Centennial celebration a tribute to family's strength

Though mention was made of the store's place in the National Register of Historic Places, last week's ceremony to mark Verkamp's 100th year on the South Rim was at heart a celebration of more lasting structures.

"I have so many wonderful feelings about this store here but really, it's just a box without people to direct it and to prepare it, take care of it and guide it. I have to say this is more of a celebration of family than of that shingled box there," said Michael Verkamp, one of seven brothers and sisters who grew up in the store their grandfather, the original John G. Verkamp, started in a tent on the rim in 1905.

Michael and siblings Susie, Jane, Steve, John G. III, Kelly and Lisa were joined last Thursday by more than 150 family members, friends, former employees and well-wishers from all over the country. The ceremony started at 2 p.m., but there was a celebratory air well before, as arriving guests greeted one another with hugs and exclamations as they gathered in front of the distinctive, century-old building that held memories for most of them.

As Park Superintendent Joe Alston noted in his remarks, "It's not only the 100th anniversary of Verkamp's store but it is obviously a reunion here. It's remarkable to see folks that a lot of us haven't seen for a lot of years."

Susie, who serves as president of the Verkamp's board, led off the ceremony with welcoming remarks.

"It's just incredible to see everybody here," she said, looking out at the gathering. "I hope my heart can contain this. This is just unbelievable."

Then, before going on, she reminded the audience of the backdrop for the last 100 years of the Verkamp story.

"I'd like to begin by just acknowledging where we are ­ here," she said gesturing toward the view, "at this incredible manifestation of nature's power and beauty and just a total gift to humanity, and just this amazing place."

A blessing was offered, in Hopi, by Phyllis Kachinhongva, who grew up at the Hopi House alongside the Verkamp youngsters, sharing a common front yard and a lifestyle marked by the ebb and flow of the tourist trade.

"Our families have been woven together through time with strands of joy, hardship, mutual respect and big love for as long as I can remember," said Susie.

Intertwining stories was a theme that the speakers kept revisiting through the afternoon,underscored by a proclamation from Gov. Janet Napolitano recognizing the store's centennial and honoring the family for their "contributions to civic life, not just at Grand Canyon, but also in Northern Arizona."

"Something that I've really come to appreciate lately is how our story is not really unique," Susie noted. "If you tweeze out any of these little strands, we're all just part of these large historic pulses."

In his address, Alston recapped the family's story starting where it becomes intertwined not only with late 19th century Northern Arizona's history, but in the broader history of the westward migration.

Three Verkamp brothers ­ John, Leo and Oscar ­ came to Flagstaff from Cincinnati, Ohio, and joined their fortunes with five Babbitt brothers who were neighbors of theirs back in Ohio. John first attempted to set up shop on the South Rim, selling Babbitt merchandise, but abandoned that effort. In 1905, he started a store of his own in a tent on 2.5 acres, under a permit from the Forest Service manager of the Grand Canyon Forest and Game Preserve ­ then the managing agency.

In January of 1906, he moved to the building, the same one being used today.

The Verkamp's store was part of a wave of early 20th century development on the South Rim that included El Tovar and Hopi House, aimed at providing services for the influx of visitors the newly-arrived Santa Fe Railroad was expected to bring.

"What an extraordinary time," said Alston. "What I admire is their spirit in order to take on those risks."

In the store's early years, John Verkamp hired managers to run things while he pursued other business interests throughout the county, including ranching, sheep-herding and prospecting.

In 1936, with his other interests lost to the Great Depression, he and his wife Catherine moved to the store, where it became their home and main livelihood.

His son, John Jr., took over in 1945, and Michael, representing the third generation to live in the store, managed it for 23 years starting in the mid-70s. Through all of those years, the Verkamp name became woven into the park's history as well.

"Park files to this day mention the family jumping in to help with social events, community emergencies, participating in the school district, PTA and Rotary, helping to build community structures like the Community Building, clinic and Shrine of the Ages," Alston said. "In fact (John Verkamp's daughter) Peggy was instrumental in establishing the first library at the Canyon as well as funding and construction of Grand Canyon High School."

Daily management of the store is now handled by Dan Ashley and his wife Terri. They are the first non-Verkamps to act in that role. The seven grandchildren of John Verkamp serve as the board of directors.

"It's fitting to remember that while the National Park Service endeavors turn to corporate enterprises, Verkamp's remains a family affair," Alston said to cheers and applause from the crowd.

Jo Pendry, who oversees all Park Service concessions, presented the family with a certificate of appreciation signed by NPS Director Fran Mainella, in recognition of their service.

"This family really embodies the rich history of the pioneer spirit and the movement west," she said. "We're very proud of their contributions and the tremendous record of service to the park, the community and millions of visitors."

Michael said that keeping it a family owned enterprise has been a challenge and acknowledged support from family, coworkers and others over the years.

"I'm not a great believer in 'the Greatest Generation.' I'm not a Tom Brokaw type of guy," he said. "I think all the generations contributed equally with their energies."

Though he and Susie joked about their father's "captive, low-cost" labor pool that helped him keep costs down ­ themselves, their siblings and visiting relatives who came out to work in the summer ­ they express nothing but gratitude for the circumstances of their childhood.

"It's just been an incredible privilege filled with so many blessings for us to be able to call this extraordinary place our home," Susie said.

Michael, meanwhile, characterized himself and his siblings as "the luckiest kids in the world," witnessing some 300 "ho-hum, perfect sunsets," rainbows, double rainbows and inversions that would last for days ­ good for the postcard trade, he noted.

Susie took time to pay tribute to the family's women, who, she said, often didn't get as much mention as the men though many were as brave and adventurous and left as deep a mark. Her grandmother came west with a sister to keep house for their brothers, who worked on the railroad. And her Aunt Peggy pitched in when her brother, the first John Verkamp died unexpectedly in 1944, keeping the store in good health and looking after his widow and children until John Jr. returned home from the war the next year and assumed management.

Words of appreciation also went out to a host of others, though before she even got started, Susie made what she called her disclaimer.

"I wish there was time to talk about everyone who's sitting here, so know that you're included in my heart even if we don't get the words out to you," she said.

"First and foremost" she expressed deep gratitude to Dan and Terri Ashley. She also acknowledged the family members and friends who pitched in on the floor or were invaluable in their support over the years.

She also thanked the Native American dancers, Hopi sculptor Tony Pollacca and Navajo silversmith Tommy Jackson for sharing their traditional skills at the event.

And, she thanked the Verkamp's staff, who remained busy in the store serving customers and carrying on the Verkamp story.

"Even though they're in there working, we consider our staff to be the contemporary guardians of our family tradition and our tradition of service to the community and to the visitors at the park," Susie said.

During her closing remarks, one more, much anticipated guest arrived ­ a condor who circled high above the "oohing" crowd, halting all remarks for the duration of its brief visit and departing to applause.

As Michael had remarked earlier, "It's just another day in paradise."

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