Stella Tanner

Stella Tanner

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Well, I was born at Kirtland, New Mexico….  I was born in 1906.  When I was about a year old, my parents lived with Grandpa McGee….  Grandpa, they called him Pappy McGee, and he had seven boys, and they always followed Pappy, all except two of 'em wouldn't go—the wives wouldn't let 'em.  And they went to Idaho to clear land.  And so we followed 'em up there, and my dad traveled with him until I was thirteen.  And then that's when we came back to Kirtland.  At first we went to Idaho, and then to Utah—Richfield—and done different things.  And then he and the boys ran a moving picture theater in Richfield, when they just had the kerosene lamps around to show the light.  And then he decided they'd go to Springdale, Utah, Zion's National Park.  So by that time they had four children.  We went up there, and there was no road at all, you know, going up to Zion's Canyon at that time.  We went in a covered wagon, all of us.  I can just see the horses today pulling 'em up over the heavy rocks.  And when we finally landed in Springdale, Pappy McGee, my grandfather, was already there with his wife and a couple of the others.  I remember so clearly that my mother got out of the wagon and looked all around, and she said, "Well, Elwood, all we need is a lid…" 

And then we were there for about three years, and Dad worked on the road, when it first started to be built up there to Zion's Canyon.  And then they left and went down to Harrisburg, Utah, and he just was a farmer then, and raised cane and made sorghum.

My mother was a Hunt, and her parents lived at—at that time they called it Jewitt Valley.  That's where Waterflow is now.  And they were the ones that was sent into Tuba City, pioneered into there—the Hunts, the Foutzes and the Tanners, and I don't know how many more.  But anyway, my mother's father was dying with cancer, so he sent my mother $500 to come home so he could see her before he died….

So we loaded up.  By that time there were seven children.  We loaded all our possessions in that covered wagon and we left the twenty-eighth of March, and we got in Jewitt Valley on the twenty-ninth of April.  It stormed on us every day of that trip.  Us older children would have to walk on the back of the wagon.

I was just about thirteen.  And so when nighttime would come, my dad would build a big bonfire and have us take our shoes off and dry the shoes and socks, and make us a great big kettle of Postum—hot Postum, to get us warm.  But that's how long it took us to come from Harrisburg, Utah, to Waterflow by covered wagon.

Cole:  And Waterflow was where again?

Well, it's between Kirtland and Shiprock.  At that time it was called Jewitt Valley.  Every day was an experience.  All of us kids never did get sick, all on that whole trip.  But that's how long it took us in that covered wagon to get there.

Comin' over the Salina Canyon, it really did snow on us, I remember.  And so we stayed at a cabin on top of the mountain.  It was empty there, along the road.  It had a fireplace in it, and we all got our clothes dried that night and stayed warm.  Then we finally got to Grandpa Hunt's place.  He had a big ranch there in Jewitt. 

And then I'll never forget my dear mother.  She hadn't seen her parents for about eight years, and how happy she was when they got there.  Then Grandpa Hunt died about six months after we got there.  Then he loaned my father another $500 to buy his little place there in Kirtland, New Mexico.  So that's where I finished growin' up.  That's where I met Chunky Tanner.

They used to have the biggest house there in Kirtland, and all of us kids that lived in Kirtland, we liked to go down there and play with the girls.  One day when I was about fifteen, I guess, Josephine, one of the girls close to my age, said, "Oh, here comes brother Chunky."  That's what they called my husband.  His name is Rulel Lehi Tanner, but he didn't like it.  Whenever we'd go down there, it was on a weekend, and I had real long hair and I could sit on it, and she always put it in ringlets for the weekend.  And Josephine said, "Here comes Chunky," and he'd been down to Mesa.  He came in, and I immediately fell in love with him, because he came up, took hold of one of my curls and said, "This is the one I'm waitin' for!"  Of course, I believed him.  (laughter)  It went on for about another year, and he got engaged to somebody else, and he came home when I was sixteen, on Christmas I'd be seventeen.  He had a falling-out with his girlfriend.  Vera Burnham was her name.  So he started goin' with me in November, and we were married in January, in 1924.

I'd just barely turned seventeen.  Chunky didn't have enough money for me to go to Mesa with him.  He had a job down there with the Lily Ice Cream Company.  So I had to wait a couple of months until he went down and earned enough money to put me on the train to go down.  In the meantime, I found myself pregnant with J. B. right away.  I went down there in March.  J. B. was born in August—he was a premature baby, only weighed three-and-a-fourth pounds.  Right in the heat of the summer, we didn't have any cooling system at that time, so we'd just wet a sheet in the bath tub and then roll up in it at night.

In the spring of 1925, his father wrote us a letter and said he wanted Chunk to come up to Gallup to help him sell turquoise.  He gave the turquoise to the Indians to make jewelry with.  So in the meantime we'd saved enough to buy a Model "T" Ford.  On the first of June we went up here.  J. B. was just a baby.  He was from August to the next June, about eight or nine months old, and I was just really lookin' forward to goin' up and showin' our baby to my parents.  We stopped in Gallup and spent a couple of days.  Grandpa Tanner—that's Joe Tanner, you know.  That's number one, isn't it?  Anyway, then we went on over to see my parents at Kirtland.  His brother-in-law, Willard Stalworthy, had a store down at Montezuma Creek, and he needed somebody to run that store.  So we traded our Model T Ford as a down payment on that.

That was the end of nowhere.….There was no road, only just about like the ones we traveled in to go into Springdale.  Got down there, and then had to turn the Model T back to Willard, and he drove it back.  He went down and followed us down.  Never seen a white person then for eight months.  Just sit right there.  The store was in pretty bad shape, but my husband was a real good Navajo talker, and he really built it up.  We got 1,400 head of lambs that first fall, in 1926.  He bought more lambs that year than he did before.  The Paiute Indians were down there at that time, and I remember how frightened I was of them at first.  But you know, those Indians became my best friends, and they're the ones that really taught me a little bit.  I'd follow Chunk around and I'd say, "What did he say?  What did he say?"  And he said, "Oh, get this girl to tell you what they said."  That's how you picked up the language, and I got to where I could tell 'em how much stuff was, and just gradually learned the language.

Cole:  Was that Navajo or Paiute?

Navajo.  But of course my husband was a very fluent speaker, just like his father was.  So we were there for two lamb seasons.  That's how they did way back there.  They'd have two pay days:  wool season and lamb season.  And the traders would carry 'em on the books.  And then when they'd make a rug, they didn't make these real fancy rugs then, but they'd bring 'em in and the trader would tell 'em how much they were worth, you know, and write it down on a paper bag.  They'd buy one thing at a time.  And after they'd buy one thing, why, they'd have to know how much they had left.  And then it would just take 'em all day to trade out that rug, because they liked to come into the trading post in their wagons.

We used to buy the rugs by the pound back then, because they didn't have the real fancy designs.  They had some, but not real good ones.  But in the fall of 1926, we went out with the lambs.  That's the only time we left the trading post, is when we delivered the lambs into Farmington, New Mexico.  By that time I was pregnant with my second boy, so when we got in there with the lambs that year, Willard Stalworthy said, "Well, I've gotta have you out to Tsaya.  I'm gonna sell you a half-interest in Tsaya.  You've heard of Tsaya?  It's between Farmington and Crownpoint.  Why they call it Tsaya, it means "water under the rock."  There's a big cave out there.

And so we went out there in 1927, and bought half-interest in that.  We were there for about eighteen years.  Finally I had all my children except....  But during that time, the first two years we were there, the grass was so high....  Did you cross the reservation last year?  Did you see all the flowers between Gallup and Shiprock?

….The first two years we were at Tsaya my husband ran 1,500 head of ewes, leased from government land, along with the trading post.  And that's some of the pictures that I have of Tsaya that I'll get for you.  Maybe I'm goin' too fast.

Cole:  No, you're fine.

After about the third or fourth year, the grass began to—we didn't have any storm, and the sheep began to have trouble with their feed and everything.  I think it was about in 1929, I remember my husband saying, "All these expensive sheep...."  He paid eight dollars a head for 'em, when we bought in.  And then the lambs dropped down to three cents a pound that year, in 1928 or 1929—delivered in Kansas City.  (chuckles)  And so we began to really having to be—went really in debt, you know, because we still owed a lot on the sheep.  Then in 1932, why, the ground—there wasn't any feed anywhere.  So the government came in and they had the traders, all of them, cut down—and the Navajos, too—on all their herds, and they'd run 'em into these canyons and just slaughter 'em, because there was no feed for 'em.  I'll never forget what a terrible ordeal that was for my husband.  It was hard on everybody.

Cole:  Did they take all the sheep, or just a certain amount?

They just cut 'em down to where they'd have—they were allowed so many.  But going back to the trading post, he ran the ewes each year or two, along with the trading post.  In those days they didn't pawn like they do today.  They'd come in and start to pawn a little bit.  That's the first recollection I have of pawn, is they'd bring a bracelet or beads or something in, and Chunk would tell 'em how much they could have on it.  Then he'd roll it up and put it in a paper bag and put it just in a drawer.  We didn't have too much pawn.  We carried it mostly on the book from one season to the other. That was in 1932 when the Depression started, you know, when all that happened. 


Cole:  What was Montezuma Creek like when you moved out there? 

Like I said, that was the end of nowhere, as far as I was concerned.  The only way you could get any freight in or anything, was in big wagons.  I remember I'd watch over that hill, when I thought there was going to be a load of freight comin' in, which would only be about once every two months.  You'd see that team of wagons comin'.  It just seemed so good to be able to see somebody.  And then one time we hadn't seen any white people for I don't know how long.  There were a couple of men who came down to try to buy cattle.  So we were glad to see them.  They came and stayed there at the store.  The Indians were happy to see 'em too, but this one....  The store was full of Indians one day, and Chunk had told 'em all to bring their steers in if they wanted to sell 'em—which they didn't have only one or two of 'em, each family, I guess.  I remember the store was full of Indians, and this one guy was talkin', and the Indians were all lookin' at 'em, 'cause they were talkin' English and they couldn't understand 'em.  This one guy, he had false teeth, and this one Indian was just starin' in his face.  (laughter)  And so he reached up and got his teeth and just [clicked them in his hand].  Of course they were really superstitious, and they thought the chiinde had had 'em for sure.  (laughter)  Boy, nearly everybody in the store cleared out of there in a hurry for a little while.  (laughter)  That was really funny.


Goin' back to Montezuma Creek, and goin' back to J. B.:  He was premature, born at seven months.  My neighbor gave me a great big bottle of castor oil that I felt like I needed.  She gave me the whole eight ounces, and that's what brought everything.  But anyway, he never seen a well day.  We had to feed him with an eye dropper for the first two weeks when he was born, because he couldn't nurse or anything, and when he'd cry, he sounded just like a little mouse.  Anyway, when we went down to Montezuma Creek, he was very ill all the time.  Chunk was telling this medicine man about his little sick baby.  And so one morning after he'd told him that, we heard a loud noise out in front of the store and the blatting of—I knew it wasn't a lamb, because it sounded different, and it was a goat.  Chunk went and opened the door for him, and it was this old medicine man stood there.  He had this milk goat, and he said to him, "Now, you give your baby this milk from this goat, and he'll get well," because he had diarrhea so bad he couldn't hold anything down.  And from that day on, then he started to gettin' better.  So I've always thought an awful lot of the medicine man, because I feel like he saved my oldest son's life with that.


Cole:  When you were either at Montezuma Creek or at Tsaya, did you actually do trading yourself ever?

Well, I didn't when I was at Montezuma Creek.  I baked bread for every day, about twelve.  We had an old wood stove, and I'd bake the bread and the Indians would stand around waitin' for that bread to come out of the oven, and we sold loaves of bread.  And I made the cookies for the store, because like I said, we only got supplies in about every two months.  And so we had to make the bread and cookies that they bought.  I made their skirts, sewed them up.  We had a machine, and I'd charge 'em so much for sewin' up a skirt.  They'd buy a new skirt and put it right on over the top of the old one.  They didn't have the day schools until, oh, we'd been at Tsaya, I guess, about ten years before the day schools started to be built.  Built some beautiful ones there across the Chaco Canyon from Tsaya….

Cole:  Was [the sewing machine] powered by generator, or by hand?

No, it was a treadle.  It was already there when we went down there.  Whoever was there before us, Jess Stalworthy was a half-brother to Willard, and I guess he must have left it there.  I made lots of Indian skirts there.  It took about twelve yards.  They'd buy the material, and then I'd charge 'em about a dollar for sewin' it up.


My husband was always a promoter with everything.  When he was young, Grandpa was going to be gone for a week, and they had this yard that had all kinds of rocks in it.  She said, "I don't know what I'm going to do with that Chunky Tanner this summer.  He's driving me crazy!"  Grandpa said, "Leave that to me."  So he called Chunky and he said, "See all these rocks out here?  I want 'em all cleaned up.  I'll give you twenty-five dollars to have this all cleaned up when I come back next week."  Boy, that sounded like a lot of money to Chunk.  He said, "Okay," and went a couple of days and he didn't do anything.

Mother Tanner got after him.  She said, "I thought you told your dad you were going to clean this all up."  He said, "I am!"  And she said, "Well, when?!"  And he said, "Well, starting in the morning."

And she said the next morning she was wakened at daylight, all this noise of shovels and wheelbarrows and kids a-hollerin'.  She went outside and Chunk was in the middle of the yard, and he was directing all these other kids how to do everything.  By night, he had it all done.  He paid them so much, and he had the rest.  (laughter)  He was a promoter.  That's why Chunk always had the kids movin' gravel.  (laughter)  My boys, if they'd get doin' something he didn't like, he'd say, "I want all this gravel out here moved over here."  And they'd do it.  And then he said, "When you get that done, you can go play."  And so they'd do it, and they'd say, "Well, Dad, we got it all done."  He'd say, "Okay, now smooth it out."  (laughter)  That's what kept 'em busy and learned 'em how to work.