JB Tanner

JB Tanner

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My nickname was Buddy.

I should mention this.  When I was born, Dad wanted to name me after my grandpa, Joseph Baldwin, and Dad said, "Hell, he's too little to put that on him."  But Joseph Baldwin's front initials is J. B., so that's how I got my name, J. B., because I wasn't big enough for Joseph Baldwin.  But at any rate, when I was in the service, I had a hell of a time there, gettin' by.  They wanted me to be John or Jim, keep the "B."  But no, I wouldn't do it.  They finally put "I.O." on my dog tags, "initials only."


When Mom and Dad got married, you would have thought that he would have been on the reservation at some store.  But they moved to Mesa, and I wouldn't be here to talk to you if they hadn't of, 'cause I was born premature.  I only weighed about three-and-a-half pounds.  That was August 24, 1924, that I was born.  They had to feed me with an eyedropper and put me in an incubator, which they had down in Phoenix, and they didn't have it here in Farmington. So God works in mysterious ways, even back then.  That's when I was born, and I was born in Phoenix, Arizona.

Cole:  Who were your parents?

Rulel [phonetic spelling] Tanner, better known as Chunky Tanner; and Stella McGee Tanner.  They both belong to the Mormon Church, the LDS Church.  Her brothers and my dad's brothers, the whole families participated in one way or another, dealing with the Navajo people.  And after we were--I think I was two-and-a-half years old, I'm not sure on that--they moved back up here and Progressive Mercantile put Dad out here at Montezuma Creek.  And I was sick from the day, all that time I was in Phoenix, and I just barely stayed alive.  That was another miracle.  At Montezuma Creek, there was a medicine man down there.  Dad and Mom told him that I was born premature and all this and that, and he said, "I'll fix it."  So he brought 'em a milk goat.  He said, "Feed him this goat milk instead of whatever it is you're feedin' him, and within a month he'll be all right."  And sure enough, it worked.  So I guess that goat's milk was pretty powerful.

But that's where they come from, Mesa, and was here and operating this Progressive Mercantile down here at Fruitland.  It was a wholesale warehouse.  They owned several stores on the reservation, and they put various guys on it and give 'em a chance to buy 'em.


Dad first went to Montezuma Creek and was there two years and done real well.  Progressive Mercantile bought Tsaya, over here on the road to Crownpoint from Farmington.  That's a paved road now, but back then it was just two tracks.  They had 5,000-6,000 head of sheep and a trading post, and they wanted Dad to go out there and run, 'cause he had done so good at Montezuma Creek.  My dad, as I started to go with him, I was so small that it was hard--he didn't want me to be self-conscious that I couldn't do anything.  So he managed to come up with some of the darnedest jobs.  He'd just come up and tell me to go do this, whatever it was.  He knew I'd figure out how to do it.

The Navajo business was Mom, she more or less with the guy that Dad had there at the store--they run the store.  He and I took care of the sheep and all the Navajo sheepherders moved camp and all.  So to get me to have confidence in myself--that's what I meant, that he'd give me these odd jobs.  For instance, my brother Bob was two years younger than I, and he was even a little taller than I was, because I got such a bad start.  So he said, "Take that hay wagon and go load those corner posts," big cedar poles.  Back then you had to have a stretch post, they called it, and then when the fence turned, that was a corner post.  But in between, you'd have to have stretchers, I think, just about every hundred yards or so.  He said, "You can tell, when you get them loaded, where the big holes are.  That's where you drop these..." and Brad, there was no way that two kids could load those.  Those posts were just too big.  So he come into me right quick.  I said, "Bob, unhook that white horse and put it goin' around on the other side, left side, of the wagon."  While he was doin' that, I got one of these small  poles and pulled it around there.  When he got the horse over there, he come over and helped me put that small end up on the wagon.  Then we done another post, about that far apart, and put it up.  Then we took this rope and the skids were here, and a big sack here, and we skidded 'em all up on there.  It was real simple, it worked, (chuckles) got 'em all on.  And then when we come to these places he wanted 'em dropped, it was easy to roll 'em off, and just roll one off.  Every time Dad would get a chance, he'd tell that story.  He said, "Those damned kids would figure out anything!"

Granddad, he noticed when I was talkin' to the Navajo kids alone, I was the oldest in the family, so it was kinda hard, 'cause they couldn't talk English.  But when my Granddad seen us havin' trouble learnin', bein' as we couldn't talk back and forth, and tell 'em, "Oh, this means that.  Yá'át'ééh means 'hello,'" and so forth... he asked Dad if he could take me to Bisbee.

My Granddad was known for the best turquoise that was ever mined.  It was down at Bisbee, and I don't know whether you guys have seen any Bisbee turquoise now, that come out of that copper mine that was down there.  That's where turquoise come from, is in your copper mines.  It's zinc and copper mixed, if it got to a certain temperature, everything erupted, and turquoise come in pockets.  That Bisbee mine produced some of the prettiest spider web and blue, and then there was some green.  But we'd go down there to his mine--he had a mine separate from, that he went back into a hill there, before that copper mine was even started, then was able to get more of it.  But we'd bring the turquoise back to Santo Domingo, between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and leave a bunch of turquoise there in the rough, and they would cut 'em and grind 'em, you know.  Then white people make a choker out of 'em.  Most of those have been one time or another, like Dad pawned, and most of 'em's gone, but you'll see some of these Navajo still wear some of those old Bisbee [pieces].

But while we were doin' all that, then we'd go to Zuni and leave turquoise there, and silver, so that they could make Navajo-type jewelry for him, particularly belts and bigger bracelets.  And then we would go back to Crownpoint and then down to White Rock where he stayed.  He had quite a few Navajo silversmiths from Crownpoint all the way over to Bisti and Tsaya.  They would make up jewelry.

Once we got this cycle goin', and all this time he's talkin' Navajo to me.  In a matter of six months, I started to learn pretty good.  I never will forget, I wasn't big enough to do anything hardly, and wherever the sun went down, he'd stop that pickup and get the bedrolls out, and we'd just have supper and go to bed.  And then just before daylight, he'd let a holler out of him, for me to get up, in Navajo, and make his coffee, "Nídii'néehgo ahwééh shá 'ánílééh!"  And that's what that means, "Get up and make my coffee!"  (laughter)  So I look back on it, it's really amazing how all this stuff happened.


So then it was gettin' goin' with him on about three years, on that turquoise thing.  It wasn't a continuous thing.  Whenever he was ready to make the run, and then each time we'd pick up jaclas after that first one, they'd have stuff for him each time.  Then we'd go to Window Rock and out here at Crystal, where Chee Dodge lived.  And we'd always give Chee Dodge the first pick--spread it all out there and him and his family would pick out what they wanted.  And then we'd just trade all over for horses and sheep and cattle.  Then we'd drive 'em off at Newcomb's, come across around Newcomb, Sheep Spring, and bring 'em over to White Rock.  And then he'd start 'em up and we'd take 'em on up through and ship the cattle and ship the lambs.  But he'd rather do that, than stay in the trading post.  Before I was born, one of his kids or something, why, he was down here at Shiprock, and here at Hogback.  And then he got that homestead he had at White Rock.  He wanted that, because there were silversmiths out in that area, to do what I just talked about.


[Just before starting the Navajo Shopping Center at Gamerco, which had a large assortment of merchandise and paid cash on the spot for trade goods.]

I had twenty dollars in my pocket.  I loaded Lorraine and the kids up.  Sherry, she was born while we was there at Ganado, so she was just a baby, and John wasn't born then.  We got in and we got a room at the motel, had breakfast the next morning.  I'll tell it this way, I had a dollar eighty-five left....  That paid the motel and breakfast and supper that night.  The next morning I got up.  I had paid Pete Videll the first and last month on the lease[for Keam’s Canyon Trading Post], $600, and I drawed it out of Keam.  So I don't know whether you know where Gross- Kelly's used to be, the wholesale house.  It was there on the one-way street goin' out old triple six [Highway 666], and then on over the other one, Gallup Mercantile was on the other one.  Comin' in, it's a one-way street, and it turned across those bridges.  Well, I met my brother Jerry, and he had a store at Kayenta.  He was killed later in a plane crash...  D. B. Clark had had the flyin' service in Gallup...  But [Jerry] said, "C'mon, let's go have some coffee." ….I told him what I was up against.  I said, "Whatever you can come up with will help."  He said, "Well, I can write you a check for $2,500.  I know it ain't much, but," as he put it, "it'll give you walkin'-around money while you're puttin' the bigger money together."  I said, "But you don't know how I appreciate that, 'cause I just got $1.85 left."

….That night I went out and seen a guy by the name of Bernie Vanderwagon [phonetic spelling].  I knew he was one of the biggest sheep buyers at that time--him and Tobe Turpen.  But Tobe was sick, or I'd have went to him.  But he was sick and down in Tucson--pneumonia or something….  I went out and seen Bernie, and I told him, "We can start buyin' ewes and lambs..."  this was the first of August...  “Bernie, just buy any damned thing they bring in, no matter what it is, at a price that we can both make some money on.  You let me make some money, and I'll let you make some money."  So he said, "Well, we can talk about this later," but he wrote a check out for $5,000, and he said, "This'll get you started."  He didn't have any idea whether it'd be....  I told him, "You'd better damned sure come to town in the morning by noon, because this won't last very long."

But he give me the five, and I had that $2,500.  I let Don take $2,000 of it, I think, if I remember right, and….buy lumber to start making shelving and make a supermarket-type in this quonset building.  And then we built steps up to the scales, over in the livestock building in the back, and put a vault on each side--one for the bookkeepers on one side, and pawn on the other--and then put these homemade shelving deals.  Don done a hell of a good job on that. He checked California supermarkets .... He really done a good job. 

I think it was about September 10, Bernie had everything covered.  He had a lot of grazing land out towards Zuni, Whitewater and in there…. Finally, he got some lamb buyers and we started to rotatin'.  He'd sell some.  We managed to get some cash flow comin' back just before they buried it.  And this D. B. Clark that I mentioned... Jerry--they went into the side of the mountain out there and killed both of 'em...  But D. B. Clark loaned me quite a bit of money later in September.  And Fred Capigia [phonetic spelling] that owned the Pepsi-Cola plant was a financier.  I had four of 'em…. Uncle Don [Tanner], Colin's dad, --I called him, and he come over--I told him, "I need to stock these shelves that [we’re] gonna build here."  He always had a habit of rubbin' his forehead.  You just had to let him go through his procedure...  He always liked to lay down on the couch when you were tellin' him a deal.  So I knew that, so I had a couch on the left.  I said, "Come on over here, Uncle Don.  I've showed you everything.  Here, lay down on this couch."  He said, "Well, it's gonna take quite a bit to stock this.  This is a big store."  I said, "Well, it'll take $30,000, at least."  That was a lot of merchandise back then.  And he said, "I haven't got that much loose money.  And it's wheat time, I'm buyin' all this wheat from the farmers, and I'm committed on it."  I said, "Well, Henry Polacca believes in me.  But due to [my recent involuntary bankruptcy], he can't jump in..."  Kind of had me between a rock and a hard place.  I said, "The reason I got you over here is to guarantee him.  You don't have to come up with any money, you can just guarantee me."  He said, "Well, I'll just go tell Henry to give you the [advance].  It'd be $40,000.  As I bring the flour to him, he don't pay me, he just credits.  I'll pay him off with flour," because he furnished all the trading posts, see.  Well, that stocked it.

Within six weeks....  (laughs)  This is the fifteenth of September.  Within six weeks, with $1.85, Don and I had [the Navajo Shopping Center] stocked and ready to go….

And I mean, when that thing took off, it was unbelievable.