trading places on Route 66

From longhorns to an Eye Dazzler rug, the author’s collection of family memorabilia recalls a vanished way of life.

On the floor of my house lies an old Navajo “Eye Dazzler” rug. It’s the one that used to cover the sofa in my parents’ Zuni Mountain Trading Post on Route 66. I spent hours on it as a baby, following the zigzag geometric patterns. I was born nearby in Gallup, New Mexico, in 1946 and I grew up in and around trading posts. I guess it’s in the blood. I even got into the business myself once, for about six months.

Both sets of my grandparents also had trading posts in New Mexico Indian country. My mom’s folks were traders living on Zuni Pueblo in the early 20th century. My dad’s parents owned the Continental Divide Trading Post just a few miles from our Zuni Mountain place. My parents met at Gallup High School, then opened their own post right after World War II.

So I guess it’s no surprise that the home in Jemez Springs I share with my wife looks like some kind of museum. Seven-foot longhorns hang on the walls, Navajo rugs cover the floors, and the shelves are cluttered with pottery, petrified wood, old postcards, pictures, bookends, and various other mementos, including one of my favorites: my grandfather’s watch with the Zuni turquoise fetish watch fob.

I also inherited my other grandfather’s Stetson hat and belt buckle. The Navajos used to call him Mr. Odd Shape for the geometric shapes he made while polishing turquoise for them to make jewelry he would sell at Continental Divide. In fact, every one of these artifacts has a story to tell. Some of them are personal to me; they all tell something about a time now relegated to history.

When we were kids, my sister and I used to love staying with our grandparents at the Continental Divide. Ding and Nell Greer also ran a garage and filling station, the post office, and my grandmother’s café, where Nell dished out the best chili, coffee, and homemade pie for miles around. In between she hand-pumped gas from those fishbowl glass tanks where you could see the little balls rolling around in the colored gas. Across Route 66 my grandmother’s beloved red rocks loomed, marking the beginning of the reservation. It was all piñon and juniper country, sagebrush in between, with ponderosa pine higher up on snowcapped Mount Taylor.

We would go to Ding and Nell’s for Christmas, when we stayed up late by a crackling piñon log fire in the fireplace my grandfather had built out of polished petrified wood. We would nestle under huge piles of blankets and quilts in a room just off my grandmother’s café and fall asleep to the clink of coffee cups and Gogi Grant singing “The Restless Wind” on the jukebox.

On Christmas morning we awoke to the wonders of giant peppermint sticks, oranges, and shiny new toys. One year my uncle Bert gave my cousin Bill an electric train that was so large it took up the whole living room. It had glass windows and real electric lights in the passenger cars. With the falling of fresh snow, we rushed out and filled bowls so we could make snow ice cream, mixed up with milk, sugar, and vanilla. In the afternoon we ventured into the woods behind the trading post, collecting arrowheads and plinking at cans with my grandfather’s octagon-barreled Colt .22 pistol. On warmer days, my cousins and I put pennies on the rails of the Santa Fe line—Lincoln’s face left flat as a pancake by the Chief, the Super Chief, the El Capitan.

To the smoky adobe village
The first of my family to come to New Mexico were my mother’s parents, Mattie and James Williams. James, my grandfather-to-be, who we kids called “Gee,” rode the train from North Carolina around 1908 to work at his brother’s livery stable in Lake Arthur, New Mexico. Mattie—Martha Washington Knight, who we called “Garn”—was 15 years old in 1910 when her family loaded all their earthly belongings into the ranch wagon, put the kids in the surrey, and headed west from Texas. Illness and misfortune had persuaded them to make a new start in Lake Arthur, where Mattie’s brothers were drilling water wells. It took a month to cross the high plains of west Texas and eastern New Mexico. Along the way, they survived a deadly blizzard that would become legendary in New Mexico history.

James and Mattie met and fell in love, then James headed across New Mexico to Zuni Pueblo and found a job working in the Kelsey Trading Post. He sent Mattie a series of penny postcards showing photographs of the pueblo and the Indian dances so she could see what she was getting into. When he had put together a stake to buy his own store, he wrote Mattie that they could get married.

Mattie joined him in what she called “the little smoky adobe village” where they raised four children and made their home for 17 years. Living in Zuni wasn’t easy. For supplies, they drove a six-horse team pulling a wagon into Gallup, a week’s journey round trip. James would ride horseback to Colorado to buy sheep and cattle without crossing any fences.

James and Mattie struggled to learn the Zuni language as it was necessary for doing business and living in the community. Secrecy shrouded many Zuni ceremonies and rituals, cutting off the family from whole sections of the village for a time, though some dances were open to the public. My mother and her siblings grew up being almost as excited by the now-famous Shalako ceremony carried on by bonfire in the cold first week of December as they were by their own Christmas later in the month.

The Zuni people still lived on the corn, beans, and squash they had grown since before written history, supplemented with a little meat from an occasional deer or a sheep from the herds introduced by the Spanish. They sold their pelts to my grandfather, who shipped them to New York. My grandparents contracted with Ilfeld wholesalers in Albuquerque, who provided them with goods to sell and money to buy wool.

In those days, the trading post had a “bull pen,” the area in the middle of the store surrounding the pot-bellied stove where the Indians stood. The trader kept behind the counter and handed goods over from the stock in back. The high shelves were full of coffee, sugar, yard goods, pots, pans, kerosene lamps, and reels of colorful ribbon. There was also a social element in the trading post, especially on those bitterly cold winter days when people could spend some time gossiping around the glowing stove and do a little trading, too.

Though Zuni Pueblo had remained largely untouched by outside influence since ancient times, change was coming, and my family was part of it. Manufactured goods and even one of the first airplanes soon reached this far outpost. James brought the first car to Zuni—a Ford Model T. The first time he drove it, he careened around and around the dusty pueblo streets until the car ran out of gas, since nobody had shown him where the brake was.

Trade route
While James and Mattie Williams were trading in Zuni, my father’s mother, Nellie E. Brown, was riding the train with her family and all of their furniture and livestock in freight cars from Pueblo, Colorado, to Aztec, New Mexico. It was there she met and married William P. Greer (whom we kids called “Ding”) in 1917.

Nell and Ding started their life together driving their REO Speedwagon from one Indian reservation to the next, buying piñon nuts and trading them for rugs and jewelry, and drilling water wells for the Indian Service. At night they would set up camp, make picnics of crackers, colby cheese, and Vienna sausages, with a can of peaches for dessert, and fall asleep on a big pile of rugs in the back of the truck. They made Indian friends on reservations all over the Southwest and got to know traders running the lonely posts where the Indians sold their wool and bought supplies.

Eventually in 1949 they had saved enough to buy a place on Route 66 at the point where the highway crossed the Continental Divide east of Gallup. They called it the Continental Divide Trading Post, of course, then Nell became postmaster and she gave the town the same name.

Route 66 was part of the postwar transportation revolution in America, when the automobile replaced public transportation and people were anxious to hit the road and see the West. I remember sitting on the front porch of the Continental Divide with my grandfather Ding, watching all of the cars go by on Route 66 and counting how many license plates we saw from different states. He had a little campground set up in the piñon trees on the hill above the trading post, and he would charge tourists a quarter a night to stay there (water and firewood provided). He put those quarters in a big coffee can. Once it was full he took the can to the bank and got a bag of Bull Durham tobacco, which he rolled up in wheat straw cigarette papers and smoked while we sat out on the porch on cast-off red café stools.

Ding’s trading post was full of old saddles, black powder rifles, stuffed buffalo heads, drums, interesting rocks, and of course lots of Navajo rugs and cases full of jewelry. He polished turquoise and petrified wood for the Navajos to make into jewelry to sell in the store. He really liked trading and would trade for just about anything a person could bring by, so his store was always full of lariats, fancy silver-tipped bridles, bows and arrows, and things that you couldn’t even tell what they were. The creaky old floorboards added the sound effects as we kids explored the dusty dark corners for treasures we hadn’t examined yet.

Nell would get the mail off the train, and later by truck, and sort it into the little numbered, glass-fronted brass boxes. Her post office housed a wooden phone booth, with its strange instrument that grown-ups cranked to get the operator, giving her the number they wanted and hoping the nosy neighbors weren’t eavesdropping on the party line. We listened for the number of rings to tell if a phone call was for us.

In the evening we always drove up into the piñon woodlands behind the trading post to see the deer. It was my grandmother’s favorite pastime and about the only break she took from her life of hard work. My uncle drove his Willys station wagon, his little dog firmly in charge on my uncle’s lap, ready to bark furiously at any deer we saw. Although not averse to venison steaks, my grandmother took particular pleasure in seeing the peaceful live deer and keeping count of how many we saw from one night to the next. As dusk fell, we would slowly drive back home, soaking up the peaceful quiet moment when nothing particular had to be done.

After the old days
In 1927 my mother’s family moved from Zuni to the crossroads railroad town of Gallup, where James bought a drugstore. My parents, Teke and Genie, met while attending Gallup High School, married, and after a stint at the University of New Mexico and in World War II, came home and bought the Zuni Mountain Trading Post on Route 66.

We lived an isolated life, always fighting the dust and the wind. Once a fire broke out in our trading post. My dad fought it with a rug and buckets of water, a futile attempt. He saved the building, but smoke ruined everything inside; the rugs, the wool, even some of the turquoise and some beautiful Chimayó coats ended up bleached of color by the heat. My folks pretty much had to start over. They bought wool and sheep pelts—my dad bought a mountain lion skin once for five dollars, and sold it for seven.

Dad liked to go hunting. He had an old .22 rimfire rifle that a Navajo named Chee had pawned for five dollars. Chee came back and borrowed his rifle out of pawn, saying he’d seen a deer “up back of the store there, by the water tank.” In the meantime, my dad went hunting, too, way down at Apache Creek. He was gone for about 10 days but didn’t even see a deer. When my dad came back, Chee put his rifle back in pawn. He had gotten his deer up there behind the trading post the first morning of the season. Another time, just as Dad was closing the store, a Navajo fellow came in and told him they wanted to head home, but a rattlesnake was out there scaring the horses of the wagon team. He wanted my dad to go out and kill the snake, which he obliged, since it was okay for a white man to kill a snake but bad medicine for a Navajo.

Those old days were destined to pass as trading gave way to tourism, and tourism gave way to uranium mining, and that gave way to casinos at many of the pueblos. Always a harsh country, western New Mexico and the reservations test any people to their limit. As the 1950s brought prosperity and jobs to the country, my parents opted for the more secure life of a steady paycheck and a snowless yard in the suburbs of Phoenix, where Garn and Gee had retired.

Nell and Ding lived at the Continental Divide within view of their beloved red rocks until they died in the 1980s. They left my sister and me some land there, but we, too, needed to find a place where the living is easier if not quite as interesting as trading post life. I sold the land my grandparents left me and bought a place in the piñon and juniper woodlands of the Jemez Mountains, where Jemez Pueblo and the Navajo reservation are close by and people still wave when we pass on the two-lane highway.

Theodore Greer owns a photography gallery in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, where he lives with his wife, quilter Donna Lea. He credits his grandmother Martha Williams with inspiring him to become a photographer. See his photography at theodoregreer.com.