Verkamp's faces uncertain future in centennial

tion no other Park Service concessioner can claim ­ the business has stayed in family hands for that past century.

But even as they prepare for an anniversary celebration in mid-May ("A big hootenanny," says Steven Verkamp.) they are also preparing a complicated bid packet to be able to compete against the likes of Delaware North and Fred Harvey Co. for the contract to run the curio concession.

"It's ironic that on our 100th anniversary, we are in the middle of an unbelievable negotiation process with the government," Steve says. "Our competitors are corporate giants. It's a complicated process, and it's extremely expensive."

Verkamp's has operated under multi-year contracts for most of its existence, remaining competitive against big concessions through a provision giving preference to incumbent contractors. But that provision is no more. For the past several years, they have operated under contracts renewed annually. But this summer or fall, a request for proposals for a multi-year contract will go out for bid.

In 2002, Delaware North won the 15-year contract to operate the Hamilton Stores at Yellowstone. Prior to that, it was family--run for 87 years.

Steve and his siblings have a real fear that Verkamp's will suffer the same fate, losing the continunity that keeps employee turnover low and made for hundreds of repeat customers.

"Right now, we're another endangered species here," he said.

While what the family has built on the Rim is no small achievement, the Verkamps are most proud of the legacy attached to their family name.

"We have always had that spirit of civic involvement. Watching our parents and relatives encouraged us to see public service a very high calling," says Steve as he recounts the ways that generations of Verkamps have made a difference.

His father spearheaded both the effort to build the Shrine of the Ages and to provide the first showers for the football team. His sister Peggy was a long-time school board member who was instrumental in getting the high school built. His brother Mike and his sister-in-law also served on the school board.

John Verkamp was county attorney, served as state representative for eight years and was in the state senate for a couple of terms.

Steve was named the first federal judge in Northern Arizona. He led the creation and organization for the first federal district court house here.

"This reputation carried over and we really made a serious attempt to honor our father," he said.

Unique experiences

The other legacy was in priceless experiences.

"It was very difficult," he says. "We never get away from it. We'd be sitting there having lunch and get called down to go wait on customers, seven day a week. The upside is that we got to meet Doris Day and Humphrey Bogart, Barbra Streisand and other celebrities.

"There were always these people floating around," he says. "It was fun. You never knew if, when you walked into El Tovar, you'd see Al Pacino."

One story the family likes to tell is that when then-Senator Hubert Humphrey wanted to pay for a purchase with a personal check.

"You had to have an ID," says Steve. "When Hubert Humphrey pulled out his ID, they had a good chuckle."

Another fond memory is of the time the youngsters stalked Dwight D. Eisenhower, who at that time was still a general, so they could give him a gift.

"We were trying to give him a piece of petrified wood, but we couldn't get close to him," says Steve. "During the Indian dance at Hopi House, he went to the bathroom with no body guard and no aide de camp. We chased after him and gave him that piece of petrified wood."

Eisenhower so appreciated the gesture that he wrote a letter to the Rotary Club, saying he wanted to say thank you.

The family also had a brush with a pre-fame Roger Miller, who became the first man that John Jr. fired.

"He was always in the back room playing guitar," Steve says. "Years later when Roger was a star, he came to see Dad and told him, 'The greatest thing you ever did was fire me. As you know, things worked out good for me.' He came right upstairs to tell him about it. It was one of Dad's greatest stories."

John "Jack" Verkamp, grandfather to today's board of directors, began selling curios and Native American goods out of a tent on the South Rim in January 1906.

It was one of many ventures he was involved in, though not his primary one. For the first 20 years, he hired managers to oversee the day-to-day operations while he focused on his Flagstaff enterprises ­ mining, farming and ranching.

Great Depression

But when the stock market crashed in 1929, those interests "went belly-up," says Steve. In 1936, the store on the Rim became not only their livelihood but home as well to Jack, his wife and three children.

"During the Depression, it was up and down," says Steve "The store just hung on by the heroic efforts of the family. It was a total family operation with not a lot of outside help. Obviously we couldn't have afforded the overhead but we hung on."

Family business

He remembers going out on the Rim Trail with his siblings to hand out business cards advertising the store. Emery Kolb, who had cards of his own, more or less had an agreement with Jack Verkamp that he would work west of El Tovar while Verkamp's territory ran east.

"They were allied in the sense that they were underdogs," says Steve.

There were other attention-getters to draw in the curious ­ visitors could view the Canyon through a telescope, touch a meteorite or see acclaimed Western artist Louis Akin's painting "Evening ­ Grand Canyon," a work too large for the National Academy of Art in New York. And in a photo circa 1910, a mountain lion is chained to a tree.

But mainly, how Jack Verkamp kept the business going was by giving the customers what they wanted ­ authentic quality Native American goods. He cultivated relationships with artisans, silversmiths, weavers and potters, trading with tribes well beyond the Southwest.

"Our relationship with Hopi and Navajo is really a marker with us," Steve says.

After Jack Verkamp retired in 1944, his son John took over. As his father had foreseen the changes the railroad would bring, so did John understand there was opportunity in the growing popularity of the automobile.

The business passed on to the third generation when Mike Verkamp took over in the 1970s. He managed it for 23 years and was responsible for a complete remodel in 1989 that restored the store's original feel.

Several years ago, Mike left to pursue a legal career and the family hired the first non-Verkamp, Dan Ashley, to manage the store.

Seven of Jack's grand-children sit on the Board of Directors. They are Donna, who lives in Phoenix; Mike, who lives in Bullhead City; Steve who lives in Flagstaff; Susie from Moscow, Idaho, Kelly in Humboldt and Lisa in Seattle.

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