In a battle of societal forces with homage to the past duking it out with adaption to en vogue politically correct aesthetics, honoring the past appears the hands-down victor – at least as far as business signs in Southwest Colorado go.
The Chief, the giant sign now on Ninth Street across from Toh-Atin Gallery, has been a familiar presence in Durango since at least the late 1950s, when it beckoned the hungry to the old Chief Diner at Main Avenue and 21st Street.
“A guy traveled around, mostly in the West, putting up these signs,” said Jackson Clark, the current caretaker of the Chief. “There’s almost an identical one in a car lot in Cincinnati. We get people calling us from Cincinnati all the time.”
The arrows, giant multiple attention-demanding signs replete with oversized teepees at The Hogan Trading Post, 38651 U.S. Highway 160, just west of Mancos, went up in either 1980 or 1981, with the intent of nostalgically hearkening Route 66 marketing kitsch of the ’50s- and ’60s.
The giant projectiles are particularly popular with international travelers and kids, said Emily Brown, who co-owns the store with her father and mother, Bill and Judy Countess, and her husband, John.
“It’s become a roadside attraction. People come and take their picture lying in front of the arrows. Kids have the most fun,” Brown said. “Today, we had Australians stop in, but we get French, Germans, Italians. We get them all.”
The intent of the arrows, Brown said, is not to offend but to attract business, and she said that is a sentiment shared by Native American artists who sell their rugs, jewelery, pottery and other arts and crafts at the trading post.
“They want us to be successful selling their items, too,” Brown said.
The Browns and the Countesses, like Clark, are aware their signs might strike the 21st century eye as a tad insensitive. Also like Clark, Emily said her family has discussed their signs with dozens of Native American artists who are represented in their business.
“We’ve been dealing with the same families for years,” Brown said. “Many of our artists today remember their fathers or grandfathers helping my father put them (the arrows) up. We’ve never had anyone come in and tell us: ‘How could you?’”
Clark, too, said he has asked many Native American artists represented at Toh-Atin about their feelings about the Chief.
“It’s never been our intention to offend anyone,” he said.
The Chief for many artists, he said, sparks memories of trips to Durango with their grandparents and lunches and dinners at the old Chief Diner.
People who have objected to the Chief have largely been younger, and mostly people who have migrated to Durango and are not familiar with the sign’s history, Clark said.
“Honestly, I care more about the views of our artists than I do about what some freshman at FLC thinks,” Jackson said.
The Chief’s genre, a caricature, Jackson said, also causes misunderstandings.
“Young people grow up thinking caricature as a negative thing, but it’s all about the intention,” he said.
Similar caricature signs featuring cowboys with lassos and Dutch children were common among roadside diners across the country, Jackson noted.
Infrequently, Clark said he deals with someone who is offended by the Chief.
“Occasionally, once every 10 years or so, you have someone who takes offense, but once you sit down with them and have a conversation and explain the history and where the sign came from, they have more understanding and consideration,” he said.
Clark originally gained ownership of the Chief when the diner closed.
At a closing sale, Clark discovered the sign had already been purchased. However, the check bounced and Clark matched the $300 offer to gain ownership of the sign.
It resided at the family’s Pepsi bottling plant for a few years before it was moved to its current location in 1984, Clark said.
In full glory, Clark said the Chief was lit with neon and had a working arm powered by a washing-machine motor.
“It was much taller; we had to cut him down about 15 feet to meet modern sign codes, but you used to be able to see the Chief all up and down Main,” Clark said.
Both The Hogan’s Arrows and The Chief have attracted the attention of Hollywood, appearing in “Nurse Betty” and other movies.
Brown said the Hogan’s huge arrows also manage to attract the famous. Harrison Ford, Ralph Lauren and Delta Burke are but a few of the celebrities who have walked into The Hogan, their curiosity triggered by the arrows.
“They’re used as roadmarkers,” Brown said. “People say, ‘I’ll meet you at the arrows. They’ve become an iconic part of the valley.”