Past and present still meet at a handful of Four Corners trading posts

Once-plentiful Old West enterprises offer goods and history

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • There literally were hundreds of trading posts in the area when the era reached its peak in the 1920s and 1930s.
  • Almost all of them were owned and operated by a handful of families, largely Mormon, whose descendants continue to populate the Four Corners today.
  • The businesses they operated existed almost exclusively to serve those who lived on the Navajo Nation.

This is the first of two articles examining the past, present and future of trading posts in the Four Corners region.

FARMINGTON — Guiding a visitor around the grounds of his expansive Teec Nos Pos Trading Post on an unseasonably cloudy and chilly afternoon in late May, owner John McCulloch watches the traffic whiz by on U.S. Highway 64. He follows it until his eyes alight on the intersection with U.S. Highway 160 a couple of hundred yards to the west.

That junction — a busy crossroads for tourists headed to the popular Four Corners Monument a little less than 10 miles north — originally was supposed to be located adjacent to his trading post, he said. Then-owner Russell Foutz bought the trading post's current site and moved it there specifically to take advantage of that location.

Owner John McCulloch stands in his office at the Teec Nos Pos Trading Post in Arizona, one of the few traditional trading posts still operating in the area.

But surveyors later pushed the intersection a little to the west, much to the chagrin of Foutz — and, eventually, McCulloch, who bought the business from him in 1994. On this blustery afternoon, McCulloch looked wistfully in that direction and pondered what things might be like if that crossroads had remained at its original site.

"It makes a huge difference," he said. "If this trading post had been built on a corner, it would have caught a lot of traffic that doesn't even realize we're here."

He paused, then looked back at his visitor and grinned broadly.

"But this is a hell of a lot better than being two miles off the road," he said.

The challenges to operating a successful trading post are legion, and trying to stay one step ahead of the whims of government surveyors may be the least of those issues. For the people who continue to scratch out a living operating these relics of the 19th century American West in the 21st century, running a trading post seems to be as much a lifestyle as a career choice.

"I think it is. That's a fair comment," McCulloch said, pausing briefly to consider that assessment before offering some philosophy. "Another thing is, you get involved with something like this, it's hard to get out of it. Marriage is a lot easier to get into than out of. The same holds true for this business, as well, I think."

This 1892 photograph features a group of people gathered in front of the Hogback Trading Co.

Businesses that were largely a family affair

There was a time when trading posts were nearly as common in the Four Corners area as hoodoos, the odd, otherworldly sandstone formations that dot the Colorado Plateau, giving it much of its visual appeal. Bart Wilsey, director of the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park and an authority on local history, said there literally were hundreds of trading posts in the area when the era reached its peak in the 1920s and 1930s.

Almost all of them were owned and operated by a handful of families, largely Mormon, whose descendants continue to populate the Four Corners today and whose names adorn many well-known locations, buildings, businesses and roads in San Juan County. The Foutz, Wheeler, Ashcroft, Tanner, McGee, Hatch and Bloomfield names are omnipresent, serving as a testament to how influential and important those early traders were to the region's development.

"We were all related," said Tom Wheeler, whose great-grandfather, Joseph Wheeler, led many of those families to the so-called "New Land" in the 1870s from the Great Salt Lake basin via a series of wagon trains. Joseph Wheeler founded the Hogback Trading Co. in 1871, a business Tom Wheeler took over in 1970 and has operated ever since.

He explained that, over the course of generations, many of the sons and daughters of those traders married each other, making the trading post business truly a family affair.

"Things like that can work two ways," he said, smiling. "Relatives don't always get along, especially if you have a competitive business. But there was a really good rapport between all the traders. Each trader had something that made them unique."

The businesses they operated existed almost exclusively to serve those who lived on the Navajo Nation and who otherwise lacked easy access to the goods that trading posts offered — everything from farm implements to underwear, as Wilsey said.

"They were the Walmarts of their day," he noted.

Owner Kent Morrow of the Shiprock Trading Post in Farmington says his business now follows a contemporary model of concentrating almost exclusively on Native arts and crafts.

What were trading posts and what do they look like today?

While trading posts certainly were not unique to the Four Corners — indeed, they existed across much of the frontier, seeming to go hand in hand with westward Anglo expansion and dating to the 17th century in North America — they proliferated on the Navajo Nation after the Treaty of 1868, which ensured the return of the Navajo people from Bosque Redondo to their ancestral home.

It was a system that thrived for nearly a century in the Four Corners, beginning a long, slow decline only when many of the same market forces that led to the deterioration of other aspects of the American economy finally reached the reservation. Today, the Four Corners is home to only a fraction of the number of trading posts that once existed here, and most of those that remain have radically altered their business model to stay afloat.

Farmington's Shiprock Trading Post, a business that was established in Shiprock in 1894 and served that community until it was relocated to Farmington in 2007, is one such example. Owner Kent Morrow said the business now concentrates almost exclusively on Native arts and crafts, an approach favored by many modern trading post owners. He acknowledged how challenging the business can be and said there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding it.

"There is on both ends — on supply and demand," he said. "But we still feel very positive about this. We intend to do it for a long time. Like any business, we have to adjust and try to stay relevant. … We all change over time. Our businesses have to evolve and be flexible, even though we are working with an art form that's very subjective in terms of price and flexibility."

The traditional model of a trading post remains in place in a handful of locations across the Four Corners — specifically, at the Hatch Brothers Trading Post in Fruitland, the Valley Trading Post in Waterflow and McCulloch's Teec Nos Pos Trading Post. Those entities continue to deal not just in Navajo art, but in groceries and, depending on the business, such inventory as clothing, hardware, propane, wool, hay and Navajo ceremonial items while also serving as de facto banks and/or post offices.

McCulloch acknowledged that what keeps him in business to a large degree is nostalgia.

"Navajos like this business," he said. "It's like an old trading post in a lot of ways they remember. One lady came in from Farmington the other day and said, 'My family calls this the Navajo Store.' She said it in a nice way, a proud way."

Wilsey considers those traditional trading posts regional treasures and bemoans their decline.

"It's sad these are going more and more by the wayside," he said, explaining he periodically leads groups from the museum on tours of local trading posts. "It's going to be a lost way of life. Things change, but it's going to be hard to let go. Pretty soon, the only place you're going to find them is in museums."

Farmington Museum director Bart Wilsey says there were literally hundreds of trading posts in the Four Corners at one time, but he fears they soon will only exist in museums.

How trading posts functioned

Wilsey's proclamation isn't literally true yet, but it doesn't miss the mark by far. The Farmington Museum features an exhibit called the Three Waters Trading Post, which he said is modeled largely on the famed Hatch Brothers Trading Post in Fruitland.

The faux store features all the trappings of a traditional trading post — shelves stocked with canned goods, hardware, paint, tools, etc. — along with a crucial element that was central to the success of such businesses, a cast-iron stove by which patrons could warm themselves after having traveled by wagon or horseback or even on foot for many miles. Wilsey said trading posts served not just as centers of commerce on the reservation, but as community gathering spots.

Trips to the trading post by patrons were carefully planned and highly anticipated, and news, gossip and jokes were exchanged around those wood-burning stoves before, after and while business was being conducted. The chance to engage in conversation with a neighbor was a much-valued part of the trading post experience for families who typically lived in remote, isolated locations and had little opportunity to speak with anyone but each other.

"People would come in and visit and trade and pick up their mail," Wilsey said. "It was a community center, is what it was."

No doubt that contributes to the fond memories so many older residents hold of trading posts. Times may have been hard, but that fact often gets burnished or obscured as the decades march on.

"It was a very romantic time in history," Wilsey said. "We weren't tied to cell phones and the Internet. Personal relationships were different."

Even the nature of commerce was different at trading posts, where very little cash changed hands. Morrow, owner of the Shiprock Trading Company, points out that the way business was done is, in fact, how trading posts got their name – typically, goods were traded, not sold.

Navajo families brought in their livestock, wool, rugs, baskets, carvings, buckskins and jewelry and traded them for the things they needed at home – coffee, flour, sugar, lard, canned goods, clothes, shoes and tools. Traders kept a ledger with the names of customers in it, and credit balances or deficits were updated with each visit.

The Red Rock Trading Post is featured in this 1932 photograph.

A bridge between Navajo and Anglo cultures

One of the more important but lesser-noted functions of trading posts, Wilsey said, is that they brought the Navajo and Anglo cultures together. Nearly all the traders were white and Mormon, while almost all the customers were Navajo. Any time business was done, by necessity, a cultural exchange took place, as well.

"It was really a time when the two cultures met," Wilsey said. "It was a simpler time, a time when people did business eye to eye and traded for what they thought was fair, and had some deep relationships. They knew the families in the area. They were like family."

Those interactions were not easy, at first, owning largely to language differences, as few traders spoke Navajo and few Navajos spoke English. Wilsey said many traders quickly realized the onus was on them to learn the language of their customers. "A lot of the traders became fluent in Navajo. They would not speak it at all, and then a few years later, they were fluent. And it's a tough language," he said, noting he had taken a course in Navajo at San Juan College and struggled with it.

The popularity of the trading post system in the Four Corners owed much to the specific circumstances related to the size of the Navajo Nation and the geography of the area, Wilsey argues. The reservation itself has grown into an enormous entity, encompassing almost 30,000 square miles, and its sparse population and distance from Anglo population centers mean goods have to be transported from afar to reach its people. Additionally, the reservation featured few roads at the time of its formation, meaning it was impractical for most Navajos to travel even as far as Farmington to obtain the goods they desired.

Tom Wheeler of the Hogback Trading Co. says many of the families who operated trading posts in the Four Corners came here in the 1870s on wagon trains from the Great Salt Lake basin led by his great-grandfather.

It was trading posts that filled the gap, Wilsey said. Traders brought in wagon loads of goods to their businesses positioned in strategic locations on the reservation, and the Navajos who lived in the area could travel to those spots with their rugs, livestock, wool, pottery and jewelry, swapping them for merchandise. The traders then shipped those Navajo-generated items back to Anglo markets that had developed a demand for them – especially the prized Navajo rugs that would come to be the centerpiece of the trading post industry.

A symbiotic relationship quickly developed between customer and merchant. Each side needed the other to get what it wanted, and instances of Navajos being taken advantage of by unscrupulous traders, though common in other parts of the country, apparently were rare in the Four Corners.

"I've heard not all the traders were good to the Navajos," Tom Wheeler of the Hogback Trading Co. said, though he quickly added, "I do not know of one trader who took advantage of the Navajo people."

The reason for that was simple, he said.

"If you don't treat them right, they'll go to another trading post," he said.

Wilsey backed up Wheeler's take.

The Hogback Trading Co. is featured in this photograph, circa 1890.

"If somebody got really wronged in the community, they would go out of their way to avoid that (trader)," he said. "If there was a bad apple in the bunch, they wouldn't trade with them."

Wheeler said trust between the two cultures was built over the course of decades, eventually becoming ingrained on both sides.

"My grandfather always told me, 'Son, the Navajo people will never spend a lot of money with you at one time. But if you treat them right, they will spend money with you for a long time,'" he said.

Wheeler boiled it down to a simple equation, citing the mutually beneficial nature of the trading post dynamic. In many instances, that element was lost over the ensuing decades as increased mobility brought Navajos into greater contact with the larger Anglo society, resulting in frequent conflict that endures to this day in the area.

But in the golden era of trading posts, both sides seemed to recognize the self-defeating nature of that kind of tension, he said.

"The trading post trader was everything to the Navajo people, and the Navajo people were everything to the trader," he said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.