The Trading Post and Art Gallery at Cow Springs, Arizona Return to Their Sandstone Origins
After witnessing the disappearance of Black Mesa Mine, I wondered what else might be fading away within sacred Navajo and Hopi lands. Thirty miles south of Black Mesa, for almost a century, Cow Springs Trading Post survived and prospered. The documented history of Cow Springs is spotty, at best. Most references to the place are in footnotes or old field-notes. Around 1970, when the last Cow Springs Trading Post closed, the place began its slow-motion disappearance.
In 1983, U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 27 stated, “The unusual light gray Entrada Sandstone in the area was named Cow Springs Sandstone by Harshbarger and others in 1951. They described it as, “a cross-stratified bleached sandstone that lies between the Entrada Sandstone and Dakota Formation”. It is entirely older than the Morrison Formation and the Romana Sandstone, found elsewhere in the Colorado Plateau.”
The Cow Springs sandstone occupies a considerable interval in the Jurassic Stratigraphic Period. The Jurassic period existed long before the Tertiary Stratigraphic Period, when most of earth’s coal deposits appeared. At more than 150 million years in age, Cow Springs occupies an ancient place in geologic history.
The earliest historical mention of Cow Springs involves the Spaniard, Vizcarra, during his 1823 campaign. In an obvious reference to the nearby Elephant's Feet pillars, Vizcarra and his compatriots named Cow Springs Wash "El Arroyo de los Pilares". For almost one hundred fifty years after Vizcarra's visit, Cow Springs disappeared from historical consciousness. Decades later, perhaps in the early twentieth century, someone again documented the existence of the place. “East of the sandhills, bordering Red Valley runs Cow Springs Canyon and Wash. Up this canyon from the springs, George McAdams set up a summer and fall trading camp 1882”.
During a brief period when Indian trader J. L. Hubbell Jr. owned it in the 1930s, Joe Isaac managed the Cow Springs Trading Post. Son of Joe Isaac, Lawrence Isaac Sr., ran the coalmine at Cow Springs from the 1930s until the 1950s. According to Geological Survey Professional Paper, Volume 521, the mine operated on coal-rich Black Mesa, seven miles east of Cow Springs. By the 1970s, coal extraction attributed to the old Peabody Western Coal Company would come to dominate the economies of both the Navajo and the Hopi tribes.
In 1889, David, George, William, Charles, and Edward Babbitt established the Babbitt Brothers Trading Company in Flagstaff, Arizona. Later, they owned a series of trading posts and other businesses in the northern part of the state. Babbitt's Wholesale, Inc. and the Babbitt family have been distributors of Pendleton blankets and accessories across the Southwest for more than one hundred twenty years. Some of the best-known Babbitt posts were located at Tuba City, Willow Springs, Canyon Diablo, Cedar Ridge, Tolchaco, Indian Wells and the ancient town of Oraibi.
Notably absent from that list is the Cow Springs Trading Post, first operated by the Babbitt's in 1895. “So by the time I became involved in our trading operations, it was already becoming a dying part of our family’s business. From the time I started in the business, we had five trading posts. Today, 1999, we are down to only two—Tuba City and Red Lake. We closed down Cedar Ridge Trading Post, we closed down Cow Springs Trading Post” - Jim Babbitt, Babbitt Brothers Trading Co. oral history.
On August 14, 1938, there were recorded bird sightings at “Cow Springs Lake”, which was not far from a similar sighting at Red Lake (now Tonalea, elevation 5010) in Coconino County, Arizona. Red Lake was another old trading post site, just south of the Elephant's Feet pillars on U.S. Highway 160. At that site today, there is a general store, which provides Pepsi and hay bales to local residents. Today, there is no flowing water at Cow Springs, nor is there much of a lake at Red Lake. Only a seasonal pond, which stands south of the highway at Tonalea, hints at Red Lake's historical status as a year-around lake. With the long-term drying of the local climate, Red Lake disappears into a dusty plain. Now, Cow Springs Lake faces the prospect of a similar fate.
At the crossroads of Begashibito (Béégashi Bito'), or Cow Springs, and the old road to Shonto, is the possible location for "Luke Smith's store". Even in the early days, traders looked to create catchy names for their trading posts. Begashibito plus Shonto morphed into the new Navajo word, . In a larger version of the circa 1929 image (above right) on this page, “Begashonto” appears on the sign in front of the store.
In the early 1960s, highway engineers realigned old Arizona 264. The new U.S. Highway 160 bypassed the tiny hamlet of Cow Springs, thus forcing relocation of the old Cow Springs Trading Post. Even with its prominent new location on a busier highway, the trading post did not survive for long. Today, a pole-sign, some graffiti covered walls and a stone-topped chimney are all that remain. With its business lifespan cut short, there are no published pictures of the Highway 160 Cow Springs Trading Post while in operation.
With its imposing pole sign declaring “Standard Oil Products”, the ruin helps break the monotony along that stretch of highway. In 2009, I stopped at the Cow Springs Trading Post. Until they changed corporate colors in the 1960s, the old Standard Oil Company of California utilized white lettering on a brown background for signage on their west coast service stations. After decades exposed to sun, rain and wind, large portions of brown and white paint now fly away. Like the stratification record for the Cow Springs Sandstone, layers of paint intermingle as they erode through paint and primer. Completing a cycle, in 2013 the original words “Cow” and “Post” reasserted themselves at either end of the sign.
In the 1960s, improved highways and reliable automobiles meant that motorists had greater range and options. With its unusual name and remote location, tourists often bypassed places like Cow Canyon Trading Post. They might, however be attracted to an iconic brand name, like “Standard Oil Products”, thus stopping there for fuel and provisions. Even today, the size, height and immensity of the Cow Springs sign create an imposing sight. Only the height of its steel poles has prevented untold repainting with graffiti art.
At various times over the years, I have stopped to investigate the ruins of Cow Springs Trading Post. By the time I first stopped in 2007, there was no roof and various partition walls were missing. There were no signs of a fire, so someone may have removed and repurposed the roof beams elsewhere. Also absent was almost any form of scrap lumber. Known for its cold winter nights, local residents may have collected and burned any scraps of wood remaining at Cow Springs.
Despite the derelict nature of the building, a spray painted combination of angst-ridden poetry and high art filled various panels. With each subsequent visit, more holes appeared in the walls. Successively, additional hits of graffiti obscured or defaced many of the more artistic panels. Additional sections of block wall tumbled, some with their artwork still intact. In one case, wall art became floor art.
In order to topple walls or make new holes, ad hoc wrecking crews employed sledgehammers. With less space to express new poetry and art, the hope and pride expressed in the early artwork later turned taciturn and reticent. Visionary sights of a Navajo warrior and a Golden Eagle disappeared under gang-style monikers and random bursts of paint. In a stroke of spontaneous irony, a spray-paint cartoonist used several of the holes to elucidate facial features in his characters. Dystopian anger at the human condition ran through several muddled poems.
Just when artistic expression at Cow Springs reached an all-time low, a new artist with a new medium arrived on the scene. Almost overnight, he covered several walls with his wheat-paste photo murals. Hailing from Inscription House, elsewhere on the Navajo Reservation, that artist goes by the name of Jetsonorama. He selects photos from his collection, enlarges them at a print shop, and then cuts them out on his kitchen floor. Utilizing wheat paste - a mixture of Bluebird flour (favored by Navajo grandmas), sugar and water - he attaches them, pane by pane, to places like the Cow Springs Trading Post. His photo murals echo life on the land, almost as fleeting in the wind and weather as the moments captured in the photos themselves.
Although not a Native American, Jetsonorama is the only permanent physician at an Indian Health Service's clinic. In his blog and elsewhere Jetsonorama said, “I’m trying to present especially positive images of the Navajo on the reservation - to inject an element of beauty, an element of surprise and an element, hopefully, of pride." From the first moment I saw Jetsonorama’s Cow Springs work, it inspired me. His photo murals can be vibrant on one visit and completely gone on the next. In July 2013, when I last visited Cow Springs, not a trace of Jetsonorama’s original work had survived.
Although I have no problem visiting the ruins of Cow Springs Trading Post during the day, I would not stop at night. Apparently, a few latter-day graffiti artists still frequent the place, along with the ad hoc wrecking crews. Recent poetic evidence tells me that Cow Springs is now a hangout for the “down and out” or disaffected. Once, Cow Springs supported vibrant trade. Later, it supported highway art. With one wall after another now falling to ruin, soon the site shall support nothing more than spirits and pre-ancestral memories.