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History of Jack and Gertrude Nairn
and the Casa del Gavilan
Cimarron, New Mexico
by David E. Emery
copyright © 1998, David E. Emery
Jack Nairn was many things to many people but to everyone--first and foremost--he was a storyteller. He could spin a yarn unlike anyone else and was a much sought-after speaker for numerous engagements. The problem with researching the history of such an individual is that it is sometimes difficult to find the line between the truth and a "story." When they lived in Hartford, Connecticut, the Nairns resided a few blocks down the street from Mark Twain. Jack Nairn claimed to have known Mark Twain and as Jack's father-in-law was one of the leading citizens of that very affluent city, it is likely they traveled in the same social circles. Perhaps this was the foundation of Nairn's interest in storytelling; perhaps it was something else. But in any case, Nairn could stretch the truth in more directions than most people thought possible.
Jack Nairn was a delightful, dapper fellow who dressed in English tweeds and a large, white cowboy hat. He was also fond of dressing in the kilt of his Scottish heritage for special occasions. Mr. Nairn was known far and wide for his charm, wit, and generosity. Mrs. Nairn was also well liked in the community. She worked as a nurse when needed and assisted during the flu epidemic of 1918/1919.
Many people have heard the stories of Jack Nairn. Undoubtedly, some of them are true. And it is just as likely that some of them lie in that misty region between a tall tale and an outright fabrication. In most instances, we will never know the truth from the legend and perhaps that's a part of the mystery. But in any case, Jack Nairn--in his own way--left quite a legacy for the Cimarron community. Much of that history has been tucked away in closets, books, attics, and in the memories of many who remember the Nairns fondly. Our goal in this research has been to recapture some of that history for Casa del Gavilan--as well as for the Cimarron community--before it is lost forever. Regardless of what is truth and what is fiction, one fact remains constant: To this day in all of our research, nary a single disparaging word has been spoken of the Nairns.
What follows is a summary of facts about the Nairns. This is as yet an incomplete research project. Much information has been discovered about the Nairns and much more has yet to be found. In many cases, the facts may not be as colorful as the fiction, but the facts are unique and captivating in their own right.
Jack Nairn was born in Washington, D.C. on October 23, 1858, to John Wilson Nairn and Elizabeth (Nourse) Nairn. The Nairn family consisted of two girls, Mary and Addie, and two boys, Thomas Shields and John James (also known as Jack or J.J.). Very little is known of the family. In later life, Jack described his father as being an "expert on realty values and a large Washington property owner." In his earlier days, Jack's father was an apothecarist. At a later date, his father remarried and had another son, Wilson Barker Nairn, Jack's half brother.
In 1872, Jack was enrolled in Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, a "prep" school of note in that day. Jack took courses in Latin, History, Greek, Math, French, and English. His grades were fair except for one unknown class called "FEG" in which he scored a 68.
Upon graduating from Phillips Exeter, Jack enrolled at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. At that time he stood 5' 9 1/2" tall and tipped the scales at 130 pounds. He was a member of Delta Kappa Psi Upsilon and was generally a good student. At one point, he was summoned before the academic board for some unspecified infraction. He did not answer the summons and apparently the matter was dropped. Nairn was very popular among his classmates and at times entertained them by singing at impromptu get-togethers. Although a good student, it took Jack an extra year to complete his education at Yale. His father was not pleased at the prospect of paying another year's expenses but Jack's mother's dying wish was that her husband see Jack through graduation from Yale.
Attending Yale at the same time as Jack was noted Western artist-to-be Frederick Remington. Although Remington was in the Yale Art School and Nairn attended Yale College, they had the same circle of friends and undoubtedly knew each other. As Remington died prior to the contruction of Casa del Gavilan, he would not have visited the Nairns in Cimarron.
After graduating from Yale in the class of 1880, Jack spent four-and-a-half years seeking adventure in Canada and the southwestern United States. He lived for 18 months in San Antonio, Texas, and "became personally acquainted with the men and incidents which I had supposed existed only between the yellow paper covers of very light literature." One account mentions a foray into Mexico with a Texas Ranger.
Suffering from an attack of dengue fever, Jack Nairn returned from Mexico and on November 19, 1886, married Gertrude Hastings Sisson, the daughter of Thomas and Gertrude Sisson of Hartford, Connecticut. Thomas Sisson was a highly respected citizen of Hartford and was on the board of directors of several enterprises including the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company. The wedding was followed by a honeymoon in Europe.
The couple first attempted a book business in Washington, D.C. After two years, they moved to Hartford and lived with the Sisson family in a very large brick home in prestigious West Hartford. Jack went to work at the Sisson Drug Company as a clerk. After several years working as a clerk, he was promoted to accountant. Shortly thereafter, he and Gertrude moved to their own home several blocks from the Sisson family home where they lived with their Irish housekeeper.
In 1907 for health reasons the Nairns packed their bags and headed for New Mexico. Several of the Hartford social clubs, including the Southern Society and the prestigious Hartford Club, gave the Nairns warm send-offs. Several months after the move, Thomas Sisson passed away leaving an estate of about $150,000. He left to his two daughters the right, title, and interest in, and to his recipe for, "Griswold's Family Salve" as well as large portions of the estate.
It is believed that the Nairns first moved to Wagon Mound, New Mexico, and lived with the Paltenghe family, widely known and respected sheep and cattle ranchers. Whatever the case, in 1910 the Nairns purchased land from George Webster. The Nairns' "temporary" move to New Mexico was to become permanent.
The property purchased by the Nairns in the Cimarron area was in two sections. The first was a 25-acre orchard along the Rayado road, probably near Cimarroncito Creek. For the second parcel, one story recalls George Webster telling Jack to choose whatever parcel of land on the Websters' 100,000 Urraca Ranch that the Nairns wanted for their home. After much time walking and riding the extent of the Urraca Ranch, the Nairns chose this magnificent location for their retirement home--Casa del Gavilan.
The Casa was designed to entertain the Nairns' many friends from around the world. it is believed to have been designed by Hartford architect Francis Waterman. Each guest room was designed with a private bath--a rarity for the early days of the Territory of New Mexico. Construction began about 1910 by Narcisso Federici, a stone mason who immigrated from Italy to Cimarron in 1909. During the construction, the Federici family lived in a tent near the Casa. Ed Sitzberger, a local cooper (barrel-maker) and craftsman constructed the hand-crafted doors and the fireplace mantels. He also installed the original 14,000 gallon water storage tank for the Casa.
While the Casa was being built, the Nairns made a trip around the world that lasted two-and-a-half years. This grand adventure included Christmas dinner in Yokohama, Japan, with Yale classmates; polo with the governor of the Philippines; and tiger hunting in Korea. The Nairns returned to the States in 1912.
In December 1919, the Nairns returned to New York to attend the Yale winter class dinner and from there planned to journey to the west coast of South America, then across the Andes Mountains. However, Mrs. Nairn was taken seriously ill and the trip had to be abandoned.
In 1921, cowboy author and illustrator Will James was working for the CS Ranch in Cimarron herding cattle and working on his Western stories. At the time, Burton Twitchell, Dean of Students at Yale University, was visiting Nairn. Twitchell and Nairn rode out to La Grulla and visited Will James. By and by, Burton Twitchell provided Will James an art scholarship at Yale. Jack and Ed Springer, owner of the CS Ranch, offered to bankroll the cowboy in his Yale adventure. Will James' career at Yale lasted only a few weeks but it was sufficient to get into the circle of artists and publishers that would add so much to his career.
In 1924, while visiting friends in Santa Barbara, California, Mrs. Nairn contracted pneumonia and passed away. Her body was cremated and the ashes placed in a box that lovingly remained on the fireplace mantle, tied with a purple ribbon, for the rest of Nairn's days at the Casa. On special occasions such as her birthday, flowers were placed beside the box.
Nairn was one of the founding members of the Maverick Club, which has been such a benefit to Cimarron since the early 1920s. Following George Webster, Nairn was the second president of the Mavericks in 1924. After serving over a decade as the president of the Mavericks, he resigned the post in 1937. But the Mavericks would have none of it. Not only was his resignation soundly rejected, he was made "president for life."
During his tenure with the Maverick Club, Nairn wrote numerous letters to the Governor of New Mexico and other officials concerning everything from Sunday train service to Cimarron, to the paving of the road to Cimarron from Raton. He, as well as the other Mavericks, did much to make Cimarron what it is today.
An avid polo player, Nairn along with Ed Springer and Waite Phillips did much to encourage polo in the Cimarron area. Nairn had been a founding member of the Taconic Polo Club in Hartford and, as did Ed Springer and Waite Phillips, Nairn brought his love of the sport with him when he moved to Cimarron. Nairn was a good friend of Louis Stoddard, the international polo champion, and brought Stoddard to Cimarron to encourage the sport.
The years slipped by at Casa del Gavilan. Nairn busied himself with his library, which he boasted was "one of the finest private collections in the southwest." In 1936, he traveled to Scotland and visited the ruins of old Macbeth Castle, a part of the ancestral Nairn estate.
Nairn was a Napoleonic Scholar and a self-proclaimed expert on ancient and modern religious beliefs. He reported that he did considerable writing on many subjects but few of his compositions seem to have survived him.
In 1942, Nairn was in failing health and, due to his extravagant lifestyle, nearly broke. Ed Springer and other friends pooled their resources and moved Nairn to the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, where they paid the expenses for him to live out the rest of his days in a comfortable lifestyle. Although still president of the Maverick Club, he made the trip to Cimarron less often as the years passed. Ed Springer once quipped that perhaps they would not have offered to pay Nairns' expenses at the La Fonda for the rest of his life had they known he would live so long.
Except for the few personal possessions Nairn took with him to Santa Fe, all of the furnishings and many items collected from around the world were given or sold to friends and neighbors. Waite Phillips had recently donated Villa Philmonte and a large portion of his UU Bar Ranch to the Boy Scouts of America. Since this left Mr. Phillips with no local residence while he was selling the remainder of the UU Bar Ranch, Mr. Phillips purchased Casa del Gavilan and the surrounding property as the ranch headquarters for the remainder of the UU Bar Ranch. Local residents recall an ongoing poker game held in the Casa's living room by the cowboys of the UU Bar after the ranch was purchased from Mr. Phillips by the McDaniel family.
In 1943 at the age of 84, Mr. Nairn was driving his car through Cimarron Canyon when he lost control and crashed into the Cimarron River. Unable to extricate himself from his predicament, he pushed his nose against the roof of the car to breath from a small pocket of air until a passing truck driver helped him from the car. He spent several months in the hospital in Raton and never really regained his health afterwards.
Always one to be seen in the company of attractive young women, Nairn employed a young nurse at his residence in the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe. He had been suffering from pneumonia and on Sunday morning, November 2, 1947--as reported by Ed Springer to Les Davis--it was this young nurse whom Mr. Nairn asked for a drink of bourbon. The nurse dutifully complied. Nairn finished the drink, laid back, and quietly passed away. He was 89 years old.
Nairn's remains were cremated and, together with the ashes of his long departed wife, they were buried near Lovers' Leap, a rock formation one mile west of Casa del Gavilan in Urraca Canyon. Springer, Sitzberger, and Hayward buried the Nairns, then returned to Springer's home to drink a toast of Scotch to their departed friend.
This brings to an end a colorful chapter of Cimarron's history. Certainly had Jack Nairn not been captivated by the landscape and the people of Cimarron, the town would have missed out on a significant contribution to its community.
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