Mesa Verde National Park:
Shadows of the Centuries
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Chapter 48
"To Get Away from It All"

Do Indians fall in love like we do?

What did they do for toilets?

How many cliff dwellings are there in Mesa Verde that have not as yet been found?

Don't you think that the constant climbing over these cliffs might cause the cliff dwellers to develop suction cups on their hands and feet? [1]

Those were some of the questions asked of startled park rangers during the 1930s, in all sincerity. Experienced ranger Don Watson called the question-and-answer game a battle of wits between himself and his tour group; he rated the last question in the list above as the "best" of the 1935 season. American tourists can be unintentionally funny. The 1930s were not a particularly humorous decade for most Americans, but nevertheless they kept coming to southwestern Colorado to see the country's best-known collection of cliff dwellings. What they saw was a park in the process of change.

An era came to an end when Jesse Nusbaum stepped down as superintendent in 1931, ending an outstandingly progressive decade of leadership. He resigned to become director of the Laboratory of Anthropology at Santa Fe, New Mexico. Before taking that job, he had been granted a leave of absence, which made the parting from Mesa Verde less abrupt. His departure did not break his ties to the park; Nusbaum would return twice in the next fifteen years, as superintendent from 1936 to 1939 and again during World War II.

He left behind a much stronger administration and a park much better managed than the one he had taken over ten years earlier. Director Horace Albright praised him: "Jesse was an archeologist and one of the best superintendents we ever had." Superintendent Robert Heyder echoed those sentiments in 1987 when he said Nusbaum was "probably the most significant superintendent we have ever had or will have. To me, he was the most important person in the development of the park." [2] Mesa Verde had come to maturity under Nusbaum's leadership—his successors could build on that solid foundation in the years ahead.

The immediate problem that affected the park, as well as the country as a whole, was the Great Depression, which came officially with the October 1929 stock market crash. Southwestern Colorado temporarily avoided the shock waves emanating from it. Not until the summer and fall of 1930 did the real impact hit, and once it grabbed hold, it hung on tenaciously for the next decade. Mining, agriculture, and business slumped, then plummeted, into the worst times in memory. The effects of the Depression can best be understood in personal terms. Etched in one woman's memory years later was the sight of her mother, with tears in her eyes and anguish in her voice, as she was forced to explain that there was no money for the treasured nickel ice cream cone. For young Durangoan C. Coyne Thompson, the search for a job turned out badly: "You couldn't get a job because people, like on the farms, could not afford to feed you, so you couldn't work for room and board."

For Mesa Verde, the Depression meant fewer visitors and a decreased budget, as the Depression reached its nadir in 1932­1933. Financial straits translated into a mimeographed annual report in 1932 (limited number of copies), an 8-1/3 percent salary cut, and a 10 percent reduction for construction. The superintendent described the obsession with the subject when he said that "the word economy has risen from obscurity to a prominent place in the thoughts and speech of all Americans."

During the Depression years, camping allowed some travelers to trim expenses. Camping conditions had improved significantly since the 1890s. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

The economic impact of the decline of tourism soon hit the local businesses and the park concessionaire. The decrease in visitors (not until 1934 was the 1931 number surpassed) had a successional impact on park enterprises; in the words of Superintendent Marshall Finnan in 1932, "There has been a decided tendency on the part of the traveling public to seek the most economical type of accommodations which has resulted in a material decrease in operators' revenues." [3] Despite the early decline in numbers, the Depression did not curtail visitation after the mid-1930s as much as the economic severity of the times might have suggested it would. The gradual improvement of the local and national economy helped put people back on the road, but it was more than that. The public saw the national parks as one of the best tourist bargains available to them and may have perceived the parks as offering a temporary haven from the harsh realities of the times. By the end of the 1939 season, even though the park still suffered from its isolation and poor roads, "a hell of a trip in and out of there," Mesa Verde visitor totals had reached 32,000. In spite of the encouraging upswing in attendance, this was only one-tenth of the Rocky Mountain National Park visitation.

Visitors were arriving in buses in the 1930s. It is June 1934, and Conoco's up-to-date bus has a whole parking lot to itself. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

By the 1930s, visitors were coming from all 48 states and territories, as well as from foreign countries (24 in 1932 and 13 in 1939, as war neared). National Park Director Horace Albright could proclaim proudly that Mesa Verde was fast attracting both national and international interest. Each year, the percentage of Colorado visitors decreased, as other states gained in numbers.

Among Coloradans, Mesa Verde became a popular destination for local high school students on their so-called sneak day, an annual senior ritual. Silverton teacher Fury Dalla remembered that the kids "wanted to go," even when they had to leave at 6:00 a.m. to arrive in the park before noon. Durangoan Phyllis Jones did not have to depart quite so early for her class's "senior sneak," which included parents, teachers, and plenty of food. She recalled vividly the unpaved Knife Edge Road: "It was beautiful and treacherous. It wasn't very wide." The class was divided into tour groups, each with a guide. "No one stopped at the top and looked down, we all went down. We saw some houses that have long since been closed to the public." [4]

Regardless of who they were or where they came from, visitors to Mesa Verde found a park that was better managed and more attractive than the one that had been seen by their contemporaries as few as a dozen years earlier. The Depression could not roll back the achievements of the Nusbaum years.

Jesse Nusbaum's legacy permeated the park. The prohibition against grazing meant that a "delight of wild flowers" once again greeted arrivals in May and June. That was justification enough, believed Director Albright, to deny a Mancos rancher's request for limited grazing: "From our standpoint there doesn't seem to be a solitary reason why we should again permit such use of park resources." [5] The water supply improved with the completion of a deep well drilling project in 1933 and the integration of all the park sources into a single system in the years that followed. These improvements, unfortunately, did not end the problem for all time—there were shortages again in 1936 and notices were posted urging conservation.

A new entrance station and a new campfire circle probably did not elicit exclamations of delight from park visitors; nevertheless, they contributed to the pleasure of tourists' visits, as did the introduction in 1935 of a radio communication system throughout the park. The direct benefits of an ongoing road improvement program were more appreciated, though little had been done to alleviate apprehension around the Knife Edge. By late 1935, most of the park roads were graveled. The rest, it was promised, within a "short time" would be covered with a layer of oiled gravel to end the "annoyance of mud and dust."

One improvement of benefit to visitors, though most would have been unaware of the magnitude of the change, was the upgrading of the educational and interpretive programs and the advancement in professionalism of the seasonal rangers and the permanent staff. The evolution had been slow but steady, beginning with the park's first political and local appointments and extending to the trained and knowledgeable rangers of the 1930s. The turning point had come with Nusbaum, who personally selected, trained, and indoctrinated his staff. The seasonal rangers usually came from the ranks of college students specializing in southwestern archaeology or some other archaeological major.

Specialists, such as a park naturalist, also joined the staff. In 1930, naturalist Paul Franke was placed in charge of the educational and nature work. (A few years later, this former teacher and school superintendent became park superintendent.) He took an important educational step by publishing Mesa Verde Notes, which featured stories of everything from prehistoric people to flora and fauna in the park. The staff in 1930 consisted of seven permanent and fifteen seasonal employees, the latter primarily ranger guides. Depending on park needs, laborers were employed on a temporary basis.

Tourists did appreciate the continuous upgrading of the museum. Although it was perhaps not quite what the Colorado Yearbook 1935—1936 claimed—"the largest and most comprehensive" exhibit of Mesa Verde archaeology available anywhere—it did offer the best display yet seen in the park. An attempt to improve it further by purchasing the Nordenskiold collection failed; otherwise, it expanded steadily. Among the exhibits that generated the most acclaim were the dioramas, which were finally completed in 1939 after several years of detailed, meticulous work. If finger-prints and nose prints on glass can serve as indicators, the Spruce Tree House diorama and an exhibit about cliff dwellers' diseases, as evidenced by their bones, won hands down as the most popular museum attractions of 1939. The diorama glass became smudged so quickly during the peak season that it had to be cleaned as often as every two hours. A natural history museum, opened in 1940, doubled the potential enjoyment for the public and added a new dimension to the park's interpretation. Visitors could also inspect the experimental cornfield, which marked its twentieth year in 1938; it had had only two crop failures during that time. [6] The Anasazi had probably done no better, at a time when the success or failure of crops meant feast or famine.

The Mesa Verde pamphlets published by the National Park Service told visitors explicitly what they could and could not do. They were warned that one rule would be "strictly enforced": No person could enter a cliff dwelling unless accompanied by a ranger or a ranger naturalist. Those planning only a one-day visit were urged not to attempt all the climbing trips, because they were "very strenuous" and could cause strained and aching muscles. "Headwork, rather than footwork, leads to an understanding of the Mesa Verde." [7]

The Depression retarded, but never halted, park operations at Mesa Verde. In the spring, the park was readied for its opening, and ruins repair work was started. Increased visitation meant that thousands of feet tramped by a site, a process that structurally damaged the fragile ruins and made painfully apparent the need to replace some of Fewkes's earlier reconstruction work. Under the direction of noted archaeologist Earl Morris, badly needed stabilization was begun. In 1934, a permanent stabilization team created "an economy, both in money and in results accomplished." [8] Morris's skillful repair work would serve as a model for future projects, as the park raced against time to save its heritage. Tourists came and went all the while, generally unaware of all the preservation activity going on in the canyons and on the mesa. Each fall, the exhausted staff prepared for the closing of the park as another season passed into history.

During the tourist season the park staff had to contend with vandalism, petty and otherwise. The old familiar urge to see one's name in public places lured many people into trouble, including Denverite Dolores Houck, who left her address as well! In a stern letter, she was asked to pay for the cost of sanding and repainting the "viewpoint" box cover. Her alternative was to prepare to stand trial! "The circumstance of finding your name and address at a prominent and much visited location of this national park will, I am certain, prove embarrassing for you. It is certainly disturbing to us. What sort of a park would we have if each visitor inscribed his name and address or his mark herein." Five high school students from nearby Bayfield, Colorado, also found out about the long arm of federal jurisdiction when they defaced one of the walls of Spruce Tree House.

Cameras stolen from cars, names inscribed on ruins, joyriding in U.S. government trucks—malice and mischief of this kind disrupted the regimen of the superintendents. The problem became so bad in 1938 that Paul Franke wrote to J. Edgar Hoover to ask for F.B.I. help. He expressed regret at bothering Hoover on so trivial a matter, but he was "extremely annoyed by the cases of petty thievery." [9] The bureau's response has been lost.

Employees were reminded on several occasions not to abuse the use of the telephone with extended conversations and to pay personal toll charges "within 24 hours." When electrical home appliances interfered with radio newscasts, the topic created serious discussion at the September 5, 1939, staff meeting. With the world situation deteriorating around them and newspapers arriving belatedly, park management decided that newscasts and programs "should not be subject to this interference." In the days that followed, the staff switched on their static-free radios to hear grim war news from Poland and other parts of Europe.

Of less import were the purchase of a Ping-Pong table and the building of a ski run and a new tennis court. These additions upgraded the limited recreational facilities available to the staff and, at least in the realm of Ping-Pong, allowed some players to "develop into quite a group of champions." The tennis court caused almost more trouble than it was worth, first in construction delays, then in repairs.

Phantoms from the past rose up to haunt the present. From time to time, an old-timer would appear, claiming that he had made the first discovery of the ruins. "Publicity seekers," a disgusted Finnan called them, bemoaning the dearth of pioneer records to rebut such pretensions. One who had been intimately involved in the discovery and development of Mesa Verde, Charlie Mason, came to the park for the last time in 1935 and related his adventures of nearly fifty years ago; within a year he was dead. [10]

Staff conference minutes from June through August 1936 provide a sampling of typical administrative problems and issues that had to be dealt with. Vandalism, the need to keep the grounds "neat and clean," and the low water reserves came up for discussion. Complaints about mosquitoes, flies, and odors in the camping and headquarters areas received a hearing, were investigated, and, it is hoped, were ultimately resolved. Improper parking and cars driven into trees prompted deliberation of campground problems. "Stray cats in the park" caused consternation. Their presence in itself was a mystery, since domestic felines had always been banned by federal regulation. Somehow, the ingenious creatures circumvented one of the park's oldest rules. Other subjects for discussion included arrangements for the fall school term and the need for a community church. [11] Mesa Verde had its own elementary school; high school students had to go elsewhere.

The inevitable life of bureaucracy tormented some of the staff. Charles Quaintance, a naturalist assistant, was transferred to Mesa Verde from Rocky Mountain National Park in December 1934. After only three months, he complained to the chief of the wildlife division that there were no "problems to study" and that his position did not give him time to study wildlife itself: "My training and leaning is for work as a field naturalist, rather than for office work." He apologized for not submitting his February report on time, explaining that the typist had been diverted by other administrative work. [12]

The superintendent sometimes became embroiled in unanticipated emotional issues. In 1939, for instance, longtime "outstanding" friend of the park Edward Taylor supported an attempt to change the name from Mesa Verde to Cliff Dwellings National Park, exactly what the women's group had suggested forty years before. "Mesa Verde" seemed meaningless, Congressman Taylor argued; "Cliff Dwellings" would tell the world what the park was all about. Nusbaum hied himself off to Washington to meet with Taylor, there to impress upon him the fact that the name Mesa Verde had been in the public, the historic, and the scientific mind since 1873 and that a change would require "very careful consideration."

Bolstered by National Park Service support, Nusbaum also carried with him letters from local citizens who opposed the change. Durango banker A. M. Camp tackled the matter more directly by writing his congressman. Mesa Verde, he contended, was "romantic Spanish nomenclature, reflecting the charm of the southwest," and, furthermore, the name "Cliff Dwellings" represented nothing specific. Tourists might pass up the park thinking, "Oh, I saw cliff dwellings in New Mexico and Arizona." In the face of persistent persuasion, Taylor threw in the towel, writing "Friend Nusbaum" that as long as substantial opposition stood against a change, which it did overwhelmingly, he would take no action. However, he warned, "at the same time, I will prophesy that such a change will be made sometime in the future." Nusbaum won another concession for his beloved Mesa Verde. [13] There had also been a brief flurry of interest in naming it the Edward T. Taylor National Park in recognition of the congressman's "years of useful public service." That idea died in infancy.

Franklin Roosevelt's administration had the same tremendous impact on Mesa Verde that it did on other American institutions. Elected in 1932 to try to jump-start the country into moving again, Roosevelt launched a sweeping New Deal program, and federal agencies proliferated. The Rural Electrification Administration, for example, brought electricity into southwestern Colorado and the park, a long-sought improvement. Ranger Kenny Ross pinpointed what this meant:

That was an experience in the late thirties and early forties to see the lights go on all over the country. Driving back and forth it was very striking. It happened over a period of many months, first a light way out by Pleasant View, then another blinked on somewhere else. It was interesting, you realized something was going on, the country was moving out of the real pioneering life into the modern world. [14]

Tourists driving that same road probably did not take time to philosophize about the changes going on around them—they were concentrating too hard on staying as far away from the edge as they could. A night trip would have been out of the question.

One of the most popular programs with the president, and with the voters as well, was the Civilian Conservation Corps (C.C.C.), an effort to take unemployed young men off the streets and out of the towns and put them to work. The C.C.C. soon had more than a quarter of a million youths working under army officers to clear forests, plant trees, improve roads, and perform other useful tasks. Over two and one-half million young men eventually found employment through the C.C.C. at a total cost of some $3 billion. Mesa Verde, and all other national parks, provided natural sites for these kinds of activities. Fortunately for Mesa Verde, a six-year development plan had already gotten under way when the C.C.C. appeared on the scene; all the superintendent had to do was turn over some of the projects to it.

The C.C.C. camps located in the park truly symbolized the program. The first C.C.C. camp was established in May 1933 in Prater Canyon; it was abandoned the next year when year-round camps were constructed on Chapin Mesa, slightly over a mile north of park headquarters. In the first years, two camps stood there side by side, but in 1937 they merged into one. Wooden buildings—barracks, infirmary, mess hall, recreational hall, quarters for officers—gave the camp the appearance of a military post.

The C.C.C.'s real reason for existence lay not in building camps but in giving young men a new start in life. With high hopes, they came to Mesa Verde National Park (most of them aged eighteen to twenty-three) from Mancos, Durango, and the surrounding area, as well as from Oklahoma, Texas, and Arizona. They had been unemployed, many of them on relief rolls. The C.C.C. men signed on for a six-month tour. After a one to two-week conditioning period and time to recover from inoculations, they worked a forty-hour week (less transportation time) on various projects within the park. They earned thirty dollars a month, of which twenty-five dollars were sent home. For those without families, the army held the money in a savings account until the individual's discharge. [15]

The purpose of the program was twofold—to help the park and the individual. Young men, many of them disadvantaged by the hard times, were given a rare opportunity for education, recreation, social activity, a job, acquiring skills, and—according to the flowery editor of Mesa Verde Notes—"a chance to live in the great outdoors, to feel the body develop and the muscles grow taut under the impulse of hard work, and to earn money with their own hands; that is what the C.C.C. is offering the Colorado boys in the camp." It would be virtually impossible to single out a park activity that was not affected by C.C.C. money, personnel, and program.

CCC employees
The coming of the Civilian Conservation Corps introduced a new era for Mesa Verde. The boys shown in this photo are cleaning their plates near the mess hall. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

Before the camps shut down in 1942, the C.C.C. crews constructed and remodeled buildings, ran surveys, improved roads, landscaped, did maintenance work, built furniture, operated the switchboard, helped excavate pithouses, and carried out insect control programs; the list stretched endlessly. They fought fires, one of their most dangerous tasks. In 1934, Mesa Verde suffered severe fire damage—2,229 acres were burned in one major and four small fires. One C.C.C. camper, stationed in the rear to fight spot fires, found it hard to concentrate on the fire: "We hadn't anything to eat until we finally took some cheese and bread" from one of the crews up front. [16] Abetted by extremely dry conditions and strong, hot winds, that fire resisted control by almost one thousand men, and it left scars on the western end of the park that endure to this day.

The C.C.C. projects that were most obvious to visitors dealt with the museum, where the young men arranged exhibits, including the dioramas, rebuilt pots from shards, and catalogued collections. Their endeavors there "stand as a lasting monument to the CCC at Mesa Verde."

John McNamara and Coyne Thompson were two of the young men who joined the C.C.C., because "that was the only job, there were not any jobs available." Their experiences encompassed both the good and the bad. John worked in the sandstone quarry for a while:

They would drill holes, put steel wedges and double jack it out. About twenty of us at a certain command would swing and it only took a couple of swings before the whole block fell out. Then the stone masons who were members of the camp would cut them into blocks. Then we would load it on trucks. One thing about the CCC camp, I always said, you earned every damn bit of money you got.

Thompson was not a part of that project, nor of the road crew "chain gangs." His first assignment was "the bug detail on the trees that were infested with bugs. From that I went into the excavating of ruins." Reveille came at 6:00 a.m., followed by breakfast, and then it was off to the work detail. "The food was pretty good, really pretty good," according to Coyne, who went on to add with a laugh, "We had cooks and they had bakers. And guys had KP."

About their contact with Park Service people, both said with amusement, "We met them all the time. They didn't work with us—they were in a higher class of nobility than we were." Reflecting on their experiences, they agreed that "it was a growing up education. By the time you left, you were able to cope with the world at large. It was a good experience, there wasn't any doubt about it." [17]

Another C.C.C. veteran, Robert Beers, concurred with the assessment of the other two with regard to the worth of the program. He had worked on the road, in the office, and on the bug eradication detail. As he reviewed his service, however, he remembered most fondly the porcupine crew. Its job was to hunt porcupines, which damaged trees by their eating habits; the results were mixed: "I don't know if there was truly an invasion of porcupines, up there or not, but some naturalist decided they ought to control the porcupine. We had our 22's from home and we'd go out, primarily at night. I don't think we ever shot very many." Although they posed no serious threat to the pesky porcupines, the C.C.C. boys probably were the culprits who smuggled the cats into the park. A kitten held great appeal as a pet in the spartan barracks.

CCC planners
Among the projects the C.C.C. worked on were the dioramas. Two future superintendents, Meredith Guillet and Paul Franke, and Kenny Ross are shown here busily making plans. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

The C.C.C. publications, Kiva Krier and Cliff Dwellers, give further glimpses of life in the park and the camp. Sports, dances, movies, and parties enlivened leisure hours. Basketball and softball (a baseball diamond had been built) were popular sports, but football was abolished by order of the district commander after two players suffered injuries during a game in the 1934 season. Weekly movies, featuring such all-time Park Service favorites as Glimpses of Yosemite and Beavers, came around in regular cycles; fortunately, the audience changed as enlistments ended. Holiday meals for those who remained in camp offered special treats. An enthusiastic writer, in the December 25, 1937, Cliff Dweller, raved about the previous Thanksgiving's dinner: a "swell meal," which earned nothing but praises from the guests and corpsmen. "Everyone ate and ate until not room for so much as even a last bit of dandy mince pie." [18]

Economic benefits were bestowed by the corps beyond the realms of Mesa Verde because of the money sent home to parents, the men hired as supervisors, and the supplies and materials purchased for use on park projects. Those purchases came as a godsend to hard-pressed merchants.

Durango's Jackson Hardware sold all the buckets, axes, and ropes it had in stock during the great Wetherill Mesa fire of 1934. Tourists, too, spent money beyond Mesa Verde, the average estimated to be about ten dollars per day per person in the late 1930s. Because a two-day stay was almost mandatory, the dollars pumped into the local economy amounted to "no small sum," as one analyst pointed out. [19] All these benefits brought some relief from the Depression that still lay on towns and farms.

Everything was not as sanguine in the C.C.C. camps as it might have appeared to be—or as the nation ardently wished it. Yellowstone officials faced a discipline crisis in 1933 with street-wise New York enrollees, which resulted in a strike, the discharging of ringleaders, and one death before the situation calmed. Mesa Verde was fortunate to confront only what might have been expected—some drinking and disruption in neighboring communities at dances and other social activities. One escapade in Dolores, however, led to the arrest and jailing of several C.C.C. campers. Their friends took a truck over and freed them by lifting the building off its foundation and dropping it into the river. The result was "quite a stink raised about it." [20]

The Depression and the coming of the New Deal made an impact throughout the National Park Service as well as at Mesa Verde. The C.C.C. boys were employed everywhere, and federal money underwrote a multitude of projects. Thanks to Roosevelt's interest and the needs created by hard times, the parks got a boost they would not have received otherwise. They served as an economic refuge, an unforeseen blessing in those dark days. [21]

In the middle of this traumatic decade, Durango came out the winner over declining Mancos in their battle for supremacy. With a broader-based economy, Durango was better able to weather the crisis, while Mancos suffered a disheartening setback when the railroad's tourist transportation collapsed. Alvene and Fury Dalla, who remembered Mancos firsthand, described it as "a very little town at the time, a little farming community." Its population of 748 in 1940 paled in comparison to Durango's 5,400. With improved highways, which included the formidable Wolf Creek Pass, Durango appeared to have a bright future as a tourist center.

Durango—larger, wealthier, and feistily aggressive—swamped its one-time rival with a more dynamic advertising program. Maps showed Durango as the center of southwestern Colorado; Mancos was nowhere in sight. Durango also had a radio station, three times as many hotels and restaurants as Mancos, and an airport. Will Rogers landed there in 1935 and took off the next day to circle Mesa Verde on his way to Los Angeles. Durango, not Mancos, was featured in Rogers's newspaper column. The Mancos paper could only mention that he had flown over; the brief item spoke volumes about the community's position. Mancos no longer controlled its own destiny.

Durango would not reign unchallenged. As Mancos declined, Cortez made another bid for recognition. The future of Cortez depended upon highway improvements to the west, south, and north. The possibilities for bringing in tourists from the trains running through Gallup lasted only a short while; the decline in passenger traffic hurt the Santa Fe Railroad as much as it did the Rio Grande Southern. Eventually the future of both communities rode with the automobile and with improved feeder roads to tap the tourist traffic on such U.S. highways as Route 66 through Gallup. Unfortunately, the best efforts of both the Gallup and the Cortez Chambers of Commerce failed to achieve the improvement and oiling of a key highway, Route 666, between the two towns. [22] The driver wending his way to Cortez still found that near-frontier road conditions made an adventure of crossing the Navajo reservation in New Mexico.

To the northwest, Utah was awakening to the drawing power of Mesa Verde and to its tourist potential. The Lions Club of Moab, Utah, believed that highway signs could promote the park and Utah communities. In a 1935 letter to Superintendent Ernest Leavitt, the club regretted that it found itself "quite badly embarrassed financially," and it begged for help from Mesa Verde. Leavitt advised the Lions that he was required to expend his appropriations within the park boundaries, but he encouraged them in their project. Montrose, Colorado, proposed a similar idea with an interesting twist—it wanted to be promoted as lying on the shortest route between Yellowstone and Mesa Verde. [23] Expectations exceeded realities in all cases. There was no doubt, though, that Durango would confront new rivals in the years ahead.

Tourists entering the park, regardless of the direction from which they came, found a major change in the management of park concessions in the late 1930s. In 1929, the Mesa Verde Park Company, a subsidiary of the Denver & Rio Grande Western (a new name reflecting the railroad's 1921 reorganization), had bought out Oddie Jeep. The new company took over with high hopes and a great deal of planning, only to fall victim to the Depression and to the drastic decline in railroad travelers. In addition, its innkeeping fell far short of earlier standards; one of the workers said the style was "more or less old fashioned . . . with everything sort of formal." That image did not accommodate well to the new generation of the 1930s; public tastes were changing. Not all the blame could be laid to the parent D&RGW; the same thing happened in Yellowstone, where the hotel business collapsed. By 1937, the Mesa Verde Park Company had declared bankruptcy. In June of that year, Ansel Hall took over the operation, and for four decades, his Mesa Verde Company ran the park concessions. [24]

The Halls had been encouraged to come to Mesa Verde by Jesse Nusbaum, back again as superintendent. Ansel's wife, June, was apprehensive about what they had purchased: "When we bought it, there were nothing but wooden cabins down in the headquarters area. . . . They had two bathtubs in a little bath house." But both Halls saw the potential and set to work. [25]

Ansel Hall, a rare combination of romantic idealist and practical businessman, would be the dominant figure in the future concessionaire developments of Mesa Verde. A graduate of the University of California with a degree in forestry (a member of the school's first class with that major), Hall had hired on with the National Park Service as a ranger with a decided interest in the interpretive possibilities of parks. Now forty-one years old, he had advanced rapidly in the National Park Service to become chief naturalist and chief forester. When another career advancement was offered, he decided he did not wish to move his family to Washington, D.C. His catholic interests—photography, forestry, museums, nature, and education—had served him well and would continue to do so in the park. [26] Never before had the Mesa Verde concessions been in such good hands. Among the first things Hall did was to open a store, stocked full of groceries and fresh meat, for park residents and visitors. Nusbaum promptly recommended to his employees that they shop there; since it was "established to meet your demands—it merits your patronage."

In January 1938, when Jesse Nusbaum went to Washington to a parks conference, he discussed the changes he had seen and what prospects the future held. Whereas the parks had once been platted to meet the needs of very limited and slow-moving traffic, now its problems came from the speed and volume of automobiles. This intrusion brought into question the proper use of parks, heretofore interpreted to be to provide reasonable and restrictive access for visitors, with shelter, food, safety, and sanitary facilities available to the public. These things, centralized on Chapin Mesa, had formed the core of Mesa Verde's program, along with what Nusbaum termed the "wilderness concept." Because of its single highway entrance, Nusbaum pointed out, Mesa Verde remained largely a wilderness of precipitous canyons and intervening mesa lands. With great foresight, he spoke to future generations: "The perpetuation and preservation unimpaired of wilderness values of national parks continue as its most potent ideals and functional objectives." [27] The Depression and then World War II prevented immediate consideration of preserving a wilderness experience, but the idea did not die.

equipment clearing a slide
The Mancos shale under Knife Edge Road tended to slide, which did little to bolster tourists' confidence. Fortunately, this slide came in November 1941, after the park had closed for the season. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

The attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, brought the United States into World War II. These remarks, found in the January 10, 1942, monthly report, showed the depth of American feeling:

The outbreak of hostilities brought on by Japan's sneaking back-stab at our Pacific possession imposes on all of us a prime duty to assist in any way possible to eradicate predator dictatorships and greedy cliques from the face of the earth. We all stand eager and willing to do what we can to help.

In this way, Mesa Verde went to war.

More changes came quickly. The Depression had already made an impact on tourism; now the war virtually suspended park activity. Visitor totals dropped from 36,000 to 4,000, and the average stay was shorter, too (the majority raced through the park in one day). Jesse Nusbaum returned again as acting superintendent in May 1942 and watched as employees were drafted, park funds were cut, and the C.C.C. camps were closed. One of the last camp commanders, Angelo Brewer, remembered how his family "enjoyed it very much" living there. But he soon went directly into service, and not long afterward, the army requisitioned all the supplies and equipment, even a few portable buildings that could be carried away easily. An era had ended, and Nusbaum wondered how the park would find the "forces and funds" in these dire times to replace the C.C.C. It was a "matter of grave concern," he believed. [28] However, Mesa Verde's "long established prestige for service" was maintained, the proud superintendent reported, through "generous contributions of overtime."

Park life went on with a reduced staff; the entrance checking station, for example, was not staffed after the fall of 1942. The crews maintained roads as well as circumstances permitted, and park services were continued. At least ten overnight guests were required to ensure a campfire program. Rangers conducted only two ruins trips per day. Despite the cutbacks, visitors kept on getting themselves lost and periodic searches were undertaken, just as in years past. Rangers arrested poachers and warned speeders. Vandalism declined. Among the less important projects during this time was a prairie dog survey, conducted in 1943. The survey results indicated that no control program was needed, although rats, mice, and the "kissing bugs" were poisoned at the superintendent's home, where they had managed to become a problem. [29]

Kenny Ross described those years: "We did have tourists and we had almost no staff. For three years it was just work, day and night, to keep up." Knife Edge, he observed, still gave visitors fits. The beautiful Luise Rainer a two-time Academy Award winner for best actress, enjoyed Mesa Verde, although "she had to have someone drive her car out. Her excuse was that on the way up she had driven on the inside, but that wasn't true, especially on the Knife Edge." One of the young Hall girls, Robin, held slightly different memories:

The thing I remember most was that whatever you wanted to do, you couldn't do it. You could climb a tree, but climbing a cedar tree is a little bit stickery. You couldn't dig a hole, you couldn't pick flowers. . . . I remember hiking was never something that I enjoyed. In Mesa Verde to hike you had to go down, that was the easy part, coming home you had to walk up. [30]

A group of soldiers from Camp Carson, Colorado, toured the park in 1943 while awaiting orders to travel to more dangerous fronts. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

Growing up in the park atmosphere could be difficult. One time her father received a note saying that she, her brother, and several playmates had been sliding in Calloway's barn. That incident was minor compared to the major infraction—they had also built a fire in the hand forge and had played with the blower, shooting flames almost to the ceiling!

During those years, employees patriotically purchased war bonds and collected scrap metal during the various drives; they planted victory gardens, suffered through shortages and rationing, and cooperated with wartime agencies. Unlike some other parks, Mesa Verde was never used for military purposes.

One of the war-related problems that did, however, confront Nusbaum involved a demand—reminiscent of 1917—by ranchers to open the park for grazing. Patriotic ranchers (the Mancos Cattlemen's Association) claimed that this concession would help the war effort. They propounded all kinds of arguments about why grazing would not hurt the park or interfere in any way with visitation. Their one failure was underestimating Nusbaum, who more than matched the opposition at hearings held in November 1942. He had been down this road before and forcefully presented his evidence and beliefs: "The concept of a national park—for the benefit and enjoyment of all the people" would not be derailed by local ranchers dressed in patriotism. He prevailed and "put a monkey-wrench in their machinery, at least for the present." The victory was not absolute; Nusbaum had to be on the lookout for illegal grazing for the remainder of the war. [31]

By spring 1945, the end of the war hovered in sight. As Americans entered a new era, so did their national park system. What lay ahead was a subject of speculation, but more changes would come, without question. What they would mean for Mesa Verde, only the future could tell. Jesse Nusbaum had an inkling—in his June 11 monthly report he noted that inquiries had already crossed his desk from both east and west coast war workers who wanted "to get away from it all."


Mesa Verde National Park: Shadows of the Centuries
©2002, University Press of Colorado
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Copyright © 2002 Duane A. Smith, published by the University Press of Colorado. Material from this edition may not be reproduced in any manner without the written consent of the author and the University Press of Colorado.