Century-old San Juan County trading post named 1 of 11 'endangered' US historic sites in 2021

File, century-old San Juan County trading post received major recognition Thursday, June 3, 2021, as efforts begin to save it before it's possibly lost forever.

File, century-old San Juan County trading post received major recognition Thursday, June 3, 2021, as efforts begin to save it before it's possibly lost forever. (Utah State Historic Preservation Office)

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Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section.

BLANDING, San Juan County — A "significant" Navajo Nation trading post at the heart of Monument Valley in southeast Utah received major recognition Thursday as efforts begin to save it before it's possibly lost forever.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Oljato Trading Post one of its 11 "most endangered" historic sites in the United States this year, which highlights it as one of the more important historic sites in desperate need of rehabilitation to preserve it.

The listing comes as members of the Navajo Nation and also historians have started to look into ways to rehabilitate the structures tied to the trading post and turn them into a new community center and tourism destination at the center of growing popular outdoors spots like Monument Valley and Bears Ears National Monument.

"This can become the first stop for tourists as they travel to Monument Valley and Bears Ears, which will bring in revenue and help people understand the history of trading posts," said Herman Daniels, the Oljato area representative on the Navajo Nation Council, in a statement Thursday. "There's a lot of memories for people who went to the trading post. I can still remember getting bubble gum from the gumball machine whenever we visited."

The trading post, which turns 100 years old this year, was built about 75 miles southwest of Blanding. It's considered an important and rare remaining example of what used to be a common sight in the Four Corners area. Members of the Navajo Nation would produce a wide variety of goods that were sold at trading posts like the Oljato complex.

It wasn't just a trading post; the facility included a trading room, living area, storage space and a traditional hogan. It was also the centerpiece of the Oljato community for many years. The structure was also added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. By then, historians wrote that it was "one of the few remaining examples of this type of enterprise still flourishing in Utah."

But the Oljato Trading Post fell into disrepair after decades of neglect, officials with the Utah Department of Cultural & Community Engagement said. They said the deteriorated building needs about $1.3 million to cover the cost of repairs.

The spot on the National Trust for Historic Preservation list this year puts it in the limelight, which could put it on a fast track to receive the funding needed to preserve it and help turn it into what members of the Navajo Nation and historians envision it can be in the future.

"What better way to honor this place, which helps tell Utah's multi-layered history, than by preserving and reactivating it under Oljato and Navajo leadership," said Katherine Malone France, National Trust for Historic Preservation's chief preservation officer.

"This is an opportunity for the Oljato Chapter and the Navajo Nation to reclaim and reframe this 100-year-old trading post to communicate their history, serve their communities, create a source of community pride and attract revenue and resources that benefit the tribe," she added.

The organization began its annual list in 1988 and has identified over 300 important historic structures tied to cultures, stories and American experience since the list was created.

The Oljato Trading Post is just the fifth Utah historic site to land on the national list. The other historic sites were Nine Mile Canyon (2004), Manhattan Project's Enola Gay Hangar (2009), Bears Ears (2016) and the Ancestral Places of Southeast Utah (2019).

The recognition the National Trust for Historic Preservation provided comes after Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, worked to fund improvements for the trading post and the Oljato, including better access to water, power and roads. In a statement Thursday, Lyman called the trading post a "historical gem."

Several Utah offices, including the Utah Division of Indian Affairs and the Utah Division of State History, have also worked to help preserve the trading post in recent years. Roger Roper, Utah's deputy state historic preservation officer, said it was important to preserve it because it's one of the last of its kind of structures in the country.

"As one of the last of its kind, it represents a distinct way of life in a very remote part of the country that is little understood by most Americans," he said. "Preserving this unique structure will not only return it to a viable use that benefits the community, but it will also honor the Navajo culture and people for generations to come."

The other 10 historic sites on the National Trust for Historic Preservation list this year are:

  • Boston Harbor Islands (Boston, Massachusetts)
  • Georgia B. Williams Nursing Home (Camilla, Georgia)
  • Morningstar Tabernacle No.88 Order of Moses Cemetery and Hall (Cabin John, Maryland)
  • Pine Grove Elementary School (Cumberland, Virginia)
  • The Riverside Hotel (Clarksdale, Mississippi)
  • Sarah E. Ray House (Detroit, Michigan)
  • Selma to Montgomery March Camp Sites (Selma, Alabama)
  • Summit Tunnels 6 & 7 and Summit Camp Site (Truckee, California)
  • Threatt Filling Station and Family Farm (Luther, Oklahoma)
  • Trujillo Adobe (Riverside, California)

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.


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