Ganado is a small town in the middle of Navajo Nation, about an hour north of the Petrified Forest. And at Ganado is an unexpected find: the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site. It’s a small store and a Little House on the Prairie-esque homestead that belie their ownership by one of the wealthiest families in the southwest.
John Lorenzo Hubbell was born in 1853 in New Mexico, his father a cattle trader from Connecticut and his mother from a Spanish family that had been granted land in New Mexico by Philip V of Spain. Hubbell spent his young adulthood clerking at trading posts around the west and in 1878, ended up purchasing a trading post in Pueblo, Arizona. He later changed the name of Pueblo to Ganado, after a Navajo friend, to avoid confusion with Pueblo, Colorado.
Hubbell (and his two sons) eventually would come to own an empire of 24 trading posts, stage and freight lines, ranches and other businesses. But Ganado was home and it’s the first Hubbell trading post and the family house that make up the historic site.
There was no staff in the visitor center when we walked in, just a few tourists and a woman sitting in front of a large loom, weaving a Navajo rug. So we took a NPS site description pamplet off a counter and wandered the room, set up as a museum with displays about the Hubbells, the trading post, Navajo history and culture, and rug making. John Hubbell was the foremost Navajo rug trader of his time, and had a reputation for being a stickler for quality and authenticity. When other traders started producing colorful, non-traditional designs in an effort to increase mass appeal, Hubbell would have none of it.
It took about 30 minutes to read the displays. With still no staff around, we decided to wander the homestead. If that wasn’t allowed, someone would show up to tell us, we reasoned. There’s a barn with horses (who we later found out were rescues, employed by the NPS to wander about the property and look pretty), chicken coops, a bunkhouse, a blacksmith shop, guest houses, and the Hubbell’s main house. As we were trying the door — locked — of the main house, someone walking by said, “You have to take a tour to see the house. If you go to the visitor center, they’ll tell you when the next one is.”
“We were in there,” we said. “And there wasn’t anyone around.”
“Maybe she was on a break. Maybe she’s at lunch.” The young woman moved on. I was willing to give the visitor center one more try, before we moved on to the next town. But first, attached to the house, was the trading post.
We walked into a long dark room that looked like it hadn’t been updated since it opened in 1878. And it might not have been. Shelves with canned and other dry goods lined the walls. The Hubbells operated the post until it was sold to the NPS in 1967. It’s now run by the Western National Parks Association (a nonprofit that partners with the NPS to develop products and run services) and is still a source of groceries, horse tack, and hardware for locals. A corner that held maps and books of the sort usually sold in NPS stores seemed the only concession to its new life as a historic site. Congressional intent in authorizing the trading post as a national historic site, says an NPS report, is that it remain an operational trading post and “not a ‘dead embalmed historic site.'”
Off the main room of the store are the jewelry room and the rug room — products handmade by locals. I spent forever in the rug room.
“I thought for sure you’d come out of there with a rug,” Mr. History Tourist said, when I finally joined him at the cash register (where he was buying several pounds of New Mexico Pinon coffee). I had gone into the room with every intention of doing so, but the choices were so overwhelming (and the investment not inconsequential) that I gave up trying to choose. I’ll definitely go back to Hubbell when I’m ready to buy, though, because I know I’ll be getting the genuine article (go on their website and there’ll be a photo of each rug with its maker) and I’ll be supporting the park.
Up next: the hunt for the elusive Hubbell Park Ranger.