Toadlena Historic Trading Post

Toadlena Historic Trading Post


There was a time when trading posts sprung up across the Southwest like tumbleweeds. Some were legitimate, but most of the others were fly-by-night outfits that underpaid the Native Americans for their wares, then jacked up the prices for tourists. Or, they bought cheap non-native wares and passed them off as genuine items. 

These days, finding an authentic trading post requires some investigation because most establishments that call themselves trading posts are little more than gift stores and souvenir shops selling inferior and fake wares. However, some remain faithful to their original trading purposes for native-made goods with supplies or money. They’re often hard to find but well worth searching for those who value the real thing and don’t mind paying the price for authenticity. Here are four personal favorites that I have encountered during my travels.

The Hubbell Trading Post in Ganado, Arizona, is a classic example and a good place to start a trading post road trip. Founded by John Lorenzo Hubbell in 1878, it is the oldest continuously operating trading post on the Navajo Reservation and is a National Historic Site. Although now run by the National Park Service, it remains an outlet where Navajo weavers, artists and craftsmen can trade their handmade rugs and jewelry for either goods or cash.

It’s a combination store, museum and gallery. The store sells everything from potato chips to canned goods. The museum is located in the house adjacent to the main building that once served as the Hubbell residence. The gallery is located in the main building. It is the highlight, filled with finely-woven rugs, skillfully-crafted jewelry and a variety of baskets and carvings, all authentic and almost all the work of reservation residents.

They’re all free to look at, but prospective buyers should not go there looking for kitschy bargains. Rug prices, for example, can soar into the upper thousands. However, one aspect of the trading post has changed over the years: very few artists trade for merchandise because they want their money right away.

About a mile south of I-40 in the small town of Sanders, Arizona, the Burnham family has been running the R.B. Burnham Trading Post since 1971. They trade for cash, jewels, wool, beads, pinon nuts, etc. And not just locally. Their store is filled with such artworks as Zuni fetishes, Pacific Northwest totems and masks, Navajo rugs and baskets, and Hopi kachinas, all collected by bartering.

The store carries a variety of specialty yarns used in the weaving process, which the rug-makers can buy on credit against the rug they’ll eventually create and bring to the post. Once acquired, the rugs – and other goods – are sold at auctions throughout the Southwest and the store.  

And, in a major departure from the old days, the family has developed and operates a website that attracts nationwide attention. Those who respond are usually serious collectors – the average souvenir-hunter isn’t likely to pay thousands of dollars for a Navajo rug.

Back on I-40, head east to Gallup, New Mexico, en route to a pair of historic trading posts. About 60 miles north of Gallup on Highway 491, visitors turn west onto Navajo Route 19 and follow some infrequent signage that will lead them to Two Grey Hills Trading Post. 

The current owners have been trading and buying for more than 30 years. Originally built in 1897, the post is isolated, almost remote, but still a popular destination for serious collectors, who readily pay five figures for some of the rugs. Most sell for between $250 and $1,500. 

The post employs weavers from the immediate area, who can purchase wool, small looms and other rug-making necessities while running up accounts against the future rugs they’ll bring in to settle up. Many of the weavers are teenage girls learning the skill from their elders, thus preserving the tradition.

On Navajo Route 19, six miles on a paved road leads to the Toadlena Historic Trading Post and Weaving Museum. Mark Winter bought the property in 1997 and restored it to its original condition, which included a potbellied stove, barber’s chair and vintage display cases. 

He also became concerned that weaving was becoming a lost art, so he began offering top prices for rugs with the stipulation that they are made like they were in the old days, with natural dyes and wool which the weavers carded themselves. Then he converted part of the old adobe structure into a museum where he displays the rugs for tourists and prospective buyers. 

Now the trading post is a major source of income for as many as 150 weavers, who get credit in the form of merchandise and cash advances which they pay off with their rugs. Prospective visitors should get definitive directions before setting out on a trading post journey – these posts are off the beaten path. 

– Sam Lowe is a former Valley newspaperman who now writes about his travels across Arizona, the U.S. and the globe.