Mildred Heflin

Mildred Heflin

 

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I was born in Farmington, New Mexico, in 1913…. [my parents were] O. J. Carson and Jessie Carson.

I don't really remember much about growing up in Farmington. We lived on a small ranch, and we went out to the reservation when I was about two-and-a-half, three-and-a-half. We had to cross the San Juan River, because there was only one bridge at that time, and that was way down at Shiprock, and there were no roads, just trails. So when we went out to the reservation, we went up to--there were not many places where you could cross the San Juan River at that time, because that was before they put in the big dam, and it was quite--in the springtime, it flooded, and it was very difficult. You had to know where to cross it, or you'd get bogged down in the quicksand. And so my uncles went with us and we went up to where we would cross the river, and my father had a very special horse which he trusted. So he took my sister and I--my sister was about one-and-a-half at the time--took her in front in the saddle, and I sat behind him, and we went across the river, forded the river. And then when we got across the river.... Well, my uncle helped us get across the river. Then when we got across the river, we were in a covered wagon, we had to carry our own food and all of our supplies. And as I recall, we had a crateload of chickens. That was very necessary, because there were no places to buy eggs or anything of the sort out there on the reservation

Anyway, in going out, unfortunately the crate of chickens fell off and all the chickens got away. But we had a wonderful dog, his name was Old Billy. He was a bobtail shepherd of some kind. I don't know what he was. But anyway, he caught all these thirteen chickens, and (laughs) my dad was able to get 'em back in the cage, which was very important.

And so it took us three days, camping each night, to get to Star Lake. And that's a place in New Mexico. Nobody ever heard of it, and right now I think.... I don't know who the big coal mining companies are in there now, but anyway, at that time, it was--kind of had sort of a little valley under a hill, and you could walk back up on top of the hill, and there would be smoke coming out of the cracks all along. The coal was burning underneath. But I understand they put out the fires, of course, and now they're mining it and using it for various things. I don't know whether they have a slurry line, like they do up on Black Mesa, or whether they have a train, which carries the coal down to a place between Grants and Gallup, and that's where they pulverize it or do whatever they do with it to make power.

And let's see, what else did I jot down here?

Cole: Who were your uncles you mentioned?

Heflin: Howard Smith. They had lived on the ranch there near Farmington.

Cole: I should ask real quickly before I forget, what brought your mom and dad to Farmington?

Heflin: Oh, they were raised there. My grandfather was an Irish Canadian, and the whole family, I imagine they were driven out of Ireland by famine--I really don't know, I never could find out. But they were driven to Canada, and…. he was very interested in mining. And so he was up in the Colorado Mountains and was fortunate enough to find a gold mine, which he sold for $5,000. That was a lot of money in those days! (laughs) So he was considered a wealthy man, and he came down to Farmington on the San Juan River.... No, this was on the Animas River--there are two rivers coming down there. And he was on the Animas and he bought a small ranch there, and that's where they lived, and he raised his family there.

And my grandmother, her parents had come down there in very early days. The only connection you had with any civilization was Pueblo, Colorado. My grandfather would take the oxen team. They'd make butter, if you can imagine, and he would take the butter, and the hides, or whatever they had, and cart it over the mountain to Pueblo, Colorado. And that took a whole month to go over there and back, which was a long time, but that was a long ways in those days.

Cole: And then how did your dad decide to get involved in trading?

Heflin: Oh, in the trading post business? Well, he and my mother had a small ranch there at Farmington, and they couldn't see much future in this, so my Uncle Bob lived out on the Navajo Reservation, and he knew of a trader--well, he was a German--who owned a small trading post. Goodness knows how he got that, but he did. Near Cuba, New Mexico. So my Dad went out there to work for him. And our only connection with civilization was.... It was thirty-five miles to Cuba, and this was a small town, mostly Mexicans, and there were many bootleggers down there, and that's where we got our mail. And we always had a Navajo carry the mail for us. But no matter how drunk he was, he seemed to think that this mail was very important. He might stagger into the house and fall over, but he always brought the mail (laughs) which we thought was really great.

Cole: And that was at Star Lake?

Heflin: That was at Star Lake, uh-huh.

Cole: So how long was your family there?

Heflin: We lived there about a year-and-a-half, and then we moved over to--my dad bought a--he met somebody who wanted to sell their trading post over near Farmington, New Mexico, which was what we called Carson's now. And it was only thirty miles out of Farmington, so he decided that'd be a much better place to live, because we children had to go to school sometime, and it'd be easier to get us into school. My grandmother still lived in Farmington, so we could go and live with her in the winter and go to school. So that's why they moved back to the trading post nearer Farmington.

I was going to tell you about my uncle who used to travel back and forth between my Uncle Bob's place and Star Lake. One day he took us, we were going over to Ojo Encino--that's where my uncle lived--to visit him. We had a team of Navajo horses, and they were fine, as long as you could get 'em started. But if you ever stopped 'em, it was just too bad. Well, we got out about, say, twenty miles, and it was very sandy, and it was hot. So he felt very sorry for the horses, so he stopped 'em. Well, then he couldn't get 'em started. (laughter) And there we sat in the sand for I don't know how long before he finally got 'em to go again. (laughs) But we used to have that problem all the time….

Cole: When you were at Star Lake, how many brothers and sisters....

Heflin: I had one sister.

Cole: What was her name?

Heflin: Josephine--Jo.

Cole: So what kinds of things would you do as a small girl, growing up at the trading post?

Heflin: Oh, we'd walk out on the top of the hills. Then when we moved back to Carson's, there was a missionary lady came to live out there. When we were about, I guess I was eight years old--eight or nine--she used to teach us for two hours every day. My sister and I would go down there, and that's where we learned reading, writing, and 'rithmetic. I never went to school 'til I was twelve years old, and then I went to Farmington--went to public school, I mean.

 

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Cole: And then what did you do after [graduating high school]?

Heflin: I went on to Fort Lewis College, a small college near Durango, Colorado, which has now moved into Durango. And I went there for two years. And then I came back to the reservation and taught school for about a year-and-a-half. And then I married Reuben Heflin, who was a schoolteacher in Farmington.

He taught school for about, I guess, a couple of years, then we decided to go to a trading post--or my parents knew about a trading post that was for sale down at Oljato, and that was way over in Utah, about 135 miles from Farmington, which in those days was a long way out, because there were no bridges across.... The Chinle Wash then was a big arroyo and in the springtime it would flood and you couldn't cross it--nobody could cross it. Until we got a bridge across that, we had to go all the way around through Utah to get to Farmington, and that would be a trip of about 200 miles. And we had to bring most of our groceries we got out of Farmington at that time.

Later on, when we moved over to Shonto, which is another trading post, we got most of our supplies out of Flagstaff, because it was so much closer, and the roads were so much better. But we didn't have a great deal. As I said, we had coffee, syrup, flour, and sugar, and saddles and bridles. Sometimes we sold harnesses and sometimes wagons. And of course we always had canned tomatoes, canned peaches, and what else did we have in the way of fruit? Oh, chiles! We always had little chiles. The Indians liked those chiles. And let's see....

We bought Shonto from Mr. Rorick, who was married to a very wealthy lady, and I can't imagine how come. I guess she thought it'd be a big adventure to come out and live at a trading post. So she came out and lived there about a year, I think, and then she got up, she left. (chuckles) She wouldn't stay there any longer. So then he decided to sell the trading post. He didn't want to stay there either. He was an older man, and he wanted to get out of it, so he sold us Shonto Trading Post, which is down in a deep little canyon. It's very pretty down there. I think I mentioned this before, we could have a lawn down there. And that was a great thing, we enjoyed that very much. And we lived there for about ten years.

A lot of our trade came in from Navajo Mountain, which was a very isolated place. It was even more isolated than Shonto. They'd bring the wool in on burros. They'd bag it up and pack it on these burros and carry it in that way. There weren't any wagon roads--they didn't have any wagons. So they'd bring the wool in, in the spring, that way. Then my husband always had it re-sacked, because there might be rocks in the bags of wool, you never could tell. And it was full of sand, so you had to shake it all, clean it, and then re-sack it again.

Cole: Did you take chickens and stuff down there, too, at Shonto?

Heflin: We didn't have any chickens at Shonto because they had some kind of.... I don't know what they were--little black mites. And if you had chickens, they thrived on chickens, and then they thrived on you, and you didn't dare go to the chicken yard (chuckles) without disinfecting your clothes or taking a bath. So we didn't have any chickens down at Shonto. We had to buy our eggs in Flagstaff. But it was easier to get to Flagstaff than it was to Farmington, because at that time there was a paved road into Tuba City--or it was paved most of the way--and that made it much easier to get to Flagstaff. So we bought most of our supplies out of Flag then, from Babbitt Brothers. They had a big wholesale house in those days, and they supplied everybody.

And then when we moved to town to send the children to school, I thought Arizona schools were much better than New Mexico schools, so we moved in here to Flagstaff and sent our kids to school. We rented a place at first, and a little later on, this place was for sale, so we bought it from Mr. Houston, about 1945, I believe it was--somewhere along in there.

Cole: And how many children do you have?

Heflin: I have three daughters.

Cole: And were they all born at Shonto?

Heflin: Yeah. Well, they weren't born at Shonto. I went out to Farmington or wherever. Anyway, let's see, one's a computer programmer for the City of Phoenix, and the other one runs Burger Kings. She's got four Burger Kings she runs out on the reservation. And my youngest daughter has a candy store in Albuquerque, and her husband works for IBM. So they're all on their own and doing okay, for which I'm thankful.

Cole: And I should ask, how did you meet your husband?

Heflin: Oh. Well, let me see, how did I meet him? Oh, we went to the same high school. I really never knew him in high school, I met him later on through his sister, I guess. I used to go there with her for parties and things, and that's where I met him.

Cole: You said he was a schoolteacher but he became an Indian trader. (Heflin: Yeah.) Did you influence him on that? Or was that his own decision?

Heflin: Well, I expect I influenced him quite a bit. (chuckles) Anyway, I always liked the reservation, and he grew to like it very much. And he was very fond of the Indians, and they all liked him, and that was a big help. You have to like people, or you don't get along too well.

Cole: Describe Shonto for us, if you could.

Heflin: Well, Shonto was down in a deep canyon. And let me see, how many rooms? We had two bedrooms and a small room I used for a schoolroom, and a kitchen, and then a front room, which had a fireplace which smoked all the time. As I said, we had a lawn. And then across the lawn, about, say, twenty-five feet, he had built two bedrooms--one bedroom on either side of a bathroom. The bathroom was about half as big as this room. You can't imagine! We heated it with a wooden stove in the wintertime, which worked pretty good.

Cole: Did you have a well there, or was it just running water?

Heflin: No, we had a well. Actually, though, they had what they called a range rider who looked after, watched out for the Indians and got various things for 'em and so forth. So therefore, the government had come in and drilled a well, and it was fairly good water. That was a blessing, because the water at Oljato was not very good--very bad water, full of alkali.

Cole: I'm a little confused. Did you folks actually buy Oljato, or did you just lease it?

Heflin: Yes, we bought it. My dad helped us buy it. He loaned us some money so that we could make a down payment, and then we paid him back, so we actually bought it ourselves. And then we just bought Shonto from Mr. Rorick. We were able to do that. We sold Oljato to one of my cousins, Fred Carson, and so he moved out there and we moved over to Shonto and lived there for ten years. And then from there we moved over to Kayenta and bought the trading post over there from John Wetherill and his family. I lived there about, I guess, fifteen years. And after we'd lived there for a while, my husband decided to put in a small motel, because people would come in to stay at the Wetherills, and they didn't have room enough for them. So he put in a small motel of twenty rooms, up on the hill above us, and we ran that for about ten years, I guess. And then he built the.... When the highway came through in 19.... I guess it was about 1960, 1961, 1962, somewhere in there, then he built the Holiday Inn up on the highway, which was.... I think we had, what, eighty rooms or something like that. The Crowleys [phonetic spelling] had a small restaurant, and so they ran a restaurant. We didn't have to run that, which was a God's blessing. I lived out there until.... When did I come to town? About 1974 or 1976 I moved into Flagstaff. Sold the whole thing and moved into Flagstaff.


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Cole: To switch gears a little bit, if you could describe for us how--or if you were gonna describe to somebody that was unfamiliar with trading, how the Navajo-Anglo trade enterprise worked, could you explain that?

Heflin: Oh. Well, in the wintertime, a lot of the people came in and put their jewelry and whatever--bracelets, beads, belts--in pawn, and we gave them credit. They bought merchandise in exchange for that. We had to build a cement vault, and we kept the pawn in the vault. Then we would keep it there for them, and they'd come back in the springtime when they sheared their sheep and pay it off and take it out. Sometimes they'd leave it all year round because they said it was safer there. They didn't have anyplace to put it out in the hogan, you see--no vault or anyplace they could lock up. So a lot of 'em would rather leave it. And they'd come in and borrow it if they wanted to go to a sing or something. And the trustworthy ones, we let them take their pawn out and wear it to the sing and then bring it back. (chuckles)….

 

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Cole: When you were talking about removing the sheep, was that the 1930 reduction?

Heflin: Let's see, we were still down at Oljato. That was 19.... (pause) I guess that was about 19.... Probably about 1939, somewhere in there, when they were reducing all the sheep on the reservation because of the big dam down here at.... What do I want to say?

Cole: Lake Mead?

Heflin: Yeah, Hoover Dam is what I'm trying to say. All the sediment was washing and filling up Hoover Dam, so the Navajos would have to reduce their livestock. That was a very bad time for everybody.

Cole: So you were at Oljato when that happened?

Heflin: Yes.

Cole: What about weavers and artisans? Did you have....

Heflin: The weavers at Oljato weren't very good weavers. When we moved over to Shonto, there were many women over there who did very fine weaving. I think they had learned some of that from Tuba City people. I don't know whether the government had sent out somebody to help them weave better rugs or what, but anyway they did a better type of weaving, so we got better rugs over at Shonto than we did at Oljato. The rugs at Oljato were very poor quality--at that time. I think they've improved lately. Well, they're not doing that much weaving anymore--people don't have to weave. They can go out and get jobs, or they get welfare, and they don't have to weave. Weaving is hard work when you have to wash the wool, dye it, spin it. That's not easy. And then put up your looms, because you have to have a permanent place to put your loom. You can't take it down every few days and move.

Cole: So when you were out in that Navajo Mountain country, did you and your husband ever venture out onto Navajo Mountain yourself?

Heflin: No, we actually didn't go into Navajo Mountain, because the only way we could get in there would be with a pack outfit, or horses, and we didn't have any horses at that time to ride, so we didn't get into the Navajo Mountain area very much. It's full of deep canyons, and unless you know your way you'd get lost anyway.

And then when uranium mining came in, they employed some of the Navajos to mine the uranium, which was very dangerous, people found out later, and a lot of the Indians got very ill and died. They've closed up all those mines now, although I understand that the pits are still there. I mean, you could go and fall into it and get lost forever, I suppose.

Cole: Was that in the 1940s they were doing that, or the fifties?

Heflin: Probably 1950, when they were doing all that--yeah, about 1950.

Cole: What happened, do you recall when World War II broke out? Did a lot of the Navajos from your area....

Heflin: A lot of the Navajos from our area went out to work on the railroads. There were very few people who spoke English well enough in the area we lived in, to be drafted into the Army, but they were taken out to work on the railroad. My husband used to take 'em out and put 'em on.... Let's see, he took 'em to Flagstaff and put 'em on the train there, and then they'd send 'em to various places in the U.S. to work on the railroad. They got a lot of education, they learned a lot, because a lot of those people had never been off the reservation, you see. So that was a real experience for them. It was good.

Cole: Did that create change in the trading post?

Heflin: Yes, it did, to some extent. They came back and they wanted different commodities. Some of the foodstuffs were different. And I guess.... I was trying to think about what time they began to buy cars. My goodness! I guess after we moved over to--probably about 19 ... 57 or 1960, somewhere in there, they began to buy cars.

Steiger: Up until then, it was all horse and wagon and foot?

Heflin: Uh-huh, and foot--pack horse and wagon and foot, uh-huh.

 

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Cole: If you had to describe your favorite memories from the different posts you have lived at, do you have one or two you'd like to tell us?

Heflin: Well, I think my favorite memories at Oljato were seeing these people come in from Navajo Mountain with their donkeys laden with bags of wool. The poor little things were practically hidden. They would drive them in there, and we always had a hogan out there where they could spend the night. So they'd bring their wool in, unload the donkeys. My husband would weigh it up. Then they'd come in probably--they'd buy a few groceries that night, and then the next day they'd come in and spend the whole day trading, because that's where they bought, sometimes, almost a year's supply of stuff to take back to their hogans.

Cole: Why do you think you and your husband stayed in the trading business?

Heflin: I guess because we liked the Indians, we felt comfortable, and liked it out there. And we liked the area. Most people don't, but I did. (laughter) They think it's a dreadful place.

Cole: Do you have any Navajo friends that you see now?

Heflin: Well, my adopted son is a full-blood Navajo. I see his family off and on. I see his mother. You know, so many of my friends have died, I really don't have any left anymore, which makes me very sad, but that's the way it is when you get to be my age. (laughter)

Cole: What do you think the future of the trading business is?

Heflin: Well, like anyplace else, all modern stores, which they say is probably a very good thing. Basha's is out there now, and they have big grocery stores, quite modern, very nice. And that's fine. I think that's very good. I'm glad.