Watch, as the Cow Springs Trading Post Changes Before your Eyes
For over a decade, I have traveled north or south on U.S. Highway 160 in Arizona at least twice each year. Known also as The Rainbow Trail, the highway closely tracks the trail of the Ancients through Navajoland. On that trail, in Tonalea, Arizona is the Navajo settlement of Cow Springs. Although the closest thing to a commercial establishment in Cow Springs today is the Navajo Nation Head Start preschool, there was once a thriving trading post in the area.
When the Arizona Department of Transportation realigned Highway 160 in the 1960s, the new route bypassed the old Begashonto Trading Post. With all of the optimism of that time, the Babbitt Brothers Trading Company moved its previous operation to a knoll beside the new highway. The new building’s construction was robust, with a poured concrete floor and cinder block walls all around. Although similar construction supported the fireplace and chimney, their faces featured Navajo Sandstone. With its large open floorplan, vast wooden trusses supported its roof.
Out front, a sign supported by two thirty-foot poles read, “Cow Springs Trading Post”. Apparently, the name was not much of a draw. Sometime later, the owners painted over the original sign. From then until today, it features a brown background and white lettering. The “new” sign presented the phrase, “Standard Oil Products”. Even the lure of brand name petroleum products was not enough to draw sufficient customers to support the operation. At an unknown time, probably in the 1970s, the Cow Springs Trading Post closed for good.
Because of its existence in the pre-internet era and its brief existence as a place of business, there are no published pictures of the Cow Springs Trading Post while in operation. In fact, there are no published pictures of the building while its roof still sheltered it. If anyone has such images, we hope that they will publish them.
In 2015, Sandi Haugen commented on a previous article I wrote about Cow Springs - “Jim, how sad these pictures are to me, my parents Charles and Vaughntrebia Kinser were the original traders who were employed by Babbitt Brothers in this trading post - in fact prior to this new trading post being opened they ran the Old Cow Springs Trading Post. We were the first family to live in the house attached to the Trading Post. I still remember when the fireplace was built. It saddens my heart to think about all the good years spent there and to see it now in ruins.”
From the images on this page, it is obvious that the Cow Springs Trading Post is now a ruin. What is not obvious, however, is that the landscape there and the artworks displayed on the few remaining walls continue to change over time. Although I had driven by the ruin for almost a decade, I did not stop and walk through the place until 2012. By that time, a local artist who goes by the moniker “Jetsonorama” had created several generations of wheat paste art on the walls.
Wheat paste is just what it sounds like. In a bygone era, a concoction of wheat and water supported handbills on temporary construction barriers, utility poles and many other smooth surfaces. Today, artists like Jetsonorama use large-scale printers to blow up digital photos, and then piece them back together on walls such as those at Cow Springs. Although these postings appear permanent to the casual observer, the wheat paste melts in the rain and the paper deteriorates over time. While it is visually arresting art, by its very nature it is temporary.
Although I missed some of Jetsonorama’s most famous pieces, I began documenting what still existed of them in 2012. For the past four years, I have returned to see what is new there. Other than the innovative wheat paste art, many of the recent artistic flourishes are spray-overs of more gentile subject matter. Since much of what endures at Cow Springs is graffiti or spray-painted, I also documented its changes, additions and slow fading of several scenes.
In order to show how much things have changed in the art scene at the Cow Springs Trading Post, I have organized time-lapse imaging into “animated GIFs”. Introduced by CompuServe in 1987, the animated GIF predates, yet is now ubiquitous on the internet. Most of the moving ads you see on webpages are animated GIFs. An animated GIF is a silent slideshow, using “lossless compression” to limit file size, so as not to slow the loading of a webpage.
In order of their appearance on this page, I have titled the animated GIFs as follows: “The Brave”, “The Front Wall”, “The Eagle”, “The Princess and the Sheepdog” and “The Broken Sun”. In 2016, the Brave is now gone, the Front Wall is painted over and the Feather is all that remains from the front wall of a decade ago. Remember is a recent addition to a short section of wall, while the Prophet has been hammered into smithereens. Graffiti has obliterated the Eagle, while Lola! has endured through several iterations. The mirror reflects the transience of all that still exists at Cow Springs Trading Post.
If you stop and visit, please view the Cow Springs Trading Post in Tonalea, Arizona as sacred ground. Park your vehicle off the highway and away from the adjacent cattle guard, which delineates a roadway often used by local Navajo residents. Wear sturdy shoes and beware of boards with protruding nails. Although I have never seen a snake there, their presence is possible. Touch nothing, add nothing and take nothing but photos. If Native Americans are present, please show your respect for their culture by staying away from the building. Cow Springs is part of Navajoland, not Disneyland.