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From the Northern University Arizona Oral History Project
I was born in Ramah, New Mexico-
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-
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-
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-
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-
We had to go to Denver, Colorado, to take physicals and finish everything out. We were in the back of a pickup-
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-
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-
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-
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-
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-
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-
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-
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-
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-
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-
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-
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-
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-
We sold our business to our son, Scott-
Cole: How would you describe the Navajo-
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-
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-
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?
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-
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-
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 -
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