again.

Ismay Trading Post lies near the Utah state line at the end of what in Montezuma County is called County Road G (the McElmo Canyon Road) and in Utah is Road 402. The Hatch Trading Post lies farther to the west, east of U.S. Highway 191 off Highway 262. It has a charming façade, fenced, with trumpet vines that grow across its face in the summertime.

I stopped there and spoke to Laura Hatch, the proprietor. I told her I was writing a story about trading posts. “I don’t know anything about trading posts,” she said.

I asked her when the Hatch Trading Post was founded. “I don’t know,” she said.

The next time I passed through Ismay, I told Robert about my encounter.

“She’s not too sociable sometimes,” he said. He paused. “She’s my sister, you know.”

“Maybe she didn’t like my beard or something,” I said. We laughed.

Both these trading posts exist for the purposes of trading with the Navajos. They don’t excite much tourist business and each exhibits a unique atmosphere. They serve as places where Navajos (Diné, actually) can purchase simple essentials. There’s a big orchard at Ismay and you can buy bags of sweet, juicy peaches in season for a dollar — in addition to cans of soda and candy bars at very reasonable prices.

Trading posts like Ismay, Hatch, and Oljato in the Monument Valley area are lonely places much of the year. In a world that values cookie-cutter franchise outlets and megamarts, trading posts are something of an anachronism. Slowly but steadily, they are disappearing across the West.

The modern era

The modern era of the trading post came about after the Navajo “Long Walk” to Bosque Redondo (Fort Sumner, N.M.), from 1864-68, when Kit Carson, acting on instructions from the U.S. government, rounded up all the Navajos he could find and marched them across New Mexico in the middle of winter. There they were kept in a kind of concentration camp for four years.

When the government admitted the experiment was a failure, the Navajos returned westward to their homeland; the Treaty of 1868 established the boundaries of the Navajo Nation. The government issued licenses to traders and by the 1870s a handful of them were operating on the Navajo reservation. By the turn of the 20th Century there were nearly 100 established trading posts on the Ute and Navajo reservations of the Four Corners.

A profusion of trading posts sprang up in the early decades of the 20th Century as well: at Shonto, Oljato, Monument Valley, Mexican Hat, Tuba City, Kayenta, and Cameron, along with many others throughout the Four Corners.

Trading posts were always built on water sites, so travelers attempting to traverse these great distances of wind and red sand could count on a refuge where they could re-supply and rest.

The traders have invariably been white men (and a few women) who pay a lease fee and sign away all ownership rights to buildings and equipment on the reservation. When the leases expire and are not renewed, the trader walks away, taking only his stock.

Over the years many small, independent traders have been bought out by larger consortiums. The Babbitt Brothers of Flagstaff, Ariz., owned a string of trading posts on the western portion of the Navajo Reservation in the 1950s, and remain a presence in the area.

After a bust in the uranium boom, Joe Nielson of Blanding, Utah, took his family to a place just north of modernday Tuba City, Ariz., called The Gap. According to his son, Vance Nielson, The Gap is still there, and is the first place Vance can remember. He was 4 years old. Few roads on the western Navajo reservation were paved; there were trading posts at Cow Springs, Shonto, Inscription House, Navajo Mountain, Gray Mountain, and Tuba City.

At that time the Babbitt Brothers were big in the trading-post business, he said. “They operated out of Flagstaff. My dad went to work for them at Cow Springs and then went to Old Oraibi, on the Hopi Reservation. I went to kindergarten there at the Mennonite Mission School.

“There were Hopi kids going to school there and they let me go, too. I remember playing with the Hopi boys; we’d go down to the wash. The Hopi were different than the Navajo: a different culture.

“I remember stomping wool,” he said. “They’d clean the wool and put it in bags, then they’d put that wool into big bags, maybe 10 feet tall, and they’d put me into one of those big bags and I’d have to stomp that wool.”

I asked him what the trading post was like at Old Oraibi. “Everything was behind the counter,” he said. “Everything was traded in those days. There was very little cash. People bought the things they needed in between the annual annuity and woolshearing, and when those came through people came in and settled their accounts. Of course, things like baskets and rugs we would take at any time. Accounts were all kept on the books.”

Pawn and language

Of course there was pawn.

“There has always been pawn,” Nielson continued. “Pawn is how Navajos get cash when they need it. All of the traders take pawn. Down through the years there has been very little state regulation on pawn. Traders could charge whatever the market would bear. Today some of the states regulate it. I think it’s regulated in Arizona. But in Utah traders can charge whatever interest rate they can get away with.”

You look through the glass cabinets and see the heavy silver-and-turquoise bracelets, each with a tag identifying the owner. Sometimes a trader goes out of business and winds up with a lot of unredeemed pawn. There was one guy in the 1990s, a young cowboy from Colorado, who opened the Painted Horn Trading Post in Bluff. He had a truckload of pawn that he said his uncle bought in Gallup for a nickel on the dollar. It was the old heavy silver and turquoise that you don’t see much of any more.

The old traders all spoke Navajo and many still do, but with the passing of each generation there are fewer and fewer Anglos who speak the language. The old traders learned it growing up on the reservation. Most trading posts have been replaced by the reservation version of the convenience store.

There is one of these modern places, a big Chevron station, at Burnside Junction at the corner of U.S. Highway 191, at the turnoff to Ganado. I bought a Pepsi there and I asked the checkout girl what “Bidahochi” meant. She asked the other lady behind the counter and she shook her head.

I stood underneath the porch awning sipping my Pepsi when the Navajo man who had been in line behind me came out; we stood for a moment, looking out at the skyline.

“When you come to the next junction you’ll see the red rock. It has a certain color.” He paused for another long moment. “Bidahochi means ‘beneath the red rock.’ You’ll know it when you see it.”

And sure enough I did. I’d never seen rock quite that color before. I passed the old abandoned Bidahochi Trading Post, once owned by Joe Nielson, and then up the gradual rise to Indian Wells, where there’s another little store with the Post Office inside and an asphaltprocessing plant above. I asked the lady in the store the same question.

“It’s that red rock out there,” she said, “below the red rock.” She pointed out the door with her lips and I saw another rock outcropping similar in color to the first one I’d seen down the road, a shocking red.

Images of John Wayne

The Gouldings, Harry and Leona “Mike” Goulding went to Monument Valley in the 1920s and fell in love with the quiet, colorful country. His family had pioneered one of the first big sheep operations in the San Juan Basin, near present-day Durango.

They started in Monument Valley with a tent and eventually established a successful trading operation and stayed there for nearly 40 years. They built their first trading post of Navajo sandstone against a cliff. The original trading post still stands, preserved as a museum, primarily of images of John Wayne and other celebrated Hollywood stars, who made the John Ford movie, “Stagecoach,” and seven others in Monument Valley.

Today Gouldings is one of the most successful businesses in the Four Corners; they run guided tours to the Navajo Nation Tribal Park in Monument Valley. You can have breakfast, lunch, or dinner in a dining room where the view is worth a million bucks. Just next to the dining room is the old trading post with its Hollywood memorabilia and photos of Harry and Mike Goulding from earlier days.

Echoes of the past

The Wetherills also came out of Southwest Colorado. They were cattle ranchers until one winter day when Richard Wetherill chanced upon the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. For years after that, the Wetherills (Richard and his brother John) were almost entirely consumed with discovering and exploiting abandoned habitation sites of ancient Puebloans.

In 1906 John Wetherill first came to Oljato, Ariz., “Moonlight Water.” At first the Navajos, local leader Hoskinnini- Begay and his entourage, told Wetherill they did not want white men in their country, but Wetherill had flour, coffee and other trade goods with him. He touted the advantages of having a trading post in Oljato, pointing out the long distances they had to traverse to find trade goods. In the end they let him stay and the Oljato Trading Post operated until the dawn of the 21st Century. John Wetherill hauled goods 190 miles round-trip from Gallup, N.M.

A Navajo named Evelyn Jensen ran Oljato Trading Post during the 1990s. She now runs guided tours on horses. The store has a “closed” sign in front.

I stood on the porch at the store at Indian Wells, talking to a local man about the red rock, and a young Navajo boy walked by holding a cell phone to his ear. The man and I looked at each other and laughed. The 20th Century is gone. Navajos still carry their hand-woven rugs to trading posts to sell; they still raise sheep and sell the wool and cook the meat, but much is different.

One trading post, Hubbell, near Ganado, Ariz., has been preserved as a national historic site managed by the National Park Service. The remainder, however, face an uncertain future.

Trading posts can be found all over the Four Corners, but they are changing or disappearing. Whether these dusty stores, with their creaky wooden floors and glass cases, will survive the 21st Century is unknown. But, for now, you can still visit some of them, buy a cold soda and, if you’re lucky, hear some echoes of the past.

From March 2006.