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El Morro Valley, New Mexico Where Dreams Take Wing and Fly Living Along       The Ancient Way

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From the Northern University Arizona Oral History Project



I was born in Ramah, New Mexico-that's about fifty miles south of here-August 6, 1919. I grew up in Ramah, went to school there. My family had a farm and a boarding house, and I knew about farming and ranching, because that's what my family did. We had a little log school that I went to, first grade. That was the first schoolhouse in Ramah, New Mexico. Then in the boarding house, we raised everything on the farm that we used in the boarding house. About the only thing we didn't raise on the farm, like coffee and sugar and salt, we had to go to the local trading post, and there were two of those at the time: Ramah Trading Post and the Bond Trading Post. My mother traded with both of 'em, because they all bought milk and butter and eggs and things from us. My mother took in boarders and roomers, and mostly that would be schoolteachers and tourists, salesmen, things like that. As I recall, back then board and room was fifty cents per meal and fifty cents per bed. And you got everything you could eat, including fresh butter and milk and eggs and homemade bread and cakes and all those kind of things.


I worked on the farm all the time and didn't like it very much, and the older I got, the less I liked it. Ramah only had three years of high school, and you had to go away to school to get your fourth [year], to graduate. So at that point I went to Gallup, should have gone to Gallup to graduate, and Dick White from Fort Wingate Trading Post came out and interviewed me and asked me if I would go to work for him in the trading post. He and I signed an agreement, and I still have that agreement. (Cole: Really?) It was signed in July of 1938. Then I went back to the farm from graduation-I would have gone back to the farm. But anyhow, he asked me if I would go to work for him, and I didn't have any money, and I didn't have anyplace to go, so I agreed to go work for him at twenty-five dollars a month and my board and room.


So I went to Fort Wingate, and his wife happened to be my older sister, May White. I worked in the trading post for about three or four months, and I had to catch a bus to Gallup to school every day-that was about fifteen miles-and didn't have time under the circumstances, to play football or basketball. I didn't like the job: I had to milk cows and stock the store, and he was a pretty hard trader-I could see that from the very beginning. I didn't have any money, so if I wanted a Coke, he would put it on the bill, but it would cost me-Cokes then were a nickel-and it would cost me ten cents on the bill. So I didn't like that very much.


I finally decided that I wasn't going to do that, and I told him I was going to quit. That was after about two months, and I went to Gibson, New Mexico. There's no such a town now, but that was a mining town north of Gallup about three miles. So I stayed with my brother and sister-in-law there, and helped him with his chores. Then I would run across the mountain, which was about three miles away, to go to Gallup to play football and basketball, and that kept me in shape. So I then graduated from Gallup and intended to go to Mesa, Arizona, to go to college with a football scholarship. And by the way, that was the first year I ever played football. Ramah was small and didn't have a football team or anything like that-they had a basketball team. We threw and kicked the football and just played football. When I went to Gallup to go to school, I went out for the football team and made first string and actually played on the first game that I ever saw in my life, because Ramah didn't have any team at all. But anyhow, after graduation, I went back to Ramah and I worked about a month with my dad, and I had lots of ideas then, that I didn't like farming near as much, and I wanted to go someplace that I could make a little money and do something besides farm and see the rear end of a horse.


I told [my dad], "You know, since I've grown up, the only thing I've ever seen about a horse is his rear end," because, you know, you plow and you do everything from the rear end of a horse. He said, "Well, you do whatever you want to do." And so we were plowing one day and I said, "Dad, I don't like this." We were plowing with one horse and I was holding the plow and he was riding the horse. I said, "Let's go hook up three horses and I'll do all the plowing myself." So he said, "If you don't like the way I'm doing it, you can go ahead and do whatever you want to." I said, "Yeah, I'm going to leave today." So I went and jumped the fence and went down home. And of course in Ramah, New Mexico, then, there was no running water, there was no heat, and no electricity, and I had to heat water on the stove, and took a bath in a number three tub and put on my best hand-me-down clothes and went downtown and luckily I caught a ride to Gallup that same afternoon, and by five o'clock that afternoon, I was officially signed up to the Marine Corps.


We had to go to Denver, Colorado, to take physicals and finish everything out. We were in the back of a pickup-five of us-and we got to Santa Fe that same night, late. When I left home, I only had fifty cents in my pocket. Of course fifty cents in those days was a lot different than it is today, because a nickel would buy a Coke, and a nickel would buy a hot dog. And so that wasn't too bad. But we got to Santa Fe and the Marine sergeant had forgotten his chit book. It was the month of July, fairly warm, so he didn't have any money and none of us had any money, so he said, "Well, fellahs, we're gonna hafta sleep in the park tonight." That was all right with us, so we all bedded down in the park, and pretty soon the police came by and said, "You can't do that." And he told 'em the circumstances, and the policeman said, "Well, I have an idea. We'll let you sleep in the police station, and they'll give you breakfast in the morning, and this certainly won't go onto your records." And that's what we did, we went and slept in the jail that night and they fed us breakfast the next morning and sent us on our way to Denver. We took our physicals in Denver and then shipped to San Diego, California.


Within the next year, I was at Pearl Harbor. I stayed there until the Japanese came. I was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bombed, and they extended my tour of duty four-and-a-half years. I'd have been paid off in about six months when they came along. So during the war I went to officers' school and spent about five years out in the Pacific. I came back to the States and went to officers' school and then spent some more time in the Pacific, and came back to the United States and trained men and were boarding a ship to go for the landing on Japan, when they declared the war over. President Truman had dropped his two bombs, then the war was over by then. So we de-boarded the ship and unloaded our men.


We then had to decide what we were gonna do. I heard that the trading post at Fort Wingate was for sale. So we get back to our trading days, anyhow. So I got a thirty-day leave of absence and went to Fort Wingate, and with Dick White and I together, we finally came together on a purchase price of the Fort Wingate Trading Post. I went to the First State Bank in Gallup and borrowed the money to buy it and made a deal, and then went back to California and resigned my commission and left the Marines and went to Fort Wingate and took over the trading post January 1, 1946. In doing so, I became postmaster-that went along with it. That was the first time I'd ever run a trading post and the first time I had ever been postmaster, and the first time I'd ever been in the trading post to know any of the customers. So I had a lot to take on right quick there, after I got out.


I'd had some training at Pearl Harbor in the post exchange. I was a post exchange officer there, and the post exchange steward, so I had quite a bit of background in sales and things like that. I got along real well in the trading post business, became good friends with the Navajos. I started building the trading post up, adding on things that the previous owner, Dick White, didn't have. I built a post office from my wife's living room. It was all in one building, so I took her living room away from her and built a post office. Then I had to add a living room on for her.


I was there forty-six years. During that time, I added on a complete line of hardware, dry goods, hay and grain. I finally bought a trucking business and went into the trucking business, hauling hay and grain and so forth; cattle and sheep for the local traders and the business people in Gallup. Then I added on car sales. I started a car sales business at the trading post. Then I bought sixteen cabins from a-well, they would call them motels today, but I think they were called tourist courts. But anyhow, they were just cabins, and I bought the cabins from a Mr. Constant in Gallup, sixteen of 'em, and hauled 'em all to Wingate and started my first housing. At that time, the Navajos didn't know anything about housing. They lived on the reservation or away from the community. And I set these little cabins up, and they would come into the school to work, and I furnished furniture and everything in these little cabins, and an outside toilet and outside water, because there was no running water. That was my first experience with housing. Later on, I replaced those with thirty houses that I bought surplus equipment from the U.S. Army. It was surplus equipment from housing that had been in California. And I built thirty houses and then set up a trailer park. So I did a little of everything during this forty-six years, including buying jewelry and rugs and sheep and cows, and trading sheep for cows and jewelry for rugs, and rugs for jewelry-a little of everything.


But I really enjoyed the business with the Navajo people and the Zuni people. I had a lot of Zunis come from Zuni Village. I'd buy mostly inlaid jewelry from them. And then bought Navajo rugs and jewelry from the Navajo people. I helped improve the rug business at Wingate because the Ivanbito people, who lived just north of Fort Wingate-and that was my trade area, and Church Rock-brought in very poor rugs and had very poor wool. Every time they would bring in a rug, I would try to show them how to improve those rugs and use better colors and finer weaving.


Then there was a sheep breeding laboratory three miles from Fort Wingate, and they would take the wool and refine it and then bred a better grade of sheep. They bred Rambouillet sheep with the Navajo sheep and came with a better breed of sheep. And I encouraged my people to buy the rams and the ewes and breed better sheep, and a lot of 'em did it-mostly the Zunis. The Navajos were pretty hard to convince about this situation. But also then, I bought the refined wool that the sheep breeding laboratory had, and I would sell it to the Navajos and the weavers. That gave them a better quality of wool. By the time I left Wingate, my people were weaving first-grade and much, much better rugs, and receiving a much better price for them, and had a better attitude in their weaving process and their weaving condition.


I could go on and on and on about my days there. I don't know just exactly how much you want here, but that's a general description of my time with the Navajo people in my trading post time at Fort Wingate, for forty-six years.


Cole: Do you speak Navajo?


Merrill: Yes, I did speak pretty good Navajo at one time. I've forgotten a lot of it since.


Cole: Did you ever have a Navajo nickname?


Merrill: They called me Siláo, that's "Soldier." I went by Siláo most of the time.


Cole: Were there many Navajo soldiers in that area?


Merrill: Yes. I had a good experience with a Navajo soldier that came back from the service. Most of 'em had not finished their education when they joined the service: they'd just dropped out of high school and joined the service as soon as the war came on. When they came back, they took 'em all back into Wingate Vocational School to get their high school education completed. Peter McDonald and nearly all those people that were involved in the Code Talkers-they all came back and became customers of mine, because they got a check and I would give 'em credit. And I think Peter McDonald borrowed his first five dollars and bought his first set of new clothing from me. And I got to know a lot of the Navajos, and a lot of 'em became permanent customers of mine from there on. So yes, it was a good experience. And they were the leaders. I noticed during my trading time that nearly all the servicemen that came back, Navajo service people, they all became real good leaders, and were involved in all the-got good jobs with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Navajo Tribe-and they were always very well-liked and took care of themselves real well.



Cole: What were your parents' names?


Merrill: Thomas Merrill and Mamie Merrill, and they were Mormons that came out of Old Mexico. They came from Salt Lake City originally, and then through Holbrook-St. Joseph, Arizona; and then went to Mexico, down Dublan and Casa Grande, with a Mormon group that were being persecuted for plural marriage. And they were down there twenty-five years until Pancho Villa came along. He decided that he wanted their guns, he wanted to come in and take their food and stock and whatever, so the whole Mormon community decided to move out one night. My father had seven children at that point, had been in Mexico for twenty-five years, and they put all of his family plus two widow women and their children on the hayrack of a wagon and drove out eighty miles to Columbus, New Mexico. They never got to go back at all. They left everything they owned there, never got to go back. They finally went into Arizona and then as soon as he could get enough money, he moved into Ramah, New Mexico, by wagon team with seven children. And they stayed all one winter in the wagon box of a wagon, next to my grandmother's house, and lived out of that wagon until he traded one of his wagons and some teams on a down payment of a house. He couldn't get the house until the next spring, so they lived all one winter in that wagon.


Steiger: So that was a covered wagon?


Merrill: A covered wagon.



Cole: So is Ramah a Mormon community?


Merrill: Yes, it was originally strictly Mormon. And Patti's family came in, they were non-Mormons, and some of the original families that weren't Mormon. But the community accepted all of 'em. Kind of a little bit pushy-off a little bit, biased at first, but I think everything worked out real good there. There was German traders came in there, the Master brothers, that set up a trading post there, and they were non-Mormon.



Cole: So were they strictly trading with the Anglo community?


Merrill: With the Anglo community and with the Navajo too. Later on it became more of a Navajo business, Indian trading business, than it was locally. But at that time, my family never had an automobile. The Master brothers brought one of the first automobiles in with the trading post business. And Patti's family had an automobile. There was two or three automobiles in Ramah, but most of us went where we wanted to go in a wagon, or by horseback. And if we wanted to go to Gallup, like the day I joined the Marines, I had to catch a ride in there to join the Marines. Sometimes the dirt roads, it would take you ten or twelve hours to go to Gallup because of the mud and snow and whatnot.


Cole: It sounds like it was an agrarian community. Did the Mormon people build canals and stuff, or was it dry farm?


Merrill: It was really all dry farming at first, but then they built a dam, and it washed out twice, and they rebuilt it-once with the help of the Church, and once with the help of the trader there at Ramah. But it's a beautiful lake there now, and that lake is still there and they still prosper under that dam-the lake. A beautiful lake. And I worked on building that dam when I was thirteen years old, seeing the rear end of a horse again! (Laughter)



Steiger: Was that a CCC or WPA [project]?


Merrill: WPA, later on. That was during the Depression, in the thirties. But they built the dam all by themselves up until that time. Then when it washed out, they got help with the WPA. I don't think the CCCs ever worked there, but the WPA did.



Cole: Paul, you've mentioned your wife several times. What [is her maiden] name?


Merrill: Her name was Patricia Vogt.. Her family was one of the pioneers of Ramah. Her father came from Chicago, came out to this country with TB, and he came out here purposely to try to cure himself of TB, which he did. Patti was just a little girl when I left Ramah-tiny girl, in fact. I always tried to go with her older sister, but my older brothers would beat me out. But I went to the Marines, and when I came back, she had grown up-well, not too much, but she'd grown up quite a bit. She says she's five feet, but I doubt it. We got married five months after I bought the trading post-May of 1946. We had three children and thirteen grandchildren and about twenty-six great-grandchildren. And then I had one son that was born during the war, and I'm including his children also in that.


But Patti has been a very good partner. She stuck by me, all those problems, during all those years when you had credit problems and trying to make a living and trying to catch up, and being in the service eight-and-a-half years. She's been a wonderful partner. We've been married fifty-three years, and it's been a wonderful time. And it gets better all the time.



Cole: Did she work in the trading post, too, then?


Merrill: No, she raised a family and took care of 'em, with the exception of the last four or five years. I retired from the Post Office Department, and she was my clerk. In those days, you could do that, because nobody would have had a post office unless they had a trading post, because it only paid about-I think it was $250 a year, and it was a big headache, but it also brought people into your trading post. And if I needed help, she would help out and take care of the business when I was busy or something-take care of the post office. And then when I retired from the post office, she became postmaster after me. She didn't want to do that, but I talked her into it, "You'll enjoy that." And she did. But her children were fairly well raised then, and off to school or married or whatever. She was a good postmaster, and then she worked in the trading post as my bookkeeper the latter part of my time.


We sold our business to our son, Scott-our youngest son. He worked in and out of the trading post and became a mechanic and learned to be a plumber and a carpenter and an electrician and everything like I was. So when I decided to retire, we sold to him. He has been a very good trader since then. It isn't a trader anymore, it's a business, it isn't trading. He has never required any coaching, or hasn't had any problems in nine years that he's had the store.



Cole: How would you describe the Navajo-Anglo trade relationship to somebody that didn't know anything about it?


Merrill: Well, it was a good relationship. We became very close to the families. We were the "loan sharks," we had to loan 'em money. If they had a death in the family, we had to help 'em bury their loved ones. And give 'em credit, sometimes buy a casket, or give 'em money to bury their families the Navajo way. And we attended nearly all their funerals that we could. And if you went to a funeral, you nearly always took a sack of flour, a sack of potatoes-ten pounds of potatoes-salt and sugar and whatever it took-baking powder-to make fry bread. So the relationship, whenever they had any kind of a problem, they always came to me, and I tried to help 'em with it. Sometimes you couldn't, sometimes you could. If you had a family that was drinking, it left a bad flavor on their credit, and it also created a problem between the trader and the Navajo's family. Sometimes you'd have to cut their credit off completely, and sometimes you didn't want to do that because you knew that the family didn't have anything to live on. And sometimes you didn't cut it off because you knew that.



Cole: What about trading with the Zuni? Was it similar to the Navajo? Were there any differences there?


Merrill: I found the Zunis a little different. They were a little.... The Navajos were a very serious people, and I got to where I would tell jokes and kid with them a lot. That created a better relationship, when they knew I wasn't too serious. And with the Zunis, they were always full of fun. They were always kidding and joking and so forth. You hardly ever got very serious with 'em, but they were good people, and I really enjoyed doing business with 'em.


As soon as I went out of the car business, I really stopped doing business with the Zunis, 'cause that created my business with them, and their means of coming over and doing business with me. And I had one experience with a Zuni family. They used to bring in small items: rings and bracelets and earrings and things like that. In those days, those things only brought fifty cents, or maybe seventy-five cents, or less, even. One boy bought a car and he paid for it, but he lost the motor and he came in to get me to put a motor in for him. I said, "How are you ever going to pay for a motor with fifty- and seventy-five-cent rings and bracelets when I can only buy a certain amount? Why don't I figure out something to do that would bring you in some money?"


So I designed a punch bowl and drew pictures of it and told him what I wanted, and then I gave him silver to do that punch bowl. I thought it would only take him about thirty days, but he was gone for three months and I thought, "Boy, I really blew it! He's taken that money and used the money to build something, and then he's gone and sold it and my money and the silver is probably gone." But after about three months, he walked in with this punch bowl, and it was a big thing with a pedestal on it, and eight goblets hanging on the side of it. And he had to make the goblets and everything. I couldn't believe my eyes, he did such a beautiful job of it, that I then had him take it back to Zuni and have his wife inlay it. And that punch bowl won several prizes at the Ceremonial in Gallup for the silversmiths.


And we still have that punch bowl. That was about 1957. And it's really a piece of artwork. We sent it off to the Museum of Man in San Diego, California, for a showing, and it also got the silversmith a prize. We have pictures of that in the Museum of Man in San Diego, California. There's a lot of occasions, but this is one of the main occasions that I can recall.



Cole: What would you say are the characteristics of a good trader?


Merrill: Honesty-probably the very first requirement. Consideration of the people. Love for the people-which I had. Believing in them, also. You had to believe in their honesty and family worth. And that's what I noticed about the servicemen that I was telling you about a minute ago. Nearly all those servicemen came back and they were leaders and good family men. They were honest, they'd seen the white man's way of living while they were in the service. They knew what was going on, they knew that they had to start someplace to make a living. In order to do that, they had to be honest and trustworthy and not have a drinking problem. Some of them did later on, but most of 'em didn't.

Cole: So maybe tell us a little bit about the changes that happened over the time that you were in the trading post.


Merrill: Well, the Navajo Tribe, when I first started there in 1946, their population was about 50,000. It kept growing rapidly. I understand it's between 150,000 and 180,000 now. I guess that's the main thing I noticed during this period, that the Navajo Tribe was growing. They were taking on more obligations with their people. They were also hiring a lot of Navajos to go to work for 'em. They were building. The Navajos themselves were building hogans and borrowing money to build with all that time. And their families, of course, the Navajos that I dealt with had families and they were growing.


Before I left Ft. Wingate (forty-seven years), I had dealt with about four generations. In other words, the family I first started dealing with would have children and grandchildren, great-grandchildren-and then I would start doing business with the grandchildren or their children and grandchildren. Today I know nearly all of their grandchildren and dealt with them enough to have nearly four generations of people. And the same people would come back to you-you know, the original families would come back and want to get credit and deal with you, and that was good business, because that was a steady growth of customers.

 


Cole: What do you think you learned from the Navajo?


Merrill: I got all my education from the Navajo. How to love and how to treat your neighbor, how to treat your customer. At first, I was strictly business. Money was money and you had to have your money back in order to pay the bank, and bills and things like that. But I learned to be very passionate and thoughtful about my people, and if they came and told me a story, I would have to believe what they told me. Of course some people, just like the Anglos, they would lie to you to get what they wanted. Some white people, not all white people. And what I'm saying is, there are some good people and some bad people, no matter whether they were Zunis or Navajos or whatever.


But I think the Navajos taught me much. And what I have today, I made from the Navajo, being good to them and honest with them. I still walk into Wal-Mart or into businesses in Gallup, and I'll see ten or fifteen families. My wife says she won't leave me there, because I'd never come out, I'd stay there. It becomes a family gathering place. And they never go by you without talking and giving you a big bear hug or something like that. And those are the things I learned from them, too.


I had, you know, the love for my family and my loved ones and my wife, but the love for a friend and people you love is a little bit different thing.

Voices from the Trading Post:

Paul D. Merrill - Ramah, NM  1919 - 2010