‘ONE OF THE MOST EC­CEN­TRIC OF THEM ALL’

Ralph Waldo Emer­son Mey­ers es­tab­lished

Tradiciones Leyendas - - TRADICIONES | TRADICIONES /LEYENDAS 2018 - BY ROBERTA COURT­NEY MEY­ERS

Taos’ first trad­ing post

The Taos Pue­blo Coun­cil met to de­cide what to do with the strange white man who spent so many hours sit­ting on the bank of the river in their vil­lage. What was he do­ing there? What was he putting on the large pa­per he held on his knee? Was he plan­ning to steal their women? Thanks to the in­ter­ven­tion of an In­dian friend and Mey­ers’ con­vinc­ing story that he just wanted to learn from them, he was not cas­trated. His friend sug­gested the man be given an In­dian wife, thereby pro­tect­ing the virtue of the other young women of the Pue­blo. Mey­ers grate­fully thanked them, but said he was not ready for mar­riage.

Mey­ers packed away his paints and bushes to start a busi­ness of trad­ing and col­lect­ing fine In­dian ar­ti­facts. He be­gan mas­ter­ing jew­elry de­sign; sil­ver­smithing (he was sub­si­dized by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment in the 1930s to teach In­di­ans sil­ver­smithing); hide tan­ning; bead­ing buck­skin; build­ing Span­ish Colo­nial fur­ni­ture with In­dian in­flu­ence; home re­mod­el­ing; dy­ing; weav­ing; pho­tog­ra­phy; or was in pur­suit of one of the thou­sand other tal­ents this leg­endary Taos fig­ure seems to have pos­sessed.

Of all the un­con­ven­tional, artis­tic peo­ple in the his­tory of Taos that have been writ­ten about, one of the most ec­cen­tric of them all was Mey­ers, who has been left out of all but one of the books on Taos. That one book is sup­pos­edly a work of fic­tion, “The Man Who Killed the Deer” by Frank Wa­ters, in which much of Mey­ers’ story is told. In it, Mey­ers is de­picted as the old trader “Ru­dolpho By­ers.”

Mey­ers was born in 1885 in Houghton, Michi­gan. That same year his fa­ther, Joseph Mey­ers, fol­lowed the lure of gold to Colorado. The fam­ily set­tled for a while in Den­ver. There, Mey­ers’ class­mates in­cluded fu­ture ac­tor Dou­glas Fair­banks and fu­ture band leader Paul White­man. Mey­ers’ mother ran a room­ing house. Os­car Wilde, the out­ra­geously col­or­ful Bri­tish play­wright, was a guest there. As a boy, Mey­ers was re­galed by tales of Taos and its In­di­ans told by old moun­tain men and trap­pers who stayed at the room­ing house.

Early days in Taos

The young Mey­ers was en­chanted with what he heard about Taos and the In­di­ans. At age 14 in 1899, he trav­eled alone on horse­back to Taos. He fell in love with the coun­try and its Na­tive peo­ple. He ad­mired the In­di­ans — the peo­ple of the earth; the Span­ish women, dark and mys­te­ri­ous in their black tapa­los; and the men lead­ing bur­ros laden with fire­wood and do­ing ba­sic, es­sen­tial tasks. He re­spected them and wanted to un­der­stand the In­dian peo­ple. He felt an end­less fas­ci­na­tion with their time­less­ness. Mey­ers would go to their cen­turies-old Pue­blo to sit, watch and learn.

His first job in Taos was as a fire watch for the For­est Ser­vice up on Lark­spur Peak. Mey­ers lived for months in high Blue Lake coun­try in a teepee sketch­ing, paint­ing and work­ing. His only com­pan­ions were deer, elk and an oc­ca­sional moun­tain lion or bear. Once in a while, a visit from a band of Taos Pue­blo In­di­ans would look in on their friend. High-spir­ited fel­lows, they thought it great fun to drive off Mey­ers’ horses and pur­loin var­i­ous sta­ples from his teepee.

In 1903, Mey­ers leased the Trav­el­ers Ho­tel when he was look­ing for a place to live. The ho­tel had once been the home of the fa­mous card dealer Madame La Tules. It still stands on Paseo del Pue­blo Norte and is now gift shops. He paid $4 a month rent for the prop­erty and rented out rooms for 75 cents a week. Just south of the ho­tel, Mey­ers set up his trad­ing post, the first in town. Later, he bought a ruin on Kit Car­son Road, re­mod­eled it, built on and made it the Mis­sion Shop (now El Rincón Trad­ing Post). The shop was filled with In­dian ar­ti­facts, such as cloth­ing, weav­ings, pot­tery, bead­work, moc­casin, head­dresses, paint­ings and more.

Mey­ers was a self-taught painter. He painted alone on lo­ca­tion in na­ture, and with fa­mous artists Joseph Sharp and Leon Gas­pard. He was com­mis­sioned by Wate Phillips to make fur­ni­ture for the Phillips’ es­tate near Ci­mar­rón, New Mex­ico (now the Philmont Scout Ranch) and for Phillips’ South­west­ern room at Philbrook in Tulsa, Ok­la­homa. Later, Mey­ers helped es­tab­lish the Karl May Mu­seum in Dres­den, Ger­many. May used Mey­ers’ work and knowl­edge to write sev­eral books on Amer­i­can In­di­ans.

Be­com­ing Taos

Mey­ers bought sev­eral di­lap­i­dated prop­er­ties in Taos, re­mod­eled and sold them to artists. He could see sub­stan­tial beauty in a hum­ble adobe house, which is part of the very earth on which it stands. He painted them in all sea­sons.

In 1911, Mey­ers be­gan trav­el­ing to the Plains by covered wagon to trade with the In­di­ans there. Friends Can­dido Romero or John Suazo from Taos Pue­blo some­times ac­com­pa­nied him. He would be gone for sev­eral months. Mey­ers pho­tographed the coun­try and teepees that he would later turn into post­cards, sign­ing them with a thun­der­bird.

On one trip, Mey­ers took his lit­tle dog Wianchee (Four Eyes) with him. Wianchee’s paws be­came raw from run­ning be­side the wagon, so Mey­ers made four lit­tle moc­casins for the dog to wear for the rest of the jour­ney. D.H. Lawrence would later en­trust his dog to Mey­ers’ care the last time the fa­mous au­thor and his wife, Frieda, left Taos.

In 1932, Mey­ers wed the lovely Rowena Mat­te­son. Mey­ers was very suc­cess­ful at this time. He was well-known and re­spected. He was cer­tainly aware of Rowena, for she was dat­ing a young fel­low work­ing for him. The cou­ple broke up and Rowena left for Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia to at­tend Mills Col­lege. Mey­ers im­me­di­ately be­gan to write Rowena and court her through his let­ters. Af­ter two years at school, Rowena re­turned to Taos and Mey­ers.

Of­ten­times, the founder artists would

gather at the Mey­ers’ home, which was at­tached to the Mis­sion Shop. They would have din­ner and spend a won­der­ful evening of sto­ry­telling. Mey­ers was a gourmet cook and a good racon­teur. One of his most re­quested tales in­volved be­ing bit by a rat­tlesnake. The story goes, an In­dian came to the trad­ing post to warn Mey­ers that the “snake peo­ple” had some­thing against him and he’d bet­ter be care­ful. One day Mey­ers, artist Wal­ter Ufer and two young Eastern ladies were on a tour of Pot Creek ru­ins. They came upon a dead rat­tlesnake in the road. Mey­ers was com­pelled to jump out of the car and pick it up. It was not quite dead enough. The snake bit him. His friends rushed him back to town. He be­came very ill. An In­dian medicine man pulled him through, but it took weeks. Mey­ers was sick for three years.

Ralph and Rowena had two chil­dren, Nina Cristina (1936) and Emer­son Ou­ray (1938).

In the end

When Mey­ers saw the Taos he loved chang­ing and mod­ern­iz­ing, he be­gan dy­ing. It was a painful death, for he held onto the past with tenac­ity. In oils, he cap­tured the spirit of place that was Taos in the early 1900s, a qual­ity that will never be again. Mey­ers died in 1948.

In 2015, the Taos Art Mu­seum held a show of Mey­ers’ paint­ings, some of his hand-carved fur­ni­ture and pic­tures of his jew­elry and weav­ings. It was the first ex­hibit of his work — 67 years af­ter his demise.

Un­der the lilac bushes in a cor­ner of Kit Car­son Ceme­tery, there is an an­cient pet­ro­glyph mark­ing the last rest­ing place of Ralph Mey­ers. On the rock there are a young child’s foot­prints with ea­gle claw prints fol­low­ing them. Mey­ers loved this rock. Some of his Pue­blo friends brought it down from the moun­tain for use as his grave­stone. Per­haps it is the story of a miss­ing boy that was taken to an en­chanted land to soar for­ever with the ea­gles.

Cour­tesy Roberta Mey­ers

Re­lax­ing in the Mis­sion Shop circa 1925. Ralph Meyer's iconic shop was filled with In­dian ar­ti­facts that he had spent years trad­ing for.

Cour­tesy Roberta Mey­ers

Ralph Mey­ers stand­ing with his horse out­side his first shop, the Cu­rio Store, ready to leave on a trip to trade with Plains In­di­ans in 1911.

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