A Christmas tradition brought Navajos from a 60 mile radius in wagons, horses, cars and trucks to a lonely Borrego Pass Trading Post in New Mexico for a yearly Christmas program.
Sheepherder was just a teenager when this magical time of Christmas brought Navajo woman in colorful pendleton blankets with turquoise jewelry and men in straw hats and boots along with excited children with bright brown faces.
If you ask, “When did this Christmas tradition start?” Well, I’ll tell you, I don’t know!, but it was a Christmas tradition!
The store was all by itself nestled in a red rock alcove about 7 to 8,000 foot along the Continental Divide.
Borrego Pass, in northern New Mexico, is 15 miles southeast of Crownpoint. Crownpoint is a Eastern Navajo agency with a large Navajo population and has numerous US Government boarding schools, Navajo Nation Chapters and trading posts.
Don and Fern Smouse and their three sons traded with the Navajos in the area. One of the sons fondly remembers staying up half of the night sorting the fruit and candies and putting them in the brown paper sacks.
Almost all the Navajos had charge accounts. Lambs sold in the fall and wool and mohair were brought in the late spring. The Smouses knew every rug weaver and silversmith by name and where they lived.
Sheepherder parents are Sam, a silversmith, and rug weaver Bessie Platero. They were close friends to the Smouses. Don help the men get railroad jobs with Santa Fe and Northern Pacific.
They were also active Mormons and served in various callings. Don even built a chapel with an apartment for the missionaries. Two of the missionaries were from Monticello - Elder Mel Walker and Elder Ty Lewis.
They taught the Sheepherder and he was eventually baptized in Gallup, New Mexico in 1962. Everyone knew the missionaries at a distance wearing white shirts and tie and riding Blackie and Billie. The horses belong to the Smouses.
Don Smouse was German that came out west from Pennsylvania and grew up in a Mormon community in Kirtland, New Mexico.
As a young man Don had a job hauling freight from Gallup to Toadlena, New Mexico. There he met his wife Fern Bloomfield, her parents were traders. Later the young couple bought Borrego Pass from Fern’s brother.
Fern’s parents, Brother and Sister Bloomfield, operated the Mancos Trading Post 25 miles south of Cortez, Colorado and traded with the Utes and Navajos.
The Bloomfield’s were instrumental in sending on LDS Placement a young Navajo boy, George Lee, who later graduated from Orem High School and was called to serve in the Southwest Indian Mission.
He graduated from BYU in Education Adminstration, received the Spencer W. Kimball Lamanite Leadership Award, and was President of Ganado College.
He married Katherine Hattick, a Commache. Later he was also the misson president and was called as a General Authority, unfortunately Elder George Lee was excommunicated in 1989.
The Navajos started arriving early from the Southeast: the community of Whitehhorse Lake and Pueblo Pintado, from the South: Haystack, Baca, and Prewitt, from the West: Smith Lake, Mariano Lake, and from the Northwest: Standing Rock, Dalton Pass, and from the North Littlewater and Heart Butte.
Horses and wagons were tied to the fence and there was barely enough room for cars and trucks and the children loved the Christmas tree inside the store- with its magical bubble lights and Christmas songs in the air from the radio. Finally the store closed at noon and the Christmas program began its final prepartation.
Sheepherder was nervously talking with the elders as they stood on the steps of the store. A huge crowd closed in and the program began. Silent Night, Joy to World and Upon the Housetop are sung. Most of the singing was done by Don, Fern, their children and the Missionaries.
As the Christmas story is told by one of the elders, Sheepherder translates into the microphone so all can hear the story.
Finally the program is finished and suddenly Santa Claus arrives with his big sack. “Ho!, Ho!, Ho!” is heard with jingling bells. Santa stands 6’4” and is an imposing figure.
A few brave children line up to sit on Santa’s lap and receive a toy. Most of the Navajo children are scared to death of Santa, mostly because this might be their first time to see Santa. And as usual, a mother tries in vain to drag a screaming young child to Santa. Sometimes it is a success, but mostly not.
After a while, Santa goes to the large delivery truck and opens the back to reveal boxes of Christmas gifts. This is highlight of the Christmas program.
The line snakes around as sacks containing an orange, apple, peanuts and hard candies are handed out. A calendar with a picture of Borrego Pass Trading Post is handed out to the adults.
That magical Christmas tradition, which lasted for more than 45 years, died when both Don and Fern passed away. Both were buried in Farmington, New Mexico.
Jokingly Fern would say, “When I die I want to be wrapped in my favorite Navajo rug and put me behind the store between the rocks.”
Now the trading post is run down with new people leasing the store, the chapel is closed and the missionaries are in Crownpoint.
Now the Christmas tradition is a fond memory for the Navajos around Borrego Pass and also for the Sheepherder.