Tobe Turpen

Tobe Turpen

 

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My father [Tobe Turpen Sr.] got into the business. His sister married C. D. Richardson. They had all lived down in a little town in Texas outside of Fort Worth, named Alvarado. His older sister married Mr. Richardson, and Mr. Richardson had been out in this country and had been an Indian trader. Everybody in Texas was having a hard time making a living. They were kinda starving down on those little farms, so she brought her brother, my father, Tobe, out to teach him to trade.

He tells some rather interesting stories about his arrival. He came into Flagstaff and they put him on a wagon, and there was an Indian driver, a Navajo driver, and it took 'em a week to go from Flagstaff to Shonto. The Indian couldn't speak any English. So for a week as a boy about fourteen years old, he was in the wagon for a week getting there. When he got there, he was there a few days, and the trader--I'm not sure who the trader was, I suppose one of the Richardsons--said, "Tobe, I need to go to Flagstaff, so I want you to run the store." He said, "I can't run this store. I have just arrived and I don't know how to trade, I can't speak Navajo." "Well," he said, "this Indian helper we have here, he knows the prices, and he'll do the talking. All you have to do is just don't let everybody carry everything off. Just watch everything." So he said, "They left me there and they didn't come back for six months." He said, "That's how I learned the business. When they got back, I could speak fluent Navajo, and I just went from there."

I don't know how long he traded at Shonto. I spent some years.... I'll have to back up a little there. Then he went to the war. He went to World War I for a time, came back, and then married and came back to Shonto. I spent some early childhood days--I was born in Flagstaff. In those days, any time a lady was ready to have a baby, they had to go to Flagstaff because that was the only hospital. No matter how far it was, that's where they had to go. I suppose they could have gone to Winslow, but Flagstaff seemed to be the main town. (brief pause) He continued to trade there, and then he changed places. He went to Leupp for a while, and he went to a trading post called Blue Canyon, that is no longer in existence. It kind of sat out there between Tuba City and those Hopi villages.

He had a very tragic existence at Blue Canyon. The flu epidemic came--that great flu epidemic that everybody talks about. And his mother-in-law and brother were visiting from Texas, and the brother-in-law died from the flu epidemic. So he took the body to Flagstaff, and when he got back, which took him a week or ten days later, the mother-in-law had died. He spoke to me about that many times, how hard that was for a person his age to handle.

 


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I came into the business in 1946. I hung around the store a lot when I was a child, and I came in, in 1946. I came back out of the service, and I didn't know what my future was. I wasn't too anxious to go to school. I'd been at college for one year, and I wasn't real anxious to go back. So [my dad] asked me to come down and help him. I went down there, sort of reluctantly, 'cause it wasn't much of a store, it didn't look like much. He pulled the same thing on me they did on him. He said, "I need to go to Oklahoma and look after my sheep." And he didn't come back for six months! (chuckles) So there I am.

By that time I had really seen that there could be a future in the jewelry, especially--jewelry and the rugs--and I liked that. My dad was real good about leaving me alone. He didn't bother me, he let me make my mistakes. Over a period of time, I bought him out in about ten or fifteen years--probably about ten years. And then I transformed the store from a trading post into an arts and crafts store. The other was just too much. I never did see any profit in the sheep. When you buy sheep, you have to hire a herder, and you have to go out every night and make sure the herder's still with the sheep.

There was just all kinds of problems. Piñons, you'd buy piñons, and when it came time to sell 'em, the market had gone down. You buy wool, and you were at the mercy of a buyer, who came from Boston once a year to take the wool off your hands. By the time he got there, the price had gone down. I never saw any profit in that end of the business. Of course the reason that the old trader, like my father, ran it, is that they were just trying to help the Indian. The Indian had to have a place to get rid of those products. Times had changed, it wasn't that necessary. I didn't feel it was necessary for me to have to do that. There were other places that they could move their merchandise; life was changing for them, they were taking jobs.

And so we went into the Indian arts and crafts business. I stayed in that location for twenty years. The Highway Department took the location away from us, and I moved out south of town, a mile south of Gallup, and built a store. We are still in the business. I have spent now fifty-two years in it.

 

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[My dad] was very fluent, and very loved by the Navajo. He made a statement to me one time.... My dad went through life goin' broke. The only job he ever had was with Gross-Kelly. Other than that, he was always a private entrepreneur. But he was always goin' broke. He'd run it for a while, and then he'd go busted. He never took bankruptcy, he was a very proud man. He never did that, he always paid off. And I was just the opposite. What I made, I kept some of it, and wondered how much more I should have kept. And I asked him one day, "Dad how come you don't ever save money? I don't understand that." He was comin' to me again and sayin', "Listen, I need some financin', I want to open another store." And he'd come to me, and I said, "Dad, how come all these years you never saved money?" He said, "Because I know I can always make a livin'." And I said, "Well, what makes you think that?" And he said, "I can go anywhere where the Navajos are and make a livin'. From the minute I open that store, I'll make a livin' with 'em." I thought that was really an interesting thing to say.

 

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The reservation trader had pretty much of a different agenda than the Gallup trader, you might say. Another thing I might touch on a little bit is Gallup was the mecca. There was a good trader in Winslow, the Breckman [phonetic spelling] firm, Babbitt had a branch there. Farmington had a trader or two, but Gallup was the town that the Navajos loved, for whatever reason, so that's where the real traders were, at Gallup. The different agenda bein' that the reservation trader sort of had the Indian customer under his control. He lived within ten to fifteen to twenty miles.... Now, we're goin' back a long way, to where the pickup truck wasn't so popular and there wasn't near as much transportation. They had to come by wagon a lot of times. And that was the only place they traded. They didn't go from trading post to trading post, they weren't mobile enough. So that trader had that customer pretty well under control. He could give him credit and know that he was gonna get a rug, maybe a piece of jewelry. They weren't really very jewelry-minded--mostly rugs, sheep, piñons, cattle, something to pay their bill off.

The city trader was rather different. It got to the point where a lot of it was done on cash. Again, if it was done on credit, it was usually done because of the person was making jewelry. It was real easy to lose your credit. I mean, you give credit, and way back there was lots of losses, and that's what broke most of 'em. And then it changed. Then the government checks started coming for all these different subsidies. And again, the country trader was in control, even though the customer could move from store to store now, he's more mobile, they still knew him well enough that they realized that he just had to come back there.

And we didn't get many checks. The checks didn't come to town, they came out there, where they lived. I've been in those country stores where there'd be several feet on the wall of single-spaced names of Indians, and an amount up there, and that's how much that customer could expect every month, so that's how much he was allowed a certain percentage of that in advance on groceries, or whatever he wanted to buy. So there was a different agenda.

The country traders lived out there long periods of time, and they'd come to town. And I'll tell you this true story. The man would come to town, because usually he'd leave the wife there to run the trading post. Usually it was a husband and wife deal. And they'd come to town and they'd get drunk and they'd get on a party. Boy, Gallup was a big party town. There was open gambling, we had Las Vegas-type open gambling. There was everything in Gallup that a man could enjoy. And after about five days--I remember this as a child--the phone would ring, or someone would knock on the door. "Where's your dad?" "Well, he's here, just a minute." "Tobe? Bill's been gone for a week now. Go find him and get him the hell back out to the store." (laughter) And almost to the man they were that way. They were heavy drinkers and partiers, because boy, they were out there a long time, and when they got to town, they'd let it all hang out. So they were a different bunch--very interesting bunch of guys.

But, you know, overall, they were out there for a reason. They were out there to make a living, and it always worked down to the point where they were out there to take care of the Indian, too. I think, to a person, that that's the way it was.

And of course the Hubbells were just about the most famous, I guess. There may be some others I don't know about, but they were just tremendously famous. They had the store at Ganado, they had the store in Winslow, they had a store in Gallup, and they were educated people. They had college educations, where most of our traders, many of them probably never got through high school….

Cole: Would the in-town traders, like your father, when he was running the post, would they extend the same kind of credit as the reservation traders?

Turpen: They didn't extend it.... We didn't have any guarantee, because most of us didn't get a lot of checks. We might have got a few. We extended it on the strength of who the person was. And you had to give some credit. There just wasn't any way of doin' business unless you did.

 

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The [Gallup] Ceremonial was a great thing for us. The Ceremonial was the biggest thing in our life. We did as much business in four days as we did any other month. First, that monetarily was a great thing. But it was a great thing for the town. The people that put the Ceremonial together, put it together for the Indians. They didn't put it together for themselves. They didn't put it together to make money. They put it together as a celebration for the Indian. And then it worked. When it first started, the Indians came in to the dances, they started bringin' different dance teams in. They like to see each other dance. And they fed them. It didn't cost them anything to see the show. It was for them.

And then it became aware that this would be a good place to show arts and crafts. So they opened what we call an exhibit hall. It was a wonderful place. It was a great big old wooden building, sitting over there at the Ceremonial grounds where the stadium was. And the traders from the reservation and the traders from town would come in and show their wares and make beautiful exhibits. So it was really, really authentic. The public learned about it, the people overseas learned about it, and all of a sudden it became a pretty good-sized event for a little town.

We had a parade every morning at ten o'clock for the three or four days of the show; a rodeo in the afternoon; and the dances at night. And the dances were wonderful. All the Indian groups would come out on the field, and they'd have about six or eight big campfires all built. It was dark, there was no lighting, there was no cameras. It was just as authentic as it could be. And then each team stepped out and danced.

It has changed dramatically, as times have changed, as everything changes. Now there are no traders there. Now we have arts and crafts dealers that want to sell something retail for a few days. The arts and crafts and painting show is quite good. But it's changed very dramatically from what it was when I knew it. And it was just a wonderful celebration for the town. Everybody dressed in velvet costumes--the men, velvet shirts; and the women, squaw dresses. Just about everybody in town dressed. It was just a wonderful, wonderful event for people back then, because, of course, people weren't as mobile then. You didn't go to Albuquerque for lunch, and you didn't fly to San Francisco. You were in Gallup, and that's where you were gonna be, and that's where you stayed. It just united the people. I was on the Ceremonial Board for several years, and then president of the Ceremonial Association after I was in the business. Even then, we fed the Indians. I'm not sure what they do now. But then of course we started chargin' 'em to get in, so it's changed very much.

Another nice story about the Ceremonial. I was the president, and we had our committees, we had the food committee, the concession committee, the exhibit hall committee, and our sheriff was the head of feeding the Indians. He had a woman that ran a café that always did it for him. And so about the week before, I said, "How we doin' on gettin' the Indians fed?" "I think we're gonna be all right." I said, "What do you mean you think we're gonna be all right?!" He said, "Well, the guy that does the cookin', we always have trouble with him. He's a Mexican fella here, and he drinks a lot. We're not sure of him all the time." And I said, "Well, what are you gonna do?" "Oh," he said, "I'll take care of it. I'll arrest him about three days ahead of time, and then we'll let him out of jail when the Ceremonial starts, so he can do the cooking." (laughter) Nowadays, things like that aren't accepted, but that was a fact, then.

 


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Underhill: Why did you stay in it for fifty years?

Turpen: Oh, I loved it! I loved every minute of it. You know, there's always times when you.... Plus, it was very successful financially for me. But I just loved it. I went down there at eight in the morning and stayed until six in the evening almost every day, five days a week--six days a week, early on. I think the thing that makes it almost the most interesting were the customers. We had great, great customers, except early on when we had such a hard time sellin' that they weren't so great. But, you know, we finally.... I did something that worked out. When we moved our store, everyone said, "Why don't you open in the middle of town? Why are you goin' out there?" And I had already learned, because we were three blocks from the center of town, and when someone walked in our door, they had gone to the trouble of asking someone where they could buy a particular item, or where they could get a good deal, or whatever reason. When they walked in our door, they were almost pre-sold. And that's one reason I moved out there. I thought, "You know, we'll have the same thing." And that followed us over the years. People that walked in were usually ready to buy. If we had what they wanted and they were willin' to pay the price, we made a sale. And another reason I moved out towards town, was Zuni jewelry was becoming very popular and very competitive--very competitive for us to buy--and I wanted the first shot at 'em as they came into town. So that's the reason we went out of town. And today, it's kind of a drawback today. I think you'd be better off in the center of town today. The heart of Gallup moved over on the north side where that shopping center is. So we're kind of isolated now, it isn't as good as it was.

But the people we dealt with really.... And over the years we took everybody's check. I don't care who they were, we took their check. We ask 'em for identification or something. We never took a driver's license or anything, and we didn't lose a half a dozen checks in all those years. And we didn't get beat out of much money wholesale-wise either. Most of the dealers paid us too. So it was a good business from a lot of aspects.

And it was fun makin' the jewelry. Early on, a Zuni came in one time with a sun face. It was pretty good-sized, about two-and-a-half inches in diameter. It had the face, and it had rays around it like the sun. And I looked at that thing and I asked him to put it in silver. and he brought it back and the silver was real flimsy, it wasn't very good. I tried another Zuni, and he did the same thing. Zunis don't use much silver--they use very little silver in anything. So I had a Navajo mount it, and it mounted heavy and it came out really beautiful. I'll tell you, for about three years, I could not make enough of those things. I had about three silversmiths makin' 'em, and they could make about three or four a day, which doesn't sound like many, but that's a lot. And I had the point where I had maybe a hundred of 'em on display, and I had buyers come in and buy twelve, fifteen of 'em at a time.

Then when jewelry really got good--I'll give you another little story here that's one of my favorite stories. One of my biggest sales ever, quick. We were lookin' anywhere we could find Indian jewelry. I heard there was a young man out at Thoreau that had some silversmiths working. So I went out there and I said, "You have some squash blossoms? They tell me you're makin' squash blossoms." "Yeah, but none of 'em are for sale. They're all sold." I said, "Well, let me see 'em, maybe I'll get on your list." "Well, here's a sample." So he showed me one. Boy, it was really lousy. The [tonal?] stones were terrible, and the silver was terrible, and I said, "Gees, this is terrible." "Yeah," he said, "but they sell good." (chuckles) About that time, he said, "How many do you want to buy?" I said, "Well, after seein' those, I don't know, but I guess if I bought any, I'd buy a lot of 'em. It depends what the price [is]." He gave me a price and I said, "I'd buy a lot of 'em at that price." He said, "Would you buy a big paper sack full of 'em?" "Well, I might." So he came out with a great big paper sack like that, full of 'em. There was about seventy or eighty of 'em in there. And I bought 'em, and he said, "You gonna pay me cash?" I said, "Yeah, I'm gonna pay you cash." He didn't know who I was.

So I came back to town and the buyer from Fred Harvey came in, and those were sittin' there. "God, where'd you get these squash blossoms?!" "Oh, we've got a bunch of silversmiths working." (laughs) And he said, "Can I have some of 'em?" "How many you want?" He said, "You wouldn't let me have 'em all, would you?" "Well, as much as you buy from us, yeah, you can have 'em all. I've got 'em promised and everything...." And he bought those and gave me a nice profit in just one big transaction! (laughter)

And I made a sale one time, early on. A reservation trader came in with a bunch of.... He came in with a big stake body full of Navajo rugs. You know what a stake body is? Full of Navajo rugs. And he told my dad, "Your boy's tryin' to get in the rug business. I'll consign these to ya'." And they were all big rugs, six by eight, eight by ten, eight by twelves--rugs that were hard to sell. Dad said, "Well, you got nothin' to lose, son. Take 'em!" So I took 'em and I said, "Where do you sell these rugs like this?" He said, "Well, Fred Harvey buys 'em sometimes. That's about the only place."

So I cleaned those rugs up, I vacuumed 'em, they had mothballs on 'em, and I cleaned 'em and vacuumed and pulled 'em and straightened 'em and folded 'em nice, and worked for a lot of days. Finally one day I loaded my car up and took 'em over here [Albuquerque], and my dad came with me. He said, "I'll introduce you to these people. I don't think you're gonna sell any of those rugs, though." Well, I just hit 'em perfect, and I really had a good price on 'em. This guy started buyin' those rugs, and he bought about $1,500 worth, which today would be $200,000, I think. And when we walked out of there, my dad said to me, "Son, I want you to remember this day. That's the biggest rug sale, dollar-wise and size-wise you're ever gonna make in your life." Well, he was wrong on the dollar, but he sure wasn't wrong on the size. He said, "Boy, you hit a home run."