The “Chief” sign was built in the 1950s by the Four Corner Sign and Neon Shop, which was located across from McDonald’s. My father-in-law, Don Demarest, owner of the Canyon Motel in Hesperus, worked there to supplement his income. Don was proud that he thought of using a washing machine motor to move the arm. It would have been built after 1952.
Lee Noe owned the shop and blew the glass for the neon signs, which were gorgeous. I miss them.
I don’t know anything about the mysterious stranger who allegedly built the “Chief” sign. This was the 1950s, these guys were rebuilding their lives after World War II. Durango’s lackluster economic base was tourism and ranching. Likely the design came out of their heads or perhaps a picture. Remember, this was the 1950s and encyclopedias were your reference.
It was built to grab attention and get people to eat in the restaurant. Later, Don was instrumental in opening the Navajo Trail, which built Highway 160 across the reservation and established the Four Corners monument. That was about promoting tourism as it redirected traffic from Route 66 through Durango. The Navajos have reaped financially from it.
As he visited their homes, he would be outraged about predatory salesmen selling washing machines when there was no electricity. He traveled with Louis L’Amour, meeting tribal members. He respected Native Americans.
So the sign was not built or designed as a racial smear. Just a sign.