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La Historia del Rio Abajo

Clem “Pop” Shaffer, Swastikas and the Shaffer Hotel in Mountainair (Part I)

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The Shaffer Hotel, Mountainair, N.M., opened in 1924.

Visitors to Mountainair are always startled when they first see the local hotel’s façade. There, painted along the top of this abandoned two-story structure, are several large swastikas. Many travelers have assumed that the owner of the hotel must have been a German Nazi, or at least a Nazi sympathizer.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Although he was of German descent, Clem Shaffer built the Shaffer Hotel in the early 1920s before the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis’ use of the swastika as a symbol of evil and hate.

Prior to that time, the swastika had been a symbol of peace and goodwill for many Native American tribes, including the Navajo and Hopi. Shaffer had used the swastika symbol on his hotel to welcome visitors, not to alienate them with extreme political views.

Clem Shaffer was a great American patriot, a savvy local businessman and a highly imaginative folk artist. He was a New Mexico figure whose story should not be left buried beneath the dust that now covers every part of his old hotel.

The road to Mountainair

Clem Shaffer was born in Harmony, Indiana, on July 26, 1880, the 13th child in his family. He attended early grades until he was 13 when his father, Martin Shaffer, took him out of school so he could learn to be a blacksmith and help in the family’s blacksmith shop.

Young Clem worked hard in his father’s shop, but somehow found time to court Pearl Brown, a milliner who lived six miles from Harmony. Most of Clem’s courting took place on Sunday buggy rides. Pearl agreed to marry him in 1902.

The couple lived in Harmony (literally and figuratively) where they had two children, Mildred and Don. The family eventually moved to Lawton, Okla., where Clem worked as a carriage and buggy painter. The Shaffers thrived until a tornado swept through town, causing major damage to their home and convincing the family to seek a safer environment in which to live.

A friend told Clem about Mountainair, a new town in central New Mexico where the climate was good and the land was plentiful. The Santa Fe Railway was about to complete the Belen Cut-Off, which would give local farmers access to distant markets for their main crop, pinto beans. Mountainair and its surrounding area became known as the “pinto bean capital of the world.”

Impressed, Clem took a train to Mountainair where he liked what he saw and rented a blacksmith shop. Pearl and the children followed, arriving in April 1908.

Getting started

Business was slow at first. One week Clem made only 35 cents. Clem and Pearl made ends meet by selling butter made from milk produced by two cows the Shaffers had purchased with a $12 loan.

Sadly, Pearl suffered from poor health, contracting pneumonia in January 1911. She died two months later. Accompanied by his two children and borrowing money from a friend named Dad Imboden, Clem took Pearl’s remains home to Clay County, Ind., for burial. He left his children with Pearl’s parents in the Midwest.

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Clem and Lena Shaffer, probably on their wedding day in Estancia, N.M., July 5, 1912.

Returning to Mountainair, Clem soon met Dad Imboden’s daughter, Lena. Eleven years younger than Clem, she was also in mourning, having lost her fiancé a year earlier. Lena initially shunned Clem’s advances, but after many buggy rides and Saturday night dances, she finally agreed to marry him.

A justice of the peace married the couple in Estancia on July 5, 1912. They started married life by scalping a $10 ticket to the famous Jack Johnson-Jim Flynn prize fight fought in Las Vegas, N.M., that summer.

Clem and Lena had one child, Martin, born in late 1913 and named after Clem’s father. The family was complete when Mildred and Don returned to Mountainair to live with their father, stepmother and half-brother. Looking back on those years, Clem later wrote that Lena was the best stepmother he ever knew. Mildred and Don agreed.

Early businesses

Clem Shaffer worked in his blacksmith shop and filed for a homestead. Using the skills he had learned in Oklahoma, Clem also began to remodel old buggies. Buying broken-down buggies for a dollar, he would fix and repaint them before reselling them for as much as $75 each.

Meanwhile, Clem’s blacksmith business had become so successful that he expanded its building, adding space to sell farm equipment. Clem bought his first car in 1914. With an eye to the future when blacksmiths would no longer be needed, Clem began to sell and install Ford auto parts, while also becoming Mountainair’s exclusive Dodge and Oldsmobile agent.

Clem Shaffer outside his blacksmith shop and hardware store, Mountainair, N.M., about 1914.

Clem expanded his inventory to sell everything from Maytag washers and pianos to shoes and coffins. Clem enjoyed a near monopoly in the hardware business in Mountainair.

Meanwhile, Lena ran a local photo portrait business. By 1919, she was so successful that she had to take a few months off just to catch up with all the work.

Clem made business trips to purchase merchandise in places as far away as Canada to the north and El Paso to the south. Clem also lent money to many farmers; if they gave up and moved, he would buy them out or gain ownership of their land by simply paying their back taxes.

Clem claimed to have owned 20 160-acre farms at one time or another. It was said that by the 1930s he had bought and sold most of the land around Mountainair and half the buildings in town. Running regular ads in the Mountainair Independent, Clem billed himself as “the old reliable.”

Business was particularly good during World War I when pinto bean farmers grew bumper crops and the demand for agricultural goods seemed limitless. Always ambitious, Clem made handsome profits in those boom times.

New directions

But conditions changed after World War I. Growing tired, Clem began cutting back on his business activity and took more time to rest at places like the therapeutic spas in Hot Springs, N.M.

Tragedy struck in 1922 when the Shaffer’s wood-frame hardware store burned to the ground. While Clem and Lena wondered what to do next, a traveling salesman suggested that they build a hotel. The old hardware store’s site seemed like a perfect location for a hotel because it was near Mountainair’s busy train station, while also being close to the town’s main business district and Route 60.

Clem was not sure about such a venture, but Lena was enthusiastic. She promised Clem that she would manage the hotel and run its dining room if he’d build the structure, help occasionally and otherwise stay out of the way.

Agreeing to these terms, Clem built a lobby and Ford dealership on the first floor of his new building, with a hotel and dining room on the second story. He cast the entire structure in concrete to deter future fires. Clem boasted that he never used a blueprint.

“My blueprint,” he said, “is my imagination.”

Clem added swastikas to his new hotel’s exterior as symbols of good luck and peace for his guests. The swastika was so prevalent in New Mexico in the early 20th century that the icon appeared on two other hotels (in Raton and Farmington), a newspaper and many Indian arts and crafts.

At least 16 swastikas were used to help design the lobby, gallery and stage in Albuquerque’s KiMo Theatre. A New Mexico coal company and a mining camp were known as Swastika. Even the New Mexico State University’s yearbook was called the Swastika from 1907 to 1983.

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Colorful ceiling of the dining room at the Shaffer Hotel.

Completed in 1923, the Shaffer Hotel opened in 1924. Clem framed the first two dollars he and Lena earned at the hotel and hung them above a second-story window. He moved into Room 1 at the top of the stairs; Lena lived in Room 2. In addition to traveling guests, many local school teachers and railroad men boarded in the other second-story rooms. In deference to their age and hospitality, appreciative lodgers began calling Lena “Ma” and Clem “Pop.”

The hotel business was so good that Clem built an addition to the east of the building in 1929. He added eight new guest rooms on the hotel’s second floor and moved the dining room downstairs where it could be rented for special events at $2 an evening, the use of its piano included. Assisted by a staff of seven workers, the Shaffers owned and operated their 7,000-square-foot hotel for 46 years.

Pop becomes a folk artist

While Lena staffed the front desk, managed the housekeeping staff and did most of the cooking, Pop discovered a new interest and skill. The Albuquerque Journal reported that Pop started his new diversion when he used 931 stones to build a “fanciful fence” filled with imaginative and often bizarre designs to the west side of his hotel. Pop “signed” his art on the fence’s center panel “Built by Pop Shaffer in 1931.”

The stone fence Clem Shaffer built to the west of the Shaffer Hotel.

Inspired, Pop began painting the hotel’s interior in 1932, using many of the artistic skills he had first learned as a carriage and buggy painter in Oklahoma. He may well have been influenced by the new Pueblo Deco art used to design buildings like Albuquerque’s KiMo Theatre, opened in 1927.

Pop gave special attention to his hotel’s large new dining room. Observers have described Pop’s dining room as a “crayon box exploded,” filled with Indian-inspired designs and geometric patterns in bright, vibrant colors. Pop painted each of the dining room’s maple chairs in blue, orange, yellow, red and green.

Pop decorated tables, curtain rods, chandeliers, window trim and a rock fireplace with shapes from Indian arrows and Zia symbols to whole new designs that leapt from Pop’s fertile imagination.

The dining room’s large ceiling was Pop’s greatest artistic creation and the showpiece of his hotel’s Pueblo Deco art. With help from family members, Pop made the ceiling a “canvas of Indian designs, placed overhead like so many [Indian] rugs,” in the words of one art critic.

Although Hitler had begun to use the swastika as the symbol of his National Socialist party in Germany, Pop defiantly included it in his ceiling design, refusing to relinquish the popular symbol to a crazy dictator in far-off Europe.

Pop’s end product defied description. Remembering when he first entered the dining room in the 1930s, a diner later wrote “My eyes ran out on a stem when I saw the décor of that dining room…. The whole layout was dazzling.”

The Shaffer Hotel’s letterhead said it all, boasting that the hotel had “The Most Unique Dining Room in the World.”

(Part 2 of this article will appear in next Thursday’s News-Bulletin.)

(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society since 1998.

Richard Melzer

Richard Melzer, Ph.D

The author of this month’s column wishes to thank Clem Shaffer’s great-nephew, Dick Altman, genealogist Francisco Sisneros and Mountainair historian Dixie Boyle for their kind assistance. Readers are referred to Sandra D. Lynn’s excellent book “Windows on the Past: Historic Lodgings of New Mexico.”

Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the author’s alone and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)

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