A handful of former Yellowstone employees who last worked together in the mid-to-late 1950s met up this week at Lake Lodge for a reunion.
They meet every couple of years and visit the site of their long-gone lodge and dormitories. Today they are in their 80s, all retired. They are doctors and teachers, race car drivers and homemakers. But when they reunite, they crack wise and flirt with each other just as they did when they were college students working for a few bucks for a few summers in Yellowstone National Park.
They worked at the old Canyon Lodge. Not the “new” Canyon Lodge that’s currently in the middle of a major re-do, eliminating old cabin quads and replacing them with energy-efficient, modern lodge buildings, but an older Canyon Lodge that operated on the South Rim Drive from the 1920s until 1956.
The old Canyon Lodge sat in what is now the parking lot at the Uncle Tom’s Overlook of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone’s Upper Falls. There was a lodge building with a registration desk and a dining room surrounded by rough-and-tumble guest cabins. The best place to see today what those cabins were like is at Roosevelt Lodge on the park’s Upper Loop at Tower Junction.
The lodge was abandoned and torn down when the “new” Canyon Village opened at its current location in 1957.
The old Canyon Lodge looked a lot like the current Lake Lodge, and that’s why the former “savages”—an old slang for employees of any park concession company, not to be confused with the National Park Service rangers—meet there.
Their jobs included waiting tables, driving garbage and linen trucks, escorting arriving guests to their cabins, and cleaning cabins.
Incredibly, one of the jobs was emptying out the lidded chamber pots provided in each cabin. Yes. Chamber pots. In the 1950s. They were called “ducks.” And believe me, you would have wanted one back then: at the old Canyon Lodge, the showers and restrooms were outside in a common building. The path to the restroom was unlit, and it was cold outside in the middle of the night. Not to mention the possibility of running into a bear on your bathroom walk, explained Dr. Lloyd Warr, a now-retired doctor from Alabama who served as a truck driver in the mid-1950s.
The cabins were uninsulated, and their only heat source was a small woodstove. Some employees were charged with starting the fires for guests using a concoction of sawdust soaked with kerosene, Warr said.
The employees lived in two buildings down a slight hill off today’s parking lot. The girls’ dorm was called the “Rat trap” and the boy’s dorm was called “the Dungeon,” another former employee, Barbara Stevenson, of La Jolla, California, explained.
They visit the site to regard the last remnant—a large stone/small boulder that sat outside the Rat Trap, Ralph “Twig” Bush said. It was called the “Haircut Rock” because it was where the person each year most able to trim a man’s hair would provide haircuts, Dian Morgan said.
The savages had their first reunion in 1978. Stevenson had kept the annual employee roster provided at the end of each season by a manager, Martha “Marty” Gordor, and was able to track down, pre-Internet, a lot of former employees. And those employees had kept in touch with other employees.
And once the Internet and email came around, they were off, laughed Stevenson.
Most of the employees back then were college students. The park was only open from early May to about Labor Day. The staff worked six days a week. If they wanted to go anywhere on their days off they had to hitchhike because most savages didn’t have cars.
Unique at Canyon back then were the shows the savages put on for the “dudes,” a slang term for the guests, most nights, Warr said. The music was arranged Gordor, who was a high school music teacher the rest of the year. And the waitresses and other dining room staff opened the dining room doors each evening with a special song. The shows included song and dance and skits and sometimes some humor, like a beauty pageant featuring young men posing as “Miss Old Faithful” and “Miss Morning Glory,” for a few examples.
On the employment application, there was a question asking if you had any musical talent and if not, were you willing to sing and perform, Stevenson recalled.
And they celebrated holidays. There was a Fourth of July parade each year. They celebrated Christmas each year. Some places did Christmas in August, but at Canyon the held Christmas on July 25. They would decorate a tree and have a dress-up party. The young people all brought “something nice” to wear, Stevenson said. The girls all had taffeta dresses, and if they had a special date with a special boy, it was common to write home and ask Mom to send outfits they’d left at home, Stevenson said. There were no cellphones, and long distance phone calls were expensive.
“You always packed something nice,” Stevenson said. And all the young men owned coats and ties, she added.
The lodge employees didn’t mix much with the Canyon Hotel employees. The grand old hotel, condemned in the late ’50s and eventually lost in a fire, was about a mile or so away on the other side of the canyon. Built in the days of the carriage trade, the formal hotel catered to a more well-to-do clientele. The Lodge employees found the Hotel employees a little too full of themselves to socialize with them much, Stevenson said.
The Canyon Lodge savages are memorialized in a master’s thesis on the Canyon area by a later former park employee, Diane Papineau completed within the past 10 years. Some of the savages have been interviewed by National Park Service staff for inclusion in the park archives.
There’s something about working together in a small community as a young person, whether it’s at a summer camp, boot camp, or a Yellowstone cabin camp.
“We were young and free and didn’t have any responsibilities,” Warr said. “I went on to become a doctor, but being a truck driver at Canyon was the best job I ever had. I didn’t tell them at the time, but I would have paid them to let me do it.”
Stevenson said 2016—60 years since the old Canyon Lodge’s last year—is probably the last year they’ll hold an organized reunion because, sadly, their numbers have dwindled so in recent years. Many have passed on, others are now too ill or weak to travel. But they stay in touch through email, recalling those fun-filled days at Canyon Lodge.
Warr made a small speech at a previous reunion, and repeated it during a group chat Saturday morning:
“I will see some of you again, and some I may not, but when we arrive in the after life, we will meet at the Upper Falls.”