Story & Photos by Jeffrey V. Smith
Eagle Plume’s Indian Trading Post owners Dayton Raben and his wife, Ann Strange Owl, have been working at the popular roadside store so long, they believe they’ve “become part of the building.” The couple have been at the shop long enough for it to feel like forever, but the world-renowned Native American jewelry and art retailer on the Peak to Peak north of Allenspark is actually celebrating its 100th year this season. Despite what they tell you, they’re not that old.
While nothing out of the ordinary is planned to recognize the anniversary, Eagle Plume’s, 9853 Hwy. 7, is hosting artist Cecelia Bull Bear for demonstrations and a special sale of her quill work, Aug. 5-6, and an on-site artist-in-residence daily through September. There is also fresh fry bread on weekends. A very special 25th Annual “Toast to the Ghost,” Sept. 8 at 6 p.m., will honor the business’ namesake, Charles Eagle Plume, who passed away in 1992 after more than five decades of owning the store, lecturing and storytelling.
The historic trading post is rich in the traditions and arts of the indigenous American and specializes in the art and crafts of the American Indian. Contemporary works in jewelry, textiles, basketry, ceramics, sculpture, and bead work, as well as historic pieces are available. The store is also home to the Charles Eagle Plume Collection of Native American Indian Art, comprising more than 1,000 historic and prehistoric pieces from Native North America, Alaska, and Canada. Raben and Strange-Owl stay there, too.
According to Raben, the store was started by Katherine Lindsay from Kansas who pitched a tent in 1917 and started building. “Charlie added on, and we added on some, but the store was built and run as the What Not Inn. She had a What Not shop in Kansas City,” he said. “She had studied art in Paris before World War I and brought part of her father’s collection to decorate her store. We still have pictures of that.” After marrying O.S. Perkins, an Estes Park store owner, the name was changed to Perkins Trading Post. “Trading post” was basically another name for tourist trap, according to Raben. “We are still a tourist trap,” he said.
Some time around 1930, a “young kid rode up on horseback” looking for work. “Mrs. Perkins always claimed it was probably a stolen horse, but that was Charles Eagle Plume,” Raben explained. “He rode up and got a job and played the part of a tourist entertainer. He was able to shoot bows and arrows and dance, and he was quite good at it. Later, he lectured in the winter time and he would come and work for Katherine in the summer. As time passed, Charles became a little bit more important that way in helping. He used to live out back in a little tee-pee or shack.”
The two worked together collecting for a long time before Eagle Plume went into the Army during World War II. “When he came back in ’46, I think it was, she pretty well took him on as a tenant-in-common and he basically ended up owning the store when she passed away,” Raben said. “During the ’30s ’40s, ’50s, even in the 60s, Charles would travel in the winter time and lecture at knife and fork clubs, Redpath [Lyceum] Bureau, and so on. He made a heck of a lot of money… and was being paid $100, $150, $200 a day in the 1930s by lecturing. So, he was something else. But he spent it all.” Eagle Plume continued to run the store, and entertain guests, until 1992.
According to Raben, he came to the store because of his wife, Strange Owl, who he married in Wyoming in 1960, and has been “hanging with every since.” The two moved to California, then moved back to Colorado where Raben taught school and Strange Owl was a dental hygienist, which was found boring.
When the suggestion came to create a store, Strange Owl jumped at the idea. She opened Owl Lodge in Fort Collins and 1973 and was “quite successful,” until she closed in 1979 to go work for Eagle Plume, who she had met in the late ’60s. “That’s why we are here,’ Raben said. “I taught school in Berthod and would come up on the weekends and help. I ate a lot of buffalo burgers with Charles. When Charles passed on, he left the store to some employees and Ann was one of the employees.”
The couple eventually bought the others out. “We will be broke the rest of our lives, but we’re happy, and it’s beautiful,” Raben said. “It gets a little cramped in here once in a while, but otherwise we do pretty good.”
The store is a popular place to stop for visitors on the way to and from Estes Park. There are travelers who stop by who have never heard of the place, or read about it in a local paper as well as Native American art collectors from around the world who call in. Some folks have been coming for decades.
“There’s a group of customers that have five and six generations long in here,” Raben said. “I had a picture of one a couple of years ago, five generations of them standing there. The youngest was just a little baby. Charles met all those people years ago and made friends with them, and their families keep coming all the time, but it’s dwindling away.”
Even with less visits from the old-timers, there is no problem finding costumers. According to Raben, the store has a world-wide reputation for quality and more than 10,000 people on its e-mail list. “They come from everywhere, all over the world. We’ve had stories of customers saying, ’I was in London the other day in line and said that’s a nice bolo, where did you get it? Charles Eagle Plume’s. That’s where I got mine, too.’ That type of thing. It’s kind of fun,” Raben said.
Sales aside, the collection is an entity in itself. “It just lives here,” Raben said. “We take care of it, we don’t really own it. It’s kind of a foundation. People come just to see it. I remember one time somebody came up who had read a book that had a collection of pictures of Charles Eagle Plume jewelry. They drove all the way up here to look at it.”
Eagle Plume knew so many people, and so many people knew him, that on the anniversary of his death, Sept. 8 at 6:20 p.m., his friends “host a toast to the ghost” at the store. “It’s gotten to be quite a thing. People come in and tell the darndest stories about him. About 6:20 p.m. is when we do it, but people show up at five o’clock and start drinking.” This year is the 25th annual “Toast to the Ghost.”
Although there was always a question if he was truly an Indian, Raben doesn’t get into it too much. “He claimed he was a quarter Blackfeet. He did so much good for American Indians in lecturing and he was a humanist, he really was,” Raben explained. “He brought a lot of good feelings to people, and he was an entertainer. I don’t know as far as that, but we still miss him. Many people walk in and I’ll say he’s been gone 25 years, people are like ‘what?’ They just can’t understand that, you know. He had great stories. He was a character to say the least.”
Now through September, visitors to Eagle Plume’s Trading Post can meet watercolorist and artist-in-residence Arthur Short Bull whose artistic vision “strives to capture the spirit of his Oglala Lakota heritage.” It is his hope his work helps others “see and experience the spirit that exists in all things.”
Visit eagleplume.com for additional history and store information and dawnhawk.org to learn more about Short Bull. Stop in to see the collection and hear a story or two about Charles.
© Originally published in the August 2017 issue of the MMAC Monthly