The Cottonwood Gulch: The Henio’s and Howie’s

Recollections as told by members of the Henio family, August, 2016.


Tom & Ada Henio

Tom & Ada Henio

Grandfather Tom Henio and Grandmother Ada Henio were influential parents and grandparents. Their legacy lives on through us; we feel their spirit every day. Their lives are a testament to their faith in God, love of family, and respect for the land. We were pleased to bless this Cha’oh in honor of Grandfather Tom and Grandmother Ada on August 12, 2016, at the 90th Anniversary of the Cottonwood Gulch. May it be a source of relief from the heat and shade from the sun for many years to come.


The Henio and Howie families became intertwined when Hillis Howie, the founder of the Prairie Trek Expeditions, decided to come to Indian country. Mr. Howie knew, long before the New Mexico state slogan was coined, that the Four Corners were The Land of Enchantment. The Henio family intersected with the Howie’s at a wedding four years after the Trek’s founding and have stayed connected since that day. This pamphlet is a collection of stories that weaves these two families into one tapestry — the Cottonwood Gulch.

Mr. Hillis L. Howie started the summer expeditions in 1926. Mr. Howie took boys on camping trips from Indianapolis, Indiana, to the Southwest. Few roads were paved back then, so it was a dusty and muddy trek across the Great Plains. On one trip, Howie became acquainted with Mr. Berton Staples, the owner of Staples Trading Post in Coolidge, New Mexico. With permission of the local residents, the Expedition pitched their Baker tents around Coolidge and Thoreau for an extended period, while they explored the countryside.


Cottonwood Gulch trekkers in front of the Gulch spring and pump house

The Extended Henio Family

The Silversmith and Henio grandparents set the stage for the eventual relationship with the Howie’s. In those early days, our paternal Grandfather Henio Barbone and Grandmother Ah’ Kee Nas’ Bah Barbone lived in Thoreau, New Mexico. They raised 14 children and step-children. Grandmother Barbone made Navajo fry bread for the campers outside of their Hogan, off Route 66.

And our maternal Grandfather Joe Antonio Silversmith was appointed Delegate of the Navajo Council, representing some native communities in the area. He used to ride his mule from Coolidge to Santa Fe for the Council meetings. It took him about a week to make the one-way trip to Santa Fe. On his way to and from the state capitol, he met with his people and talked with them about their needs. Grandfather Silversmith got to know the region and the people well.

Trading Places

The Howie’s met one of our family members who worked at Staples Trading Post: Mr. Andy Newman, who was our mother’s step brother. Mr. Howie and his wife, Ms. Elizabeth Howie, were visiting the trading post with some campers, when they heard about the upcoming marriage of Ms. Ada Silversmith to Mr. Tom Henio. The couple had plans for a traditional Navajo wedding that summer, near Red Rocks in Coolidge. Andy Newman said it would be a great cultural lesson for the boys. The Howie’s agreed and they were all invited to the wedding.


The Silversmith-Henio wedding (1930)

The Silversmith-Henio Wedding  

On August 14, 1930, their wedding day, our parents and the Howie’s formally met. The Howie’s were near-newlyweds as well, and they appreciated and honored the cross-cultural exchange with the Silversmith and Henio families. The campers who attended the wedding enjoyed the ceremony and were well-behaved; they took pictures and helped with the reception. The Prairie Trek campers served fresh watermelons, cantaloupes, and honey dew melons to the guests.


Ada Silversmith is between her parents and sits in front of wedding gifts, including watermelon from the Gulch

The Howie’s returned with their Expeditions to the Coolidge area annually after that summer.

All in the Family

A few summers after the Henio wedding, Hillis Howie mentioned to Bert Staples that he was interested in buying some land in the area for a base camp. Word spread. When our dad learned that Mr. Howie was looking for property for his boys’ group, he mentioned to Andy Newman that he knew an old sawmill with a natural spring and an intermittent creek running through it. The Navajos called the location To’ Leeh Náá Dli, which translates as “the water flows in and out of the ground.”

Fresh water from a spring or creek is valuable in New Mexico. Water goes into the earth and comes back to the surface at different spots, which is where the Navajo name came from. Tom Henio, his brother, Woody, and other Navajos had worked at the sawmill near Sawyer Creek for many years. Part of the Carrington Ranch, the sawmill was abandoned in the 1930’s, and the ranch was for sale. The 500-acre ranch was located south of Thoreau near Bluewater Lake. Andy Newman mentioned the property to his boss, Mr. Staples, and Staples, in turn, mentioned it to Mr. Howie.

Cottonwood Gulch

Cottonwood Gulch Base Camp, Thoreau, New Mexico

Cottonwood Gulch

In the spring of 1934, Mr. Howie signed the deed and bought the Carrington property. The flood plain and meadow along Sawyer Creek had lots of Narrow-Leaf Cottonwood trees growing nearby; it soon became known as Cottonwood Gulch.

That first summer, Howie realized the buildings were barely standing and needed shoring up. He hired Mr. Tom Henio to do major masonry and carpentry work. Our dad’s first task was to stabilize the main building, dubbed Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which served as the mess hall. Tom Henio poured concrete, laid the floors, strengthened the walls, and re-roofed the building. That summer proved the start of a long, inter-dependent relationship. Over the next few summers, Howie hired many Henio relatives and friends to help our dad with the construction projects. The Mess Hall, the Cabin Loop, the Hogan, the Museum, the Alamo, the guest cabins and others were built by the Henio’s.

Ms. Madeline Chavez, the oldest Henio daughter, remembers working with our dad in the early days of the Cottonwood Gulch Camp. “I remember putting cement between the logs in the buildings, to keep the wind and dust out. And I helped dad carry his tools. I also remember the time we went to Ramah, New Mexico, and back with Mr. Howie and the campers. We all traveled in wagons and on horseback. Most of our Navajo friends and relatives had lots of horses back then.”

Howie & Henio Children

The Howie’s had two sons, Hillis, Jr. and John, who spent summers on the Expeditions. The summer of 1942, Mr. Hillis Howie, Jr. recalls, the Trek did not travel far from Base Camp. “The high point of that summer was a wagon trip we took. Organized by Tom Henio, we traveled for several days along the Red Rocks from the Henio’s ranch to the house of his relative, who lived off the road to Crown Point. As a young boy, I remember trudging along beside the wagons.” Except for the war years (1943-1945), when the camp was suspended, they were always there. The Howie boys lived in the cabins with their parents and, when they were old enough to swing a hammer, they worked side-by-side with Tom Henio and Hillis Howie on many wooden and adobe structures at Base Camp.

Ada Henio stayed at home caring for her small children, preparing the meals, and tending to the farm animals. She raised one step-son, David Henio, and gave birth to two daughters, Madeline and Grace, before she got gravely ill with diabetes. She was about 25 years old. Her doctors decided it was medically necessary to amputate her left leg above the knee.

Henio Hogan

The Henio Family with Hillis and Elizabeth Howie at Henio Hogan

She slowly recovered from surgery and resumed raising her family. Despite needing a leg prosthesis and crutches, Ada could ride a horse and control a wagon with the best of the neighbors. She gave birth to two more daughters, Marie and Irene, after she lost her leg, proving she was a woman of courage and great hope.

“Our parents were very firm with us when we were small,” said Ms. Irene Notah, the youngest Henio daughter, “Yet they were gentle and very encouraging in their teaching. Even though we didn’t have much money, we still had birthday parties, and celebrations for the 4th of July, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. We had great picnics in the mountains.”

Irene clearly recalls her birthdays: “My dad would be running around catching a chicken for dinner, and my mom would be boiling red beans and making fry bread in our Hogan. Our Navajo relatives and friends would come over to eat with us, and we always had a good time together.

No gifts or cake, they wished me well with a good life and with good blessing for the future.”

The Caretaker’s House

Mr. Tom Henio and his brother-in-law, Mr. Joe Silversmith, had experience making adobe, so Mr. Howie hired them to construct an adobe Caretaker’s House across the street from the main property. Joe Silversmith was a famous Navajo Code-Talker during World War II. In 2001 he was a recipient of the Silver Congressional Medal of Honor for transmitting military communications using a secret code based on the Navajo language. When he returned from the war he worked at the Gallup Stone & Gravel Company. He knew a lot about construction.

The stone basement of the house had been a potato cellar for the Carrington Ranch. Irene recalls the building materials well, “Dad taught us to make adobe bricks. I was about 12 years old and we mixed the mud with some straw and water in front of our family Hogan. It was a daily chore for Marie, our nieces, nephews and me. I don’t know how many bricks we made each day. It was a lot. When the bricks dried, Mr. Howie brought over his team of campers and they loaded the adobe into the commissary truck, ‘Big Red.’ They carted all those bricks to the Cottonwood Gulch for the walls.”

Caretakers House

Joe Silversmith, Hillis Howie & Tom Henio standing on girders by Caretaker’s House (1959)


Ms. Marie Herrera, the third oldest Henio daughter, loved making fry bread at Rendezvous. Irene said, “We called them ‘Navajo tacos’ and Marie made them just right. She was a very joyful cook, always laughing and talking. She made sure everyone felt comfortable and happy.”

Ms. Grace Cloud, the Henio’s second oldest daughter, recalled, “I must have been about five or six years old. I remember Mr. Hillis Howie used to come and pick us up in his truck and take us back to Cottonwood Gulch for Rendezvous. Our Navajo friends around Coolidge were all invited for those Rendezvous. They used to have horse racing, chicken pull from the horse, women gunny sack races, pillow fights, tug of war, stink bug games and others. It was great fun! Also I remember, Mr. Howie carrying me across the stream over the muddy places, so that I could stay in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. We used to stay overnight there, when the roads were too muddy to drive home to Coolidge.”

Grace continued, “I did a lot of interpreting for my parents and the Howie’s in those days, when they were working on family get-togethers. I made sure they understood what they were saying.” When Grace was not available to interpret, all of the daughters and grandchildren pitched in and wrote letters and translated for the Henio’s and Howie’s.

Navajo Teachings and Traditions

Irene nostalgically added, “The happiest times we had with mom and dad were when they were young parents. On special occasions mom got us all dressed up in our traditional dresses and jewelry. Our hair was all fancy. Those times I looked forward to the picnics so much! We ate hot dogs, and corn on the cob, baked beans and watermelon. My clearest memories of our parents were as a very loving couple. Dad was always very helpful with my mom, helping her get around.”

Irene Notah weaving

Irene Notah teaching the Turquoise Trail how to weave in the NAW

“Mom and dad kept us busy. They had us gardening, watching the livestock, hauling water, carding wool, chopping and stacking wood, and using the wagon with a team of horses. They made us run at dawn towards the East on four days: once in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. They made us do snow baths in early Winter. And they made us drink some herbs for purification …Their teachings about traditional Navajo ways are still with us today.”

Marie loved teaching the Turquoise Trail how to weave. Irene recalled, “She helped train the girls in carding and spinning wool. She showed the girls the best plants and flowers to pick to dye the wool. And she worked with the girls as they built looms, designed rug patterns and wove their rug samples. Marie spent many summers in the Native American Workshop (NAW), which was also built by our father, Tom Henio. She enjoyed teaching the girls traditional Navajo arts and crafts.”

Henio and Billings

Tom Henio and Gulch Director, Monty Billings, inspect a sandcast silver belt buckel (1978)

Henio Work Ethic

Grace talked about the many weeks that Tom Henio spent at camp: “In the summers my dad worked long hours. He would camp out at the Cottonwood Gulch all week. Mr. Howie, or someone from the camp, would pick him up at our house on Monday mornings and bring him home on Friday evenings.” Irene further described their dad’s work ethic, “Whenever dad wasn’t working for Mr. Howie, he was always busy. He would work for some Traders along the old highway, Route 66, doing maintenance work, building stone chimneys, or finishing masonry work.”

One of Marie’s favorite seasons at the Gulch was Spring. That was the time when the Henio family and friends gathered to scrub down the walls, get rid of the cob webs, and clean the dishes, pots, and pans. Marie loved getting everything ready for the campers. One point of pride for her was the kitchen stove. “Marie made sure it was degreased and shining!” She was the primary person who got the Mess Hall and buildings ready to go for another season at the Cottonwood Gulch.

Our dad was always clever and inventive. Whether it was doing construction work, making jewelry, tending farm animals, or making moccasins, he could always find work somewhere. Somehow he was able to provide for his family, even in tough times.

Irene remembers the extra effort the family put into making-ends-meet: “We camped near the top of Red Mesa, the Marianna Lake area, and in other places where we could find piñon pines. We picked piñon nuts from the cones and sold them by the pound to trading posts. We could trade the nuts for food, leather, and family supplies. My dad held the rest in cash.”

The Many Henio Gifts

Dad was a talented silversmith. He made a lot of silver jewelry, such as sandcast belt buckles, bracelets, and necklaces, for the family to remember him. Our grandfather, Henio Barbone, taught his children and grandchildren to make moccasins for family and friends. Tom Henio carried on that tradition from his father and he became very good tanning hides and working with leather.


Great Grandfather, Henio Barbone

In addition, Tom Henio was an herbalist. He knew all of the native plants and would go into the mountains and deserts to collect the right sage brush, teas, buds, and herbs — all for different purposes. He used the cuttings to help people recover from their injuries, blockages, arthritis, mental problems, and many other conditions.

Starting at the age of 8-years old, Tom Henio learned to be a deer hunter. He practiced the traditional art of hunting with his father and brothers. Hunting became a life-long passion for him. He hunted deer or elk annually, showing respect and gladness when the hunt was successful. He hunted deer until he was 88-years old, passing the Navajo traditions to his children and grandchildren.

Henio Hunting Deer

Tom Henio (in orange hat) teaching his Notah grandchildren to hunt respectfully for deer.


The Henio’s and Howie’s celebrated their 25th Wedding Anniversaries together in 1955 at the Henio family Hogan in Coolidge, New Mexico, showing that the couples stayed very close. The Howie’s passed up the 50th Reunion of the Prairie Trek Expeditions in 1976, but they would not miss their 50th Wedding Anniversary with the Henio’s in 1980. The Howie’s embraced the Henio’s and proclaimed them among the most important family relationships they had in their lifetimes.

Howie and Henio 50th Wedding Anniversary

Hillis & Elizabeth Howie celebrate 50th Wedding Anniversary with Ada & Tom Henio (1980)

In Memorial to the Founding Families

The family matriarchs and patriarchs had failing health and died one by one over the next decade: Ada Henio in 1981, Hillis Howie in 1982, and Elizabeth Howie in 1986. Tom Henio worked until the mid-1980’s and he died in 1992 at the age of 92.


Grandfather Tom Henio in his ceremonial best, Denver, Colorado (1988)



May future generations always enjoy the shade at the

Cottonwood Gulch Cha’oh.


Henio and relatives

Grandfather Tom Henio, surrounded by many of his children and grandchildren