Saving a village one stone house at a time
by Andrew Gulliford
After 60 years of marriage, Gene and Mary Foushee passed on this summer just nine days apart. The couple was 88 years old and had lived a rich, full life.
They will be remembered for many things, but their most important achievement was saving the small town of Bluff, and building Recapture Lodge.
A spectacled geologist with an empty wallet, Gene’s mind brimmed with ideas. He always pointed a stubby pencil at 2 by 4s, friends, neighbors, anyone who would listen. He taught young Navajos the basics of carpentry and he led some of the first tours into Monument Valley.
An April 1963 ad in Desert Magazine proclaimed, “Recapture! The fun of adventure in the Red Rock Country . . . beauty and serenity in Indian Country . . . Discover the excitement of geology in textbook country, Recapture Court Motel, Historic Bluff, Utah, . . . P.S. Everything for the traveler.”
Except good roads. They had yet to come. In the early 1960s asphalt ended at Cottonwood Wash. The road west was dirt and gravel. Bluff was the end of the road, but Gene Foushee had a vision.
When the Foushees arrived in Bluff, the Mormon village had been almost abandoned by settlers who had moved north to Blanding and Monticello because all too often, the San Juan River raged, flooded, and ruined their farms.
Navajo Reservoir would tame the muddy river, but modern civilization took a long time getting to Bluff. Electricity arrived in 1957. A year later there was a telephone but only one for the entire community.
The Foushees had built a motel, a few rooms at a time, with doors facing east which is Navajo tradition, and they had the only automatic washing machine.
When they were finished cleaning and folding motel sheets, Navajo women who had been standing in line got to use the washer.
When U.S. highway 160 went south of the San Juan River and largely by-passed Utah, that alignment set Bluff back two decades, but Gene Foushee was patient. He had to be.
In the 1960s, San Juan County had “a little bit of ranching, oil and gas was starting, but it was pretty bleak,” states Bluff resident Jim Hook.
Uranium mining boomed and busted. “You could have bought Moab if you had a good credit rating. The only place to get a piece of pie was the Atomic Café.”
Born in North Carolina in the Great Depression, Foushee knew how to straighten nails, re-use lumber, work hard and to encourage others. He lived by the Depression adage, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”
He had been on Union Carbide’s payroll in Uravan, CO, but when he moved to Bluff “there were some skinny years there in the beginning.”
“It was exhausting to work with him. He had so many ideas about what to do. Everyone who ever met him had a list given to him by Gene. I still haven’t done everything on the first list he gave me and that was over 25 years ago,” smiles Hook who with his wife Luanne bought the Recapture Lodge from the Foushees in 1989 after they’d run it for 30 years.
The Hooks, originally from the Fort Collins area, had “ten years of wrangling llamas and we were ready to do something else” so they took over as managers of Recapture Lodge in the fall of 1988.
“I learned how to fold towels and do whatever. In a year they started talking about selling it to us, but we had no money,” Jim Hook remembers.
The Foushsees gave them a raise so they could make the down payment and begin a mortgage. No bank. Just credit and carry back the loan based on their character.
“They were like our parents. He was always the visionary. We really miss them,” states Luanne Hook with a tear in her eye and a catch in her throat.
“They were a unit together. He was the face of the community but she was behind the scenes, the bookkeeper. She was actually the nuts and bolts, the welcoming face at the front desk. They were the saviors of Bluff who raised two Bluff kids, Geno and Marybeth.”
Gene would get a project started, move it along, then pass it on for someone else to finish it and he’d begin a different project. He lobbied for better roads. He planted shrubs, river privets, currents, lilacs, and dozens of trees including Carolina poplars, pecans, mulberries and fruit trees whose shade today’s residents enjoy.
He found funds for a small airplane strip at Bluff and he built a hanger for visiting aircraft. He created the town’s first water system from shallow wells and an artesian well. And one by one he restored the town’s historic stone houses built in the 1890s and early 1900s by successful Mormon ranchers and merchants.
“Gene saw the beauty and craftsmanship that went into the Mormon pioneer homes constructed by the brave souls who came through the Hole in the Rock in 1880, and then were abandoned and left to fall down or in some cases burn,” wrote Alvin Reiner in the San Juan Record.
“One by one, and brick by brick, Gene salvaged as many as he could.”
The preserved houses in Bluff’s historic district, most of native sandstone, include the Jens House, the Adams House (which is on the National Register of Historic Places), the Decker House, Olin Oliver House, rancher Al Scorup’s house also on the National Register, the Lyman House, and the stone mansion of Lemuel Hardison Redd.
Over the years, Gene Foushee repaired, repainted, and re-roofed all of them. He’d buy the houses, fix them up, get somebody living in them, and tackle another one. The Adams House had pallid bats in the upper story and “you could have thrown a cat through the roof anywhere.”
“Everybody has stories about him. Almost all local Navajo families have someone who worked for him at one time or another,” states Hook.
“He mentored a lot of Navajo kids,” offers guide and outfitter Vaughan Hadenfeldt. “Foushee was a recycler. It was too far to go to get supplies so everything got re-used.
“In fact, Gene probably never knew this, but the Navajo language is flexible and adaptive. They came up with the phrase ‘to Foushee it,’ which meant to make do with what you had.
“I’ve seen him re-use old plumbing pipes which appalled me, but it was just his generation. They made do. Gene was always drawing pictures in the dirt to explain things. He had a tape measure on his belt. He was always in construction mode.”
Slowly, carefully, the Foushees brought Bluff back to life preserving the history and heritage as much as possible.
The Southwest Heritage Foundation maintains Bluff’s Chacoan-era Great House. The Jones Farm has a conservation easement on its 100+ acres to prevent Moab-style development. There’s a river trail south of the Recapture Lodge and plans for a trail to go from Bluff to the BLM Sand Island Boat Launch.
There’s a Bluff Historic Preservation Association which Foushee started, the original Bluff Fort, an annual balloon rally in January, and Bluff proudly proclaims itself as the gateway to the new Bear Ears National Monument.
Tourists now come from across the United States and England, France, Italy, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, Switzerland, Australia and China
In November, Bluff residents will vote on incorporating not only the town but the entire Bluff Valley to control development and their deep well water sources in the sandstone benches north of town. The Foushees would be proud. Their vision is coming true.
Jim Hook’s eyes well up. He’s remembering Gene Foushee. “Who gets to go and build a town? Nothing gets done unless you do it. There’s no way he could have been in a nursing home. He’d have brought his tool belt and remodeled the windows.”
(Editor’s note: Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at email@example.com)