Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Tesla and the T


The story is often told of Oen Edwin Noland, who in the 1880s, decided to start a trading business on the lower section of the San Juan River. His idea was to trade with both Navajo and Ute customers, and his chosen location was not far from the present-day Four Corners Monument. Being down on his luck, Oen saddled up his pony and proceeded to the newly formed mining town of Durango, Colorado. There he was introduced to Ed and Pete Schifferer, co-owners of a successful general merchandise store. Upon entering their enterprise and announcing himself to Ed and Pete, Oen made a declaration. "I want $10,000.00 worth of merchandise, but I'm broke." At that point, the brothers began to wonder whether Oen was crazy or just a little unwell. Having determined he was in fact sane, they made a proposal; they would give Oen the goods if he took out a life insurance policy in the amount of $35,000.00, naming them beneficiaries. The policy would insure Oen's earthly existence and remain in effect until his financial obligations were fully satisfied. "Deal," Oen replied, and he promptly set about obtaining the necessary documentation. Apparently, the shrewd businessmen considered it pretty good odds Oen would not last long enough to satisfy the debt and their investment would therefore return a handsome profit.

Oen's post opened in 1884 or 1885. At that time, Ute and Navajo people were not necessarily congenial to white folks or to each other, and Ed and Pete must have concluded Oen would meet his maker sooner rather than later. To them, the return was surely worth the risk. With a lesser man, the Schifferers might have collected on the policy, but Oen was not one to panic in the face of danger and always managed to maintain good trading relationships. In fact, due to his unwavering courage and eternal fairness, Oen became so deeply respected by local tribesmen that Navajo people called him Ba’dani, son-in-law. The debt was duly paid.

The other day I was peddling my bicycle south towards Bluff when I arrived at Mile Post 31. This marker is just before the rolling hills that indicate I am only five miles from home. As I approached the uprising, a Model T crested the knoll and made a quick turn back towards town. A few days earlier, Jamie Olson, artist extraordinaire, had been talking about launching his Jon Boat downriver to find the remains of Noland's store. As a result, during my ride that evening I had been considering Oen and his involvement in the history of southeastern Utah trading posts. Within seconds of the T turning immediately in front of me, a brand spanking new Tesla Model X sped by going north. Grange is fascinated by Elon Musk, Tesla's founder, so I have closely followed the company’s development. The Tesla was quiet as a ghost; the T, not so much. The old Ford chugged and burped along, and despite only being on a bicycle, I almost caught up to it. There, right before my sweat-encrusted eyes were two symbols that exemplified the automobile industry’s evolution over the past century.

The confluence of Oen's history and the appearance of the distinctly different cars started me thinking about trading posts, in general, and the future prospects for Twin Rocks Trading Post, specifically. William W. "Duke" Simpson, our father, acquired the Twin Rocks real property in the mid-1980s and subsequently declared that he, like Oen almost 100 years earlier, desired to establish a trading post on the banks of the San Juan River. As with the Schifferer brothers and Oen, many wondered whether Duke was crazy or just a little unwell. Like Oen, Duke was indisputably sane. Thirty years after the Kokopelli doors swung open for business, most of those questioning Duke's sanity have had to admit he was fully competent. Notwithstanding that conclusion, there are times Barry and I still debate Duke's logic. We have, however, come to accept our fate as individuals charged with seeing the vision through to completion.

Early trading posts generally provided food, livestock supplies, clothing, tobacco, coffee, cooking utensils, and other necessities to the Native populations they served. That economy was primarily barter and travel was difficult. In time, hard currency and reliable transportation arrived on the reservations and most of the early posts went broke, closed, or evolved into convenience stores or art galleries. Few historic locations still exist. When Twin Rocks Trading Post opened in the fall of 1989, there was serious discussion about its mission. Like Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Twin Rocks is 100% family owned and operated---and argued over from its inception.

Jana's father, John Kennedy, an old "Indian trader" himself, lived to 103 and saw the world change from horse and wagon to space exploration and the Internet. John was in Zuni early on, trading with the well-known entrepreneur C. G. Wallace. While he came through much later, and only lived to age 85, Duke took a similar path. Both men experienced massive, structural changes to this industry. They lived through the boom times of the 1970s, when anything Native American was in high demand. They even participated in the creation of trading's modern era, and also witnessed the Great Recession of 2008. That economic collapse had devastating effects on Southwestern artists and Native art, indelibly changing the business.

Barry and I often consider Duke's trading legacy and attempt to evaluate how it affects our decision-making processes. Sometimes, Bishop Marx Powell comes by to participate in the discussions. Marx isn't a real bishop. He is, however, Mormon and has good advice from time to time. Consequently, Barry awarded him the honor. Not that Barry has authority to entitle Marx, but it makes the two of them happy and that seems to be the most important consideration. My experience is that Marx's recommendations are generally viable only when it comes to heavy equipment, construction, or excavation, otherwise, I remain skeptical. Marx's dad was also an Indian trader, working on the Navajo reservation at Black Hat and Yah-ta-hey. So, if Marx is involved in the conversations, we have generations of hard-luck tales to consider.

When the discussion turns to Twin Rocks Trading Post, we know that, in all too many ways, Barry and I hew to the obsolete Model T business model. Lately, however, we aspire to be a Tesla. Consequently, we have decided to make ourselves into the "Trading Post of the 21st Century." We just don't yet know what that means or how to achieve the goal, so we schedule regular convocations to explore the possibilities. During one of our recent conclaves, a family from New Zealand came by to visit. The father, a tall, powerful man clad in expeditionary garb, explained that his GPS had gone rogue and directed his team to our location. Priscilla thought that might be a viable long-term strategy; if we can only get enough devices to glitch, we might find ourselves in the pink. She suggested we call the Russians for advice. No one seems to have their telephone number, so we tabled that approach for the time being. We have to admit that at present we have more confusion than conclusion.

Marx recently reminded us that the most dangerous time to be a pedestrian on the streets of New York was when the city transitioned from horse and carriage to automobile. Many lost their lives, and others were permanently injured or seriously maimed during the transformation. "We must be careful not to endanger our customers," Priscilla has cautioned. In this age of acceleration, however, we can't risk being left behind. Change is never easy, so buckle up. This may be a bumpy ride.