San Juan County’s famous man-made wonder and the pioneers who built it
GIANTS OF SAN JUAN
The two million motorists who traverse US Hwy 191 between Monticello and Moab each year pass one of the most unique and interesting places in the Western United States.
Whether they top the highway at Kane Creek from the south or come around the sheer cliff from the north, the huge HOLE N” THE ROCK sign, painted high on the cliff, is impossible to miss.
Tens of thousands of visitors stop and visit. It is open year round. Many in the tourist industry agree that it is one of the most visited man-made attraction in southern Utah. And therein lies a tale.
It all started when Chris Lingaa (Lingo) Christensen, who came through San Juan’s other Hole-in-the-Rock southwest of Bluff and helped colonize San Juan’s flagship community. Later the Chris Christensen family migrated to Monticello.
Chris had a son named Niels J, better known later in life as Dick Hooten. Niels married Jean Hyde of Monticello. They raised a large family of five boys (Art, Clarence, Leo, Albert and Ted) and two daughters, Zola and Gwen. Jean was one of the town midwives and Niels mostly prospected for gold. He did not find much gold but he did find uranium which, at the time, was virtually worthless.
When their children were about half grown, Niels and Jean pulled up stakes in Monticello, headed 40 miles north and homesteaded an area around present day Kane Springs. They planned to create a half-way stop between Monticello and Moab, where travelers could rest, have water and feed their horses.
The Christensen’s first home was a one-room, pine-board cabin used for cooking and eating. The weathered wood building is still on the premises, although it has been moved from its original spot in front of “the Rock.” The family slept in tents. Niels was experienced in mining and had some equipment with which he blasted out a hole big enough for his five sons to sleep in. That first “bedroom” is now one of the tourist attractions at the Hole.
The whole family weathered the Depression. Things were rough. Many mouths to feed and little income. They ate mostly venison (gratefully poached) and beans and thanked their Creator for that. Despite virtually no education, the Christensen boys were all good mechanics and they became “Jacks-of-all trades” as much from necessity as desire.
The United States was in the throes of The Prohibition Era. Living in the desert so far from anyone, it is hard to imagine Dick Hooton’s boys getting into trouble, but they did.
They took their skills and went to the La Sal Mountains where they set up a number of stills. They became exceptional brewers of “White Mule,” “White Lightning,” “Moonshine” and “Barleycorn.”
Booze was shipped out in quart canning jars and because of their isolation they were rarely bothered by the “Revenuers” who were part of the Internal Revenue Service and commissioned to stamp out illegal liquor production.
While all the boys were involved, it was Albert who usually took the fall when they were apprehended by the law. Albert did his first stint in the Federal Penitentiary at Canon City, CO.
Because the prisons were filled to overflowing during Prohibition, sentences were usually short. Albert returned home and the boys moved their stills to more remote locations and went back into business.
Albert’s second run-in with the law was more serious. He was at a party in Monticello when the booze spigot ran dry. A friend let Albert borrow his car to make a run to Dove Creek for more “juice.” The “friend” turned out to be an undercover Revenuer and Albert was caught coming back to Monticello with a car load of hard liquor.
This time he ended up in Leavenworth. Ever the optimist, Albert returned home having learned two new trades: cooking and barbering. While in prison the second time, he also became acquainted with oil paints and sculpturing tools and methods, both of which went a long way to creating the Hole In” The Rock.
Albert was particularly adept at sculpting. During World War II he carved likenesses of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Wendell Wilkie on the big sandstone cliff near the Hole. President Roosevelt was Albert’s idol and he was also a great admirer of Wendle Wilkie, who ran against Roosevelt and lost. It never occurred to him that the slab of rock on which he spent months working did not belong to him; that it was just a few feet off of the homestead property.
Albert called his sculpture the “Unity Monument.” People in the area were impressed by Albert’s monument and a dedication ceremony was planned. Eighteen prominent people in southeastern Utah signed an invitation to Wendall Wilkie to attend the event, but it never happened.
Instead, government officials descended on the property, accused Albert of defacing public property, drilled holes, stuffed them with dynamite and blew Albert’s sculpture to smithereens. Needless to say, government officials became even less popular than they already were in both Grand and San Juan counties.
Remembered as a genius by many who knew him, Albert reputedly could do anything he set his mind to. Problem was, he always had a better idea come along before the first one was finished. His sister-in-law, Leona described him as a “crodab poet, a talented artist and a good rock chiseler.”
He was the family idea man and the idea he is most remembered for was talking his brothers into blasting a 5,000 square foot hole in the family rock, which would be made into 14 rooms, and would draw hundreds of thousands of visitors over the next several decades.
Albert was the idea man but his brothers did most of the backbreaking labor of blasting and removing 70,000 cubic feet of rock to make the dream a reality. Much of it was done while Albert was getting his “education” at Leavenworth.
And then World War II came along. Two of Albert’s brothers, Leo and Ted, signed up and went to war and the Hole N” The Rock dream was put on hold. It about killed Albert. He went to Salt Lake City, worked at odd jobs and became an alcoholic. He became seriously ill and nearly died. He received help from Alcoholics Anonymous, got well and became a devoted member of AA for the rest of his life.
In 1944, Albert was back at the Hole. He and some of the family furnished part of the rooms and Albert painted a huge sign over the hole which said Hole “n” The Rock Diner. His wife, Rita, did the cooking. The children were the servers and Albert mostly entertained his guests with stories about his colorful life. The Diner was an instant success.
There wasn’t another honky-tonk in the area. People were tired of war and in the mood to live it up. They came to eat, drink and dance. Beer flowed freely and there was a variety of other “beverages” beneath the counter.
The diner was especially known for its (poached) venison and beefsteaks. Charlie Redd once told Albert that his beef was a good as anything they raised at the Redd Ranches operation in LaSal.
Albert replied, “Well, Charlie, some it probably is from your ranch.” He hastily added that he was pretty sure that Swift Meats in Salt Lake City purchased Redd’s Steers.
Charlie accepted his story with a smile, perhaps feeling he could contribute a beef or two to Albert’s diner if it kept his cowboys well fed and happy.
The diner ran wide open. It was located in San Juan County but it was 40 miles from Monticello over primitive roads. The Hole was a thorn in the side of Moab law enforcement, but as long as nobody got killed, they mostly looked the other way when fights and drunkenness were reported.
The situation came to a head when a fist fight turned into a stabbing. The stabber was caught; the stabbee survived and the diner was closed. A preliminary hearing on the crime was held in Monticello. Twelve witnesses were called before the court. Each testified that he was too drunk to be able to ascertain who stabbed whom. The judge summarily threw the case out.
The family went their separate ways. Albert surfaced at an AA meeting in Montrose, CO a few years later. There he met a former friend, Gladys Davis. Gladys’ husband had recently died and left her with several businesses in the Montrose area. Gladys and Albert fell in love. She sold her holdings, and they went to Salt Lake City to be married. Gladys was baptized into the LDS Church and Albert “returned to his roots.” They were devout members of the Mormon Church for the rest of their lives.
With Gladys’ stash of cash, they purchased furniture and fixtures for the Hole and remodeled the place. They reopened on Christmas Eve of l953. Things were a lot tamer than in the old days, but the food was excellent and they soon had all the business they could handle. Albert put the skills as a chef he had learned in Leavenworth to work. Gladys was a marvel at public relations and decorating and the couple soon had even the influential Moab Lions Club at their place for monthly meetings.
All the local dignitaries were treated like kings and Charlie Redd, the King of Redd Ranches, and Fendoll Sitton, the new uranium millionaire of Dove Creek took turns talking about their empires over one of Albert’s special meals.
The timing was perfect. Charlie Steen had become a multi-millionnaire. The Hole N’ The Rock diner was halfway between Steen’s Mi Vida Mine and the uranium mill he was building in Moab. He and many of his employees became regulars coming and going from the mines in Lisbon Valley.
In the late l950s the uranium boom started to die. Many people lost employment and Moab’s population and economy went into another down cycle.
To keep things going at the Hole, Glady’s and Albert added a gift shop, and starting taking tourists on tours of the house. They turned the focus of their attention from dinner guests in Moab to tourists on Hwy 191. Business increased every year since.
The home in the Hole stays at a constant 65-70 degrees year round. Albert’s brothers, Leo and Clarence, hauled drilling equipment 60 feet up on the rock and drilled two 10 inch holes down through the rock for a fireplace vent. Though they didn’t really need the huge fireplace in the middle of their rock home, it made the place cozy in the winter.
Gladys and Albert had been married just five years when he died suddenly. He is buried in another hole east of the home. The burial place is built especially for that purpose by Albert. Gladys is buried beside Albert. Several other Christensen family members are also buried in another small cemetery on the homestead.
Gladys carried on for 17 years after Albert died. She continued to make improvements, hire help and increase the business. Her son Hub came to help her. He found the love of his life in Moab and married Fran Nash in a ceremony at the Hole in l979.
Hub and his wife worked hard and turned the Hole N’ The Rock into a world famous tourist attraction. More than 50,000 people a year signed up for the guided tour of their rock home and at least that many more stopped to just look around and shop.
In 2000, Hub and Fran retired. They sold out to a pair of entrepreneur couples from Salt Lake - Wyndee and Erik Hansen and Ken and Diane Rice. They brought with them many new ideas and the Hole-in-the-Rock footprint has grown much larger with the addition of a petting zoo for children, addition shopping and many other improvements.
The Hole N’ The Rock has grown to become one of the unique places to visit in the Western USA. It has been featured in many newspapers and magazines and has had the honor of being featured twice in National Geographic.
Imagine what Dick Hooter (Niels J) would think if he could see his old homestead today. All he set out to do was water and feed horses, let folks rest in the shade of his cottonwood trees and make a little bedroom for his five boys.
Today, his Spirit hangs out among the magnificent red cliffs, and his influence is never far from those who stop to enjoy his family’s handiwork.