Mesa Verde National Park:
Shadows of the Centuries
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Chapter 7:
The Nusbaum Years

JESSE NUSBAUM BECAME SUPERINTENDENT of Mesa Verde National Park on May 21, 1921. Although Nusbaum's appointment attracted little attention from Americans caught up in what would be known as the roaring twenties, his presence dominated the next phase of the park's history. The lanky thirty-two-year-old Nusbaum, the first trained archaeologist to attain the office of superintendent, had worked at Mesa Verde as early as 1907. He and another promising young archaeologist, Alfred V. Kidder, had come with Jesse Fewkes to survey and to photograph ruins. And Nusbaum was the one who completed the Balcony House work for Virginia McClurg.

Interested in archaeology since his boyhood in Greeley, Colorado (where he spent hours poring over Nordenskiold's text and photographs), Nusbaum had gained wide experience from digging in Central America and the Southwest. In the years to come, one of his major accomplishments would be the upgrading of archaeological research, when he could find the time to devote to it. Those precious hours would become available only in the winter, when snow closed the park roads. [1]

By 1921, at the time of his appointment, Nusbaum had acquired a variety of experiences upon which to draw, and he needed them all. Once again, the administration of Mesa Verde had foundered on the rocks of incompetence: Thomas Rickner's superintendency had collapsed under charges of nepotism, cronyism, and partisan politics. One visitor even accused Mancos and Cortez people of entering the park without reporting themselves and of flouting the rules and regulations. Sunday seemed to be a day devoted to revelry. Someone else criticized the lack of protection for the ruins and the inadequate visitors' services and facilities.

Jesse Nusbaum inherited a peck of troubles, which he described succinctly as an "unholy mess." The removal of Rickner did not put everything to rights. Chief ranger Fred Jeep, Rickner's soninlaw, lingered on, continuing his practice of illegally excavating park ruins ("pot hunting," Nusbaum disparagingly called it). His wife, Oddie, ran the concessions, and most of the other jobs were held by relatives of the Rickners and the Jeeps. To make matters worse, the highlights of Nusbaum's telephone calls rapidly surfaced on the streets of Mancos. He soon found out why—Rickner's daughter was the operator. Nusbaum immediately requested a replacement for her. [2]

In a letter to a friend, dated June 1922, Nusbaum revealed his trying situation. Jeep, he observed, was a sick man, having fallen victim to a large overdose of wood alcohol (bootleggers operated everywhere, flagrantly defying the law of prohibition). Jeep's son wreaked his share of havoc, too, including scribbling over the park register, throwing ashes across the recently scrubbed museum floor, and "raising hell in general." Several of Jeep's friends, whom Nusbaum refused to rehire, spent the winter in Mancos recounting how the superintendent had cheated them out of their pay. Nusbaum had had enough. He fired Jeep in 1922, citing a variety of reasons. Nusbaum admitted that he never again "would accept an appointment where a family had intermingled interests." He rose to the challenge: "We are here to win out, put this park in the best shape possible and make every visitor a continual booster for it." [3]

All of Nusbaum's considerable skills would be required to achieve the "best shape possible" in the park's administration; there would be no time for archaeology for the moment. Nusbaum had seen signs of what he would be in for during a disconcerting grilling in Washington by Colorado's senior senator, Republican Lawrence Phipps. At one time a partner of Andrew Carnegie, Phipps had come to Denver in 1901. Already a millionaire, he came not to make money, "but to invest in health and happiness . . . to hunt and to fish." This conservative businessman seemed much more concerned about Nusbaum's politics than about his qualifications. [4] Phipps begrudgingly concurred in the appointment, but Nusbaum would hear from him again.

Willing to rush in where angels feared to tread, Nusbaum quickly announced that park headquarters would be moved to Spruce Tree camp, where he would also build the superintendent's home. Mancos rose up in righteous anger; letters were dispatched to Phipps, and Nusbaum soon received a call from the irate senator. In no uncertain terms, the senator admonished him to return promptly to Mancos: "It's your responsibility to run the park and attend to Republican lines in that region and let the ranger run the Park." Risking his job, Jesse replied that he had pledged to administer the park in the public interest and that he planned to devote his full time to that responsibility. [5] Nusbaum prevailed, and the headquarters stayed in Mesa Verde.

The first project, the superintendent's home, was designed and built by Nusbaum, who based it on Hopi architecture. He also made the furniture along the simple lines of New Mexico's earliest Spanish colonial style. The Nusbaums lived first in a tent, then in a ranger's cottage. Finally, in mid-March 1922, they moved into their uncompleted new home. They, and one other employee, were the first people to winter in the park, their only links to the outside world being a forty-mile pack trail and the slender telephone wire.

"We observed Christmas [1921] in great style, having sent in a pack outfit to Mancos several days before for packages that had arrived, Christmas supplies, mail, etc." A decorated tree, a turkey dinner, and wreaths made of red cedar branches with purple berries added to the festivities of the only day Nusbaum took off all month. Work on the house claimed all of his time. During brief spare moments, the family managed to squeeze in skating on the reservoir and sledding. One of the heaviest snow seasons in years locked the Nusbaums in the park. [6]

The house was a triumph. When curious tourists clamored to see it inside and out, the Nusbaums bowed to their wishes and opened it for public tours. Overly aggressive individuals inevitably strained their hospitality beyond tolerable limits; in 1925, Park Service Director Stephen Mather, at Nusbaum's urging, ended the open-door policy: "A man's home is his castle and the superintendents of our parks and their families are entitled to, and should have, that privacy in their own homes that any other citizen is entitled to." [7] Surviving the flap over moving the headquarters and completing his home freed Nusbaum to put his stamp on the administration and development of the park.

visitor descending cliff
Visiting Cliff Palace was more of an adventure in the "olden days." (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

Grazing, after first being reduced, came to an end in 1927, over the strong objections of local cattlemen. Its demise was long overdue because of the damage it caused. Nusbaum described it this way: "The cattle were eating the place up, trampling down shrubbery, browsing, trailing over muddy roads, jumping up the banks of road slopes, tearing them down, and rolling rocks into the road in the process." Jesse had been warned that tampering with grazing permits "was extremely hazardous, very much like professional suicide," but he was not deterred. "We are not in the cattle business," Nusbaum announced emphatically. Angered locals had suffered another blow to the long-established practice of favoritism. Rickner had actually allowed his friends and in-laws to graze their cattle without paying a fee. [8] The recipients of his favors quite naturally preferred a less professional, more political superintendent.

Coal mining also drew to a close, but with less emotion. This time Nusbaum's job was smoothed by the meagerness of the deposits (only one lessee attempted to operate in the early 1920s, but without success) and the fact that improved roads and trucking made transporting coal to Cortez easier and cheaper. The superintendent discovered that the coal actually came from the adjoining Ute lands, and he shifted whatever royalties accrued to them. In a small way, the question of coal mining at Mesa Verde helped to force a resolution of the larger issue of mining in the parks. By a 1920 act, Congress had ended the activities of prospectors and miners in the national parks; in 1931, a bill specifically prohibited mining in Mesa Verde. Over the years since, mining interests have exerted pressure to open park lands. [9] Mesa Verde, however, has not been one of their targeted areas—its mineral potential is too limited to generate much interest.

Nusbaum was also faced with the ongoing water problems. Increased visitation had once more put pressure on the supply; stop-gap measures, consisting of a gas engine and a pump, combined with a water tower near the lodge, allowed the park to accommodate needs into the 1920s. But the vexing impediment to park prosperity would not go away, and again it threatened to inhibit the visitors' enjoyment and limit the campers' stay. The direct relationship between water supply and visitation remained grimly evident.

Moving forcefully in the face of the usual shortages of funds, the superintendent installed a new pumping plant, constructed dams to impound spring runoff, and built large tanks and an underground cistern for storage. One of the more interesting innovations came with an acre-sized catchment, covered with galvanized sheet metal, which was connected to tanks to catch, filter, and store rain water. [10] In desperation, a second catchment unit was built, but visitors' demands still exceeded the water supply. By 1930, the forecast of acute water shortages forced the planning process to begin all over again. Some people began to understand why the Anasazi had left!

Resolving the grazing and mining issues out of the three most pressing problems, and staying nearly even with the third, would have satisfied most men, but Nusbaum had only begun. He rapidly moved on to improving the park experience for the visitors. No more youngsters gave tours; regularly scheduled morning and afternoon auto caravan trips to the ruins, conducted by rangers, took their place. No more people scampered over the ruins and picked up shards at will if the superintendent could prevent it. Signs were posted to instruct visitors, and evening campfire talks enlightened them on the park's attractions and its history.

Upgrading the professionalism of the rangers became one of the superintendent's first priorities. Although the program was designed to please the public, it elicited at least one complaint from a contrary tourist who said that a ranger "used too big words." Nusbaum investigated and ascertained that the ranger had been "conscientiously" carrying out his duty; it was recommended that he simply refrain from using "unusual and obscure words."

When the 1927 season arrived, the park was open from May 15 to November 1. Car trips were scheduled for 8:00 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. sharp, with no deviations in time allowed. Shorter trips, at 10:00 a.m. and at 3:30 p.m., accommodated latecomers. The daily fee of one dollar allowed tourists to come in as early as 5:00 a.m., and they could now drive faster, as the speed limit had been increased to twelve miles per hour on the hills and twenty-five miles per hour on the open stretches. Wagon teams still retained the right of way, but cars no longer had to stop as long as they passed the horses at less than eight miles per hour. That restriction held little significance—horses had become rarer than automobiles had been before the war.

Free public campgrounds lured the campers away from Mrs. Jeep, and for the first time, they were well marked and easily found. Campers, admonished to "leave your camp site clean when you leave the park," did not always obey, forcing park employees to clean up after them. Everyone was warned to conserve water, not to bathe in the park's reservoirs, and to abide by all the other rules and regulations. [11] Mesa Verde had come of age as a professionally operated and administered park.

Most of the changes in the park can be attributed to the car, a mixed blessing, indeed. Its use contributed growing numbers of visitors; they came at greater velocity but not always with an increased appreciation of what they saw. The use of automobiles had produced that breed of tourists who trailed a cloud of dust in their hurry to cover as many miles and visit as many places as possible in the shortest time. What could be experienced and enjoyed along the way began to seem to be of little consequence.

The automobile, better roads, and camping facilities brought vacations and Mesa Verde within the economic reach of almost everyone. The impetus was reflected dramatically in park attendance, which jumped to over 16,800 in 1928 (six times what it had been in 1920), a record that stood until 1931. Nevertheless, isolation, relatively weak promotional efforts, and no nearby major population center continued to affect visitation to Mesa Verde; Rocky Mountain National Park attendance in 1928 topped 250,000. Mesa Verde's unique role as a cultural park also hurt it. While park advocates and other Americans were debating the functions that parks should serve—a "people's playground" versus a nature experience, for example—Mesa Verde sat on the sidelines. [12] It was evident that more American vacationers than ever were traveling west, but it was by no means clear what was enticing them there. If attendance figures can serve as indicators it seems safe to assume that scenery, recreation, and mountains outclassed mesas, history, and cliff dwellings in influencing vacation plans.

Visitors' reactions to Mesa Verde provide interesting reading. A sampling from the 1920s included these: "The Cliff dwellings should be counted as one of the Wonders of the World," "Good retreat for honeymooners," "A most interesting and educational park full of romance and thrills," and "Today is the realization of a ten year ambition. . . . Hats off to Mesa Verde." [13]

Jesse Nusbaum worked unstintingly during these years; nothing stopped or even slowed him once he had made up his mind to do something. Almost nothing, that is. Government reports were known to have driven him nearly to distraction. He complained repeatedly about "useless" reports, until he finally exploded to the director after being informed that other park superintendents complied: "I admit I have been negligent in the matter—I would rather be doing the work—helping with it, no matter how strenuous, than writing reports to Washington telling how much 'I' was accomplishing." Sometimes he successfully cut through red tape.

auto tour
Rangers conducted automobile tours that started from the museum. As this August 1929 scene shows, crowds could become a problem. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

Nusbaum sparred several rounds with the Post Office Department before gaining a park post office in 1924, which would be open during the tourist season.

With less struggle, he secured a weather station for the park, but he did not need measuring devices to tell him that inclement weather adversely affected visitation. The years 1921, 1923, and 1929 proved to be especially bad in that respect. The worst was 1929, when visitor numbers dropped by over 2,000. A severe winter took its toll. It was followed in July and August by rains that left the highways "literal seas of mud." Every piece of park equipment, plus men and teams, came to the rescue, but nothing brought lasting relief until the sun broke through. [14]

A little adventure still lay in wait for the tourist of the 1920s who climbed down to some of the less-developed sites. (Courtesy: Western Historical Collections, University of Colorado)

Less important matters also demanded their share of Nusbaum's attention. He reported the use of rifles to shoot down slabs of rock that overhung trails and threatened to fall on visitors. The Utes pestered Nusbaum to some degree with their "poaching," but all in all, he seems to have had good rapport with his neighbors. Nusbaum noted in 1921 that, for the first time, he had spotted elk in the park, a nice addition to the deer, coyotes, and smaller animals that were already there. Because of Nusbaum's efforts, a tennis court was built for employees, who needed some recreational diversion other than observing tourists and nature.

By the 1920s the main ruins had been stabilized and the rubble had been removed, making sites easier to visit. This is Cliff Palace. (Courtesy Amon Carter Museum)

The public's evening hours were enriched by the lectures given by Nusbaum in his "beautiful, deep resonant voice" and by a new feature of the campfire talks, a Navajo sing. Navajos from the nearby reservation constituted more than ninety percent of the park's unskilled labor force during the 1920s. They brought their families with them and lived in government-built hogans. As one author suggested, "how much more interesting is a place . . . where one can see the civilization and culture of tribes that have disappeared, as well as that of those who are still in the flesh." [15] These Navajos proved to be excellent workmen on both park and archaeological projects. They also clung to their own ways, as Superintendent Nusbaum understood: "Navahos drift in thru the snow to work for a few days when we have it to do for them . . . get their checks, go to the trading post and secure what they desired when they came here to get the wherewithal to purchase it." Over the succeeding years, the Navajos became an integral part of the park.

Navajo workers
Thanks to Jesse Nusbaum's efforts in the 1920s, Navajos found the park an important source of employment. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

Nusbaum appreciated the Navajos and understood their culture far better than did most of his contemporaries. Sympathizing with the economic plight of their life on the reservation, he worked to provide jobs within the park and built the hogans for them as a thoughtful gesture to ease the cultural shock. While the Navajos gained experience and income, the Utes remained on the outside. Perhaps the Utes' dissatisfaction with boundaries and land may have made the superintendent reluctant to hire them or discouraged them from working for him.

Jesse continued to encounter the same intermittent problems with his Ute neighbors that had characterized previous years. Nuisance-type aggravations strained the relationship. Untended campfires, poaching, and cutting timber, for example, forced Nusbaum to throw an unexplained "scare into them" in 1926. In a letter to the director in May, he said he believed that his action would "make them more particular in the future, both as to fires and cutting green timber and to hunting on Park lands." The park's relentless affliction during the next three decades would be the failure of both sides to negotiate with tolerance and understanding, thereby reinforcing an unfortunate heritage.

One of the most immediate of Nusbaum's concerns had been the lack of medical facilities within the park to treat employees and visitors. Nusbaum and his wife, Aileen (a nurse), successfully lobbied the surgeon general and Congress for medical supplies and tents and finally for a small hospital. Congress, recognizing Aileen's efforts in establishing a first-aid tent, in nursing patients, and in designing the structure, named the new hospital the Aileen Nusbaum Hospital. When it opened in 1926, it included six beds (three rooms), a doctor's office, an operating room, and a kitchen. Small monthly salary deductions underwrote employees' costs; tourists paid according to a list of posted fees. Typical injuries and illnesses treated during June 1926 included insect bites, bruised muscles, sore throats, and injured feet, ankles, and fingers [16]—just about everything that might be expected from out-of-shape tourists hiking and climbing at an altitude of seven thousand feet. It was obviously important to have medical services available.

Even with Nusbaum's avid interest in the park and his own physical efforts on its behalf, the pace of archaeological excavation at Mesa Verde slackened from that of the previous two decades and went into low gear for the next thirty years. The spectacular ruins had already been dug, and funding had become less available than it had been in the earlier days of discovery. Nusbaum learned about some of those days firsthand when the still hale and active old-timer William Henry Jackson visited the park in 1921 to retrace some of his steps of a generation before. He also donated a set of his early photographs, much to the superintendent's delight.

Mesa Verde did contribute core samples from some well-preserved timbers, which helped University of Arizona astronomer Andrew E. Douglass develop a tree-ring calendric chart. Working from the theory that trees' annual growth rings could be correlated in order, from the present backward as far as samples could be collected, Douglass set to work. His new field, called dendrochronology, consumed decades of patient effort. When completed in 1929, it proved to be a resounding success, and for the first time, Mesa Verde and southwestern sites could be closely dated.

Although archaeological work did not progress as hoped, the crusade for a better museum succeeded brilliantly. The original log cabin and its collections, which Nusbaum first saw in 1921, dismayed him. To make matters worse, Jeep claimed the displays as his personal property, a contention Nusbaum emphatically disputed. He prevailed and forced Jeep to hand over his key and desist from digging. [17] Such actions did little to endear the superintendent to the Jeeps or to their friends. Nusbaum had hardly finished building his house before he launched a campaign to build a fireproof museum and upgrade the collections.

This campaign exhibited Jesse Nusbaum at his charming best. He easily won over his friends, who introduced him to some of the country's wealthier families. California held riches to tap, and Nusbaum was able to secure from Mrs. Stella Leviston of San Francisco a gift sufficient to start the building and from Mrs. Mary Sedgwick of Berkeley enough to underwrite a small expedition to gather materials to be placed therein. His reputation and personality enabled him to operate smoothly and confidently in these fund-raising endeavors, the most famous of which involved John D. Rockefeller, Jr. [18] The slight, handsome, fifty-year-old Rockefeller was deeply committed to preservation and conservation, as his involvement at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Williamsburg, Virginia, testified. In both cases, he saved part of America's heritage, wilderness, and colonial history. On a hot Thursday morning—July 3, 1924—Nusbaum drove into Mancos to meet the Rockefeller party and escort them to Mesa Verde. Watching out the window of the old park office, where he was waiting, he suddenly saw two Packards turn down Main Street and head toward the park in a cloud of dust:

I pursued them at once but because of drought and dusty conditions, I was unable to safely pass the rear car for about five miles. I tooted my exhaust siren, and this car slowed to let me pass, then followed me closely until I hailed and stopped the lead car, after passing and stopping just ahead of it.

The Rockefeller sons seemed disappointed at first that the car with the siren had not been the sheriff coming to arrest their father for speeding! After that disconcerting incident, Nusbaum led the Rockefellers through the wonders of Mesa Verde. The party visited the museum and the park headquarters, toured the ruins, savored a steak fry ("the choicest T-bone steaks available") in a special cave location above Balcony House, and (shades of Virginia McClurg!) saw a pageant at Spruce Tree House presented by Aileen Nusbaum and others. One of the girls waiting tables that summer was unfavorably impressed by her special guests; "they had on the worst looking old clothes you ever saw in your life." [19] Amid the distractions, Jesse found time to discuss the park and its future with his guest.

John D. Rockefeller, nattily attired in his bow tie, surveys Cliff Palace in 1924. He and Jesse Nusbaum formed an ideal partnership. (Courtesy: Western History Department, Denver Public Library)

Rockefeller enjoyed everything immensely, and out of the visit grew a warm friendship and a team effort, with Rockefeller providing the finances and Nusbaum the skill and field supervision. Rockefeller donated the money to complete a four-room section of the museum; both men hoped that the government would then be motivated to appropriate funds to finish the entire structure. (It was fortunate that neither man held his breath, because it was not until 1936 that Washington finally came through with an appropriation.) Although the building's completion was delayed, Nusbaum forged ahead with his efforts to compile a reference library to complement the museum holdings. His architectural contributions would eventually be recognized for what they were, a "pace setter" example of blending buildings into the park setting.

Perhaps of more immediate significance, from 1924 to 1929 Rockefeller underwrote Nusbaum's winter expeditions into remote areas of the park. Often working through badly disarranged remains left by earlier diggers, Nusbaum and his workers recovered many items for display in the museum, thereby increasing the public's appreciation and understanding of the fascinating Anasazi and their Mesa Verde world. Nusbaum lacked a trained crew, so he taught his apprentices the required skills and techniques. His stepson, Deric, received his first archaeological training here, as did others. The Rockefeller-Nusbaum partnership improved the museum, upgraded the specimens on display, broadened the knowledge of Mesa Verde's prehistory, and served as an ideal public-private partnership. Both Mesa Verde and the American public profited from it.

Two years after Rockefeller's visit, the Nusbaums served as hosts to Sweden's crown prince and princess. The young couple felt at home when they were greeted by a prominent display of their countryman Nordenskiold's book and photographs. In what was becoming almost a V.I.P. tradition, they took in a ceremonial play and feasted at a "beefsteak fry" at Sun Temple. The ordinary tourist, however, missed out on the "royal treatment." Amy Thompson remembered the pervasive dust, the "awesome sight" from the Knife Edge Road, and, on the hot, dusty walk to Spruce Tree House, the "tin can [that] sat at the side of that spring, and the weary traveler could quench his thirst with a deep swig from it." [20]

Both celebrities and regular tourists found the park's accommodations steadily improving. With no expansion room at the old location, in 1923 Spruce Tree Lodge, cottages, and tents were moved to a site across the road from the museum and the park headquarters. New cottages and tents would be added later. Improvement and enlargement were sorely needed; Nusbaum estimated that 6o percent of the visitors in 1923 used the facilities. A visitor in 1927 paid $1.00 for meals and $4.00 per night in a tent, or $4.50 in a cottage; slightly less if a friend or two shared the accommodations. [21] The attractive, "full of pep" Oddie Jeep ran the concessions during these years, managing to overcome some of her animosity toward the superintendent. Nusbaum's firing of her husband had not started them off as the best of friends, but Nusbaum did on occasion praise her for her excellent seasonal service. She succeeded in infuriating him when she sold some prehistoric pottery. He fired off a strong letter of protest, reminding her that such transactions were prohibited, as she had been told before her late husband left the park. [22]

Internal park problems did not trouble visitors, who kept coming in ever larger numbers each year. In 1923 this popularity elicited a new rival to challenge Durango and Cortez as the gateway to Mesa Verde: Gallup, New Mexico, and its patron, the Santa Fe Railroad, made a bid for the honor. The Santa Fe had promoted the Southwest for many years, even featuring Indians in its advertising campaigns; the park and the train seemed a natural alliance. Cortez hoped to improve its position, too, since the auto stages from the Gallup train depot came right through the town, carrying with them the Swedish royalty, among others. The three-day round-trip between Gallup and Mesa Verde cost $40 per person in 1927. However, the road, never good at its best, seldom earned travelers' praise, and it was this drawback, more than any other, that discouraged the popularity of the new gateway.

Jesse Nusbaum and work crew
Jesse Nusbaum (far right) and his crew at the Step Cave excavation, 1926. His stepson, Deric, stands third from the left; to his left is future superintendent Marshall Finnan. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

J. O. Morris, who ran the "stage," did not serve Gallup's cause well, either. One woman passenger complained that "she had been handled like a piece of luggage, that Morris did not speak six words to her from Shiprock into Gallup." The misanthropic driver also managed to embroil himself in an argument with the Fred Harvey management personnel, who described him as "arrogant and overbearing, and has poor equipment and does not keep his regular schedule." The Harvey Houses and the Santa Fe Railroad had been "married" for decades, promoting themselves and the Southwest. Morris countered by accusing the firm of not giving to him business that was rightly his. The fact that Fred Harvey was considering establishing a rival service out of Santa Fe might have colored its opinion; whatever the reason for the dissension, poor Nusbaum found himself caught in the middle. In the end, there was little to quarrel over—the day of the railroad was fast receding, and the highway north from Gallup to Cortez remained almost impassable in places. After a 1928 trip, Nusbaum cursed the section of it that ran from the state line to Cortez as "one hour of grief and ruts and chuck holes and bouncing all over the road." [23]

Cortez's hopes faded again. Mancos, too, had suffered a nearly fatal setback when Nusbaum moved the park headquarters into Mesa Verde. As train travel declined, Mancos's importance receded further, despite its continued bold claim that "Mancos is the Gateway to MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK." Durango gained a little superiority each year. The automobile put Durango in the day-trip orbit to the park, and for the tourist, it offered advantages rivals could not match: more accommodations, better transportation outlets, and a greater variety of things to see and do. Mancos would have to hustle before its neighbor took away its prime source of outside income.

Isolation continued to affect Mesa Verde adversely; no major east-west highway came anywhere near the park. State roads, however, did improve because of a major construction program begun in 1922 under the aegis of the new State Highway Department. The park matched the state's efforts by rebuilding the abandoned Knife Edge Road, which it opened in 1923, calling it (without exaggeration) "one of the most spectacular drives in America." The next generation of tourists called it by other names, many of them less than complimentary. It terrified, thrilled, challenged, and awed travelers, in turn. The road was "benched in," so that a sliding car would go into the ditch rather than over the edge. Nusbaum remembered how the bad condition of the road had once benefited Mesa Verde. The chief engineer of the National Park Service had become so scared in 1925, when his car slid on the clay-shale roadway, that he forthwith supported the superintendent's request for graveling the road. [24]

Some drivers questioned the reopening of the Knife Edge Road, as opposed to some other safer but less spectacular route. Politics and topography dictated the selection. The sometimes unpredictable and still dissatisfied Utes blocked a southern path down the Mancos Canyon and up a side canyon. Mesa Verde's northern cliffs and steep slopes discouraged even the most optimistic engineer from planning a route to scale them. There seemed to be no other choice for the National Park Service, so the decision was made. Park personnel and visitors would be haunted by that decision for a generation.

More cars each season added to the difficulties with which the park personnel had to contend. Vehicles overheated on the steep grades, burned their brakes out going down, and suffered power losses at the seven thousand to eight thousand feet elevations; those with gravity gas feeds sometimes had to back up the hill, if fuel ran low in the tank. [25]

Through all the crises, Nusbaum enthusiastically promoted the park in his lectures, his writing, and his work.

Work is our first, middle and last name on this park, and the same name on Sunday and holidays most of the year, with little regard for the time piece—so little in my own case that I have not carried a watch since I have been here until Aileen gave me one for Xmas this year. [26]

Nusbaum's prose approached the poetic when he discussed or described Mesa Verde; he could write well, when he chose to do so. Those nagging government reports failed to inspire his best literary efforts; his everlasting procrastination in producing them disgruntled his superiors throughout his career.

Aileen and Deric Nusbaum trailed only a step or two behind Jesse in their promotion of Mesa Verde. She produced her play several times and wrote articles; her son, with his mother's help, produced Deric in Mesa Verde, a classic account of a boy's growing up in the park. This interesting story revealed something of Jesse Nusbaum, as in Deric's statement, "I am not allowed to dig in the Park, but if I find anything lying around I bring it to the Museum." [27]

Reaching Mesa Verde had become somewhat easier by the mid-1920s. Shown is future highway 160 leading west out of Durango. (Courtesy: Center for Southwest Studies, Fort Lewis College)

Jesse Nusbaum fought misinformation about the park as vigorously as he promoted it. From the one-shot, off-the-mark rumor of a park water shortage, which a Continental Oil gas station in Durango had spread in 1927, to the ongoing Manitou cliff dwelling scam, Jesse rode to the park's rescue. "Each year I get more 'RedHeaded' than ever," he exploded, when describing his reaction to the Manitou cliff dwellings fraud. This operation now advertised itself as an exact and scientific reproduction of Spruce Tree House, Cliff Palace, and Balcony House and asked "Why visit Mesa Verde when you can see it all here for a dollar?"

Why go to a "region even now difficult of access," when Manitou Springs was as accessible? Nusbaum pulled no punches when he wrote to Director Mather: "I resented their reproduction even under the original plan, long before I became superintendent of this Park." He accurately perceived the real threat it posed to Mesa Verde: "It really works a great hardship on this Park to be forced to compete with such a combination, with their constant 'BallyHoo' near a great tourist center like Colorado Springs."

He came near to getting his revenge. In 1922, the proprietor of the Manitou dwellings had announced that he was headed for Mesa Verde to excavate new material. Nusbaum, tipped off by a friend, lay in wait with his staff. The man and his wife eventually appeared, registering themselves from Rock Springs, Wyoming. That deception confounded nobody—a ranger silently shadowed them throughout their visit. "They were given several fine chances to 'start something' in the excavation line if they dared do so, but I guess that they knew their game was up," Jesse wrote somewhat disappointedly. He later attempted to prosecute this same man for mail fraud (for fraudulent advertising) but was advised that he had no case. [28] Jesse Nusbaum had met his match, and this problem from the McClurg era lived on to harass park officials.

Nusbaum persevered through every setback. His clash with the Rickner-Jeep crowd got him into more trouble with Senator Phipps, who tried in 1923 and 1925 to remove the superintendent. Phipps supported his request with letters from Mancos residents, who charged Nusbaum with various forms of mismanagement and, among other things, with not paying attention to ordinary people, "only the wealthy and intellectual." Director Mather, disgusted by the pettiness and the politics and appreciative of Nusbaum's contributions, stood loyally by him; Phipps lost every round.

The other Colorado senator jumped into the action in a slightly different manner. Rice Means, who had been elected with Ku Klux Klan support, came to the park during the heyday of the Klan in the mid-1920s. That visit prompted local Klansmen to invite the superintendent to join the organization, which would then conduct a parade and an initiation ceremony at the Sun Temple. Nusbaum refused emphatically and promptly prepared to break up any torchlight parade and cross burning, to the extent of arming some of his employees with pick handles. Nothing untoward happened, and the Klan members departed. [29]

That incident displayed Nusbaum at his forceful best. His accomplishments during the decade were legion. He quickly brought Mesa Verde to organizational parity with other parks, and his considerable personal charm had its effect on people in a variety of ways. He ended the grazing and mining threats and called a halt to a brief lumbering attempt. He succeeded in avoiding some problems common to other national parks: Wildlife management was never a big issue here, nor did anyone ever suggest building a dam! Visitor totals moved ever upward but never as fast as in Rocky Mountain National Park. [30] By 1930, largely because of its active superintendent, Mesa Verde National Park was very different from what it had been ten years before, in everything from maintenance to visitor experience.

car precariously off the edge of road
Immediately inside the park, the infamous Knife Edge Road loomed ahead, a fearsome ascent even for old hands. Careless motorists soon found themselves in trouble. (Courtesy: Mesa Verde National Park)

Nusbaum had administered and developed his park into a jewel of the park system. He concurred with the sentiments of Representative Edward Taylor, who called Mesa Verde "America's greatest historical asset. This park is entirely unique." [31] Mesa Verde had finally come of age, thanks to the determined and dedicated work of Jesse Nusbaum.


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.