In 2014, while researching life in 1930s Winslow for my novel about a young woman’s travels across the new “Main Street of America,” I learned about a community called the Laguna Colony. The story of the boxcar village so intrigued me, I dedicated a chapter to a new character: a young, smart, strong-willed Laguna woman who resided in the Colony. Who knew several years later I’d be invited to a reunion dinner with those who lived in the boxcars I’d been reading and writing about.
The Laguna Colony
In the early part of the twentieth century, the Santa Fe railroad struck a deal with the people of the Laguna Pueblo: In exchange for running their railway across reservation land, the railroad would provide jobs. Those who moved to Winslow Arizona to work the rails recreated a reservation-like communal environment by turning fifty boxcars into housing.
To those who lived there, the steel boxes were simply home.
I never realized these quarters were boxcars until someone was writing a book and asked me about my family living there. They were homes to many of us because of the family who made them warm and loving.Barbara Poley From the Laguna Colony Facebook Group
The ATSF used to furnish roofing and flooring material to the Laguna families. The men would help each other with repairs or to put in new floors. The additions were partitioned with salvaged lumber from the sawmills nearby. They fixed up the boxcars really nice in most cases.Lee Roberts From the Laguna Colony Facebook Group
I remember, as a kid, pulling our wagon with our laundry basket full of damp clothes. While my mom pinned the clothes on the clothesline, I would try to sneak up on the dragon flies perched on the wires of the fence near the clothesline. Our clothesline was located just west of uncle Charlie Romero’s boxcar, at the end of the row of boxcars.Mel Antonio From the Laguna Colony Facebook Group
A group of us danced Comanche, Buffalo, Arrow, Butterfly at the camp. I attended deer dinners, band concerts and helped clean the bathrooms! I’m looking forward to seeing everybody on the 26!Carol Sakiestewa From the Laguna Colony Facebook Group
The Last Family to Go
In 1990, the last Laguna Colony residents–the Oso family–moved out of the colony, and the location that once housed a community is now the BNSF Rail Yard.
The Oso’s can also boast the last “Boxcar Baby,” Winslow resident and Chairwoman of the Laguna Colony Days, Larrilynn Oso.
Larrilynn celebrated her birthday on Saturday, July 27th, surrounded by hundreds of others who share a unique role in this not-so-well-known part of Winslow’s history.
A history that is being celebrated through…
The Laguna Colony Days
Turned out the plan was already in motion. Mayor Tom McCauley–married to Darlene Natseway McCauley, a Laguna woman–had been working on an idea to celebrate the Laguna’s importance in Winslow’s history for more than ten years, an idea that sparked to life after doing a family Grab at Vargas Park. The plan for 2019 was ready to put into action.
Mayor McCauley formed an official committee, made a proclamation at a city council meeting, and five weeks later, the Laguna Colony Days came to be.
It is our responsibility to ensure the history of the Laguna Colony remains intact for future generations. Through storytelling and sharing of photographs many have reconnected, some have found new family members and others rekindled old friendships.Mayor Tom McCauley
Dinner and a Movie
The event kicked off with a reunion potluck, complete with traditional red chile stew and Pueblo bread.
When I saw people settled, eating, laughing and sharing memories – I was touched by the sense of community being brought together by traditional food. For that moment, the Colony life had returned. These were our people that had traveled ‘home’ from Tucson, Barstow, Yuma, San Bernardino, Hopi, Phoenix, Albuquerque and their respective Laguna villages.Larrilynn Oso
Dinner was followed with a screening of Grab, presented by filmmaker Billy Luther’s parents George and Sarah. Billy (currently in Asia working on a project) grew up in Winslow and focuses on telling the stories of his fellow indigenous population, like his 2007 documentary “Miss Navajo” inspired by his mother, Sarah Johnson Luther, who was Miss Navajo Nation 1966–67.
The group reconvened Saturday morning for mass at St. Joseph’s Church on 2nd Street.
The messages from Father Cyprian:
“Your Culture is a gift from God. Don’t go to sleep. If you sleep, you’ll lose it. Stay awake, practice it, teach it to each other.”Denise Natseway Estudillo Quoting Father Cyprian
“We know the difference between good and evil, do things with love, talk to one another, be good to one another, and that really encompasses the whole grab ceremony.”Larrilynn Oso Quoting Father Cyprian
After Mass the group formed a traditional procession to the park, led by committee member Debra Stacey’s son Joe.
To the hypnotic sounds of Joe’s singing and drumming, they reflected on the message during mass, about community and giving and the rich culture passed down from their ancestors.
At the park, local Navajo man Bennie Yazzie organized a variety of indigenous dancers, singers, and drummers to entertain the crowd before the Grab began.
Not only were the sights and sounds beautiful, but also a meaningful way to connect the young to their heritage.
Dancing is also a heartbeat. The drum is a heartbeat. To see the young dancers and young ladies with such poise was so wonderful.Larrilynn Oso
Grab at Route 66 Plaza
So what exactly is this Grab we are talking about?
In a nutshell, it’s a three-hundred-year-old practice of giving. For Winslow’s event, several families threw from the Route 66 Plaza stage, tossing out food, household items, and other goodies for people to Grab in exchange for prayers for the coming year.
The “Grab” is so important because it’s actually an act of prayer. Those that are the namesake of the Saint, in this case Saints James and Ann, ask for prayers for themselves and for all of the people grabbing. It extends beyond that in prayers for all people and prayers for rain. It begins with sprinkling water on the people as a blessing and prayer for rain. Our prayers were answered with a nice monsoon later that evening which really cooled things off!Committee Member and former Laguna Colony Resident Denise Natseway Estudillo
As an outside observer, I witnessed pure joy from all involved–even when grabbing something as simple as a box of macaroni and cheese.
Everyone was smiling and laughing. The energy thrumming through the crowd can’t easily be described.
The throwers felt that love and energy as well.
We’re throwing our hearts out there.Larrilynn Oso
In addition to household essentials, they also threw this:
An exquisite pot handmade and donated from Josie Seymour, the pottery maker from the Grab documentary… and good news! The pot survived the throw and is now in the hands of this lucky man.
After being in the midst of the throw, it became clear how this tradition can bond a community. Simple photographs can’t accurately show the event.
You have to see it in action.
The 2020 Winslow Laguna Colony Days
The committee is already at work planning next year’s event and hope to get even more people involved.
As long as we’re talking about it, as long as we’re celebrating it’s not going to fade away. And that’s the hope for all indigenous cultures. We are celebrating as one.Larrilynn Oso
The Laguna Colony Days committee wants to grow the database of knowledge through photographs and stories. Even if you think your story isn’t important, every little bit adds to the whole. Please contact them by clicking the link below to assure your children and grandchildren and generations to come understand their rich heritage.
Old Trails Museum Oral History
In addition to their work to document history, Ann Mary Lutzik at Old Trails Museum is looking for oral histories to record as well.
If you decide to share your personal history with the Old Trails Museum (OTM), you will not only preserve you or your family’s story, you will also help OTM tell Winslow’s story in a more vivid and genuine way.From the Old Trails Museum
You’ll find more information by clicking the link below.
Many thanks to the committee for inviting us to join in the celebrations. Can’t wait to see what’s in store for next year!
Until next time…