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Elle Meets the President: Weaving Navajo Culture and Commerce in the Southwestern Tourist Industry

Laura Jane Moore

2001 Frontiers Editorial Collective

During the spring of 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt included a two-hour stop in Albuquerque while on a speaking tour through the western territories.

The Commercial Club of Albuquerque chose a Navajo woman, called Elle of Ganado, to weave a gift for the president—a textile rendition of his honorary Commercial Club membership card. Club members provided the design, which Elle wove quickly in hand-spun red, white, and blue yarn.

During his tour of Albuquerque, Roosevelt visited the Commercial Club, where he received Elle’s blanket, and he stopped by the Alvarado Hotel’s Indian Building, where he met the weaver herself.

An Albuquerque newspaper reported that upon meeting the weaver, the “president gave her a hearty shake and told her how much he appreciated her work. The little speech was interpreted and pleased the Indian woman beyond expression.”

The Fred Harvey Company, it has been said, “invented” the Southwest as “America’s Orient.”

Fred Harvey was an English immigrant who opened his first restaurant along the Santa Fe Railroad line in 1876 in Topeka, Kansas. From there the company grew into the first chain of restaurants and of railroad hotels.

Harvey built his company’s reputation on the notion of civilizing rail travel to the West by selling good food served by respectable young, white, single women called “Harvey girls.” Combining hot meals, Harvey girls, and Indian images in their advertising, the company presented the West as an exotic but accessible tourist paradise.

By the time of Harvey’s death in 1901, his empire consisted of twenty-six restaurants, sixteen hotels, and twenty dining cars.

The Harvey Company went into the Indian art business at the instigation of Harvey’s daughter, Minnie Harvey Huckel, an avid Indian art collector. In 1902 she suggested that a display of Indian art be included in Albuquerque’s new Harvey hotel, the Alvarado.

Her husband, J. F. Huckel, a New Yorker who had been in the publishing business and was now a Fred Harvey vice president, began to commute from Harvey headquarters in Kansas City to Albuquerque, where he created the Fred Harvey Indian Department. The Huckels’ collaboration with Harvey employee Herman Schweizer ensured the success of this venture.

Schweizer, a German immigrant, had found his way to the Southwest in the 1880s, had jobbed silver and turquoise to Navajo silversmiths, and while working at the

Harvey restaurant in Coolidge, New Mexico, had begun buying and selling Navajo arts and crafts—a successful sideline that caught Minnie Huckel’s attention. Schweizer spent the rest of his life managing the Fred Harvey Indian Department. He had an eye and a taste for the Indian art business and soon built the Harvey Indian collection into a premiere showcase.

This success was further facilitated by the architect Mary Colter who helped to design the Indian Building at the Alvarado and subsequently went to work full time for the company. Colter was an important force in developing a regional architectural style inspired by local, native design—spaces for the “staged authenticity” that became fundamental to southwestern tourism, and spaces designed for commercial transactions that also offered a seemingly behind-the-scenes view of Indian homelife.

Railroads altered the economic, cultural, and social contours of the region. By the turn of the century, the Santa Fe dominated Albuquerque’s economy and had practically built a whole new town around its depot.

Railroads also shifted the region’s perspective from a local economy oriented along a north-south axis facing Mexico to an east-west trajectory incorporated into the U.S. national economy.

While the railroad introduced industrial capitalism to the rural Southwest, it also introduced the Southwest, or a particular image of the Southwest, to the world.

Ironically, while some Indian men learned to participate in industrial wage work, the Santa Fe’s tourist business perfected the image of Indians as naturally artistic preindustrial craftspeople. Upon disembarking at Albuquerque, train travelers passed through the Harvey Indian Building on the way to the Alvarado lobby. The first thing they saw were weavers, potters, silversmiths, and basket makers, and Fred Harvey sales increased appreciably as a result of this encounter.

Many Indian artists worked at some point for the Fred Harvey Company. The San Ildefonso Pueblo potter Maria Martinez and her husband Julian worked as Harvey demonstrators early in their careers, before developing the black pottery style that brought so much fame.

The Hopi-Tewa potter Nampeyo also worked for the Harvey Company on a few occasions, demonstrating her Sikyatki revival style. Nampeyo had already begun to make a name for herself, which the Harvey Company cashed in on when they hired her.

Elle, in contrast, was not well-known until her work for the Harvey Company made her one of the only other Indian artists with name recognition in the early twentieth century.

Elle’s willingness to stay away from home for long periods of time and to be photographed over and over again made her one of the Harvey Company’s favorite employees.

She and her husband were local celebrities in Albuquerque, their activities documented regularly in the town’s newspapers. They met and were photographed with numerous national celebrities, too, from the Chicago Cubs to “America’s sweetheart,” Mary Pickford.

Encouraged by their success in Albuquerque, the Harvey Company began employing demonstrators for other sites as well. Elle and other artists traveled around the country representing the company at expositions in San Francisco, Chicago, and elsewhere. They also worked in other Harvey houses, most notably at the Grand Canyon, where living exhibits of Indian “homelife” were built into the tourist spaces.

In his speech in Albuquerque the day they met, Roosevelt praised those with “adventurous temper and . . . iron resolution . . . who first tempted the shaggy wilderness and turned it into habitations for man.” His meeting with Elle is a reminder that the West had been inhabited by “man”—men and women—long before the Anglo conquest, and that diverse groups would continue struggling to make a home there in the twentieth century, a task that might take an even stronger resolution and more adventurous spirit than those manly pioneers Roosevelt had in mind.

Kathy Rasmussen
If you love history about trains and just the local area for current activities where movies are shot this is the place. Donations if you feel like maintaining history.
Kathy Rasmussen
S Holden
At the museum on business. Great history there, nostalgia, and wonderment. Looking forward to the continued growth of the museum. Support your local museums!
S Holden
Vanessa Au
The Wheels Museum is volunteer run and was such a treat! We visited a bunch museums and this sort of unofficial museum was, hands down, our favorite. The door was locked when we arrived (I think by accident) but they hurried to let us in when I called and welcomed us warmly. They let my 6yo run the little train we all rode on. Another volunteer gave him a little matchbox car to keep. There were tons of all sorts of antiques on wheels, and some not on wheels. I was amazed by the collection and the enthusiasm and knowledge of the volunteers. Don’t forget to stuff cash in their donation box. They truly deserve it.
Vanessa Au
Armando Diaz
A great experience for the whole family! A spectacular place of pure nostalgia. Everything wheels and some things that fly . Soon you will see my artwork in this museum. Make the time to see it you won't regret.
Armando Diaz
Tara C.
Love the museum and the very friendly volunteers that run the place.
Tara C.
Bruce Guest
Fun place to stroll about !
Bruce Guest
Andy Vigil
It was exactly what I expected to see. The old photos and books gives you a picture back in time. The model railroad were very nice. We were the only ones in there and they turned the models on for us.
Andy Vigil
Julia Knight
Julia Knight


Jazz Music Events
Featuring some of the top Jazz live music acts in the Southwest, the "Jazz on WHEELS" series begins in October and runs through the end of December. The WHEELS Museum has partnered with local events production company Mariposa Music,, to utilize the power of music to benefit the museum. The Jazz on WHEELS performance will begin at 2pm on selected Sundays. Visit mariposamusicrocks.com for more information.