‘ONE OF THE MOST ECCENTRIC OF THEM ALL’
Ralph Waldo Emerson Meyers established
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.
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.
Relaxing in the Mission Shop circa 1925. Ralph Meyer's iconic shop was filled with Indian artifacts that he had spent years trading for.
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.