History of the Casa del Gavilan

Sketch of Jack Nairn

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.). Nairn's father remarried and had another son, Wilson Barker Nairn - Jack's half brother.  In later life, Jack described his father as being an "expert on realty values and a large Washington property owner."  

In 1872, at the age of 15, Nairn was enrolled in Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, a "prep" school of note in that day. Nairn 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, Nairn enrolled at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. At that time he stood 5' 9 1/2" tall (including a 1 inch heel) and tipped the scales at 130 pounds . He was a member of Delta Kappa and Psi Upsilon  and was generally a good student, though he was delayed a year and moved from the graduating class of 1879 to 1880 during his junior year.  Nairn graduated in 1880 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Shortly after graduation Nairn traveled to Canada, St. Louis, and finally to San Antonio where he spent nearly 18 months working on a cattle ranch. Always up for an adventure, following his stay in San Antonio Nairn traveled into Mexico in the company of a Texas Ranger . All told Nairn spend four and a half years "... on the then 'Open Range' in Texas punching cattle and accumulating material for some of his later writings."  Nairn stated he lived "...among the cowboys of Bexar County, where I became personally acquainted with men and incidents which I had supposed existed only between the yellow paper covers of very light literature."

Nairn married Gertrude Hastings Sisson of Hartford, Connecticut, on November 19, 1884.  The Nairns resided in Washington D.C. at a home a stone's throw from the White House until 1886 while Nairn worked in his book business which "proved more book than business.”  Following a European tour during 1886 and 1887, the Nairns relocated to Hartford where Nairn worked as an associate in his father-in-law's wholesale drug and oil business. Thomas Sisson, Gertrude's father, was a wealthy businessman and one of the leading citizens of Hartford at the time. Sisson was also a director of the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company.

The Nairns spent many years in Hartford enjoying an active social life with other prominent and wealthy citizens of the city. Nairn was a founding member of the Taconic Polo Club, New Haven Polo Club, Hartford Golf Club, and the president of the Southern Society of Hartford.  Newspapers of the day contain numerous notations of the Nairns joining in parties, polo matches, horse shows, golf tournaments, and other social activities of the upper class of Hartford. Gertrude Nairn was active in parties, receptions, and golf tournaments. She also worked among the less fortunate women and children of the Hartford area.

In 1906, Jack Nairn spent several months on the Bell Ranch of eastern New Mexico to regain his health.  Apparently the time spent in the dry climate of New Mexico proved beneficial for in 1907 both Jack and Gertrude Nairn moved to Wagon Mound, New Mexico to improve their health . At a "good-bye" dinner by the Southern Society of Hartford held shortly before their departure, Jack told the gathered crowd the move was temporary , but somewhere along the line, the move became permanent and the Nairns resided primarily in New Mexico for the rest of their lives.

The site of the Casa del Gavilan was once a part of the enormous Maxwell Land Grant, one of the largest contiguous privately held parcels in the country at more than 1.7 million acres.  The heart of the Maxwell Land Grant was the Urraca Ranch southwest of Cimarron "... bounded on the East by the wagon road (Santa Fe Trail) that runs from Rayado to Cimarron ... on the west by the main mountains..." as described in the deeds.  The Nairn property resides within the original boundaries of the Urraca Ranch.

Stanley McCormick, son of Cyrus McCormick of McCormick Reaper fame, leased 45,000 acres of the Urraca Ranch in 1898, later purchasing the ranch and expanding it to 70,000 acres.  George Webster purchased the Urraca Ranch from McCormick in 1910  after McCormick suffered a mental breakdown and was forced to sell the spectacular property. Webster had been McCormick's ranch manager and was well-acquainted with the potential of the land.

Shortly after Webster completed the purchase of the Urraca Ranch, he sold to Jack and Gertrude Nairn a 45-acre parcel south of Urraca Creek at the foot of Urraca Mesa for $225 on October 1, 1910.  Shortly after the Nairns purchased the property they left Cimarron for an 18-month round-the-world trip while their new home was being built.  During their absence, in July of 1911, a story appeared in the Cimarron News and Cimarron Citizen about the construction of the Casa del Gavilan.  The story indicates the home was being built for George Webster rather than Jack and Gertrude Nairn, though it is clear from the deed that the Nairns owned the property at the time. Perhaps since the property was surrounded by Webster's Urraca Ranch, the reporter assumed the home was being built for Webster. Or possibly George Webster simply "borrowed" the notoriety of the home during the Nairns' absence.

The newspaper account notes the home was to cost "...a staggering sum of $100,000..." --an amount equivalent to 2.5 million dollars in 2017 and perhaps twice that considering construction costs have risen faster than the dollar over the past hundred years. The story also indicates the home was constructed with a power plant and water system. Most homes in the area during that time period were constructed near the few streams. This is convenient for a water supply but typically offers a limited view of the surrounding countryside. In contrast, the Casa del Gavilan was constructed high above Urraca Creek so as to permit a commanding view of both the mountains to the west and the high plains reaching far to the east. As the Casa del Gavilan was built high up on the edge of the canyon, a hundred feet above Urraca Creek, a significant water system was constructed on Urraca Creek, the only water source available to supply the home. The foundation of the water works, and a small pile of coal that would have powered a steam pump, still exist on the south side of Urraca Creek.

It is interesting to note that the newspaper account indicates a "community of homes"  to eventually join the grand adobe structure that was under construction. One of the sketches from architect Francis Waterman (not mentioned in the newspaper account) does show a second home in the background of what appears to be a preliminary sketch of the Casa del Gavilan.  The sketch appears to be accurate to the landscape surrounding the Casa del Gavilan, and the property does have sufficient space for a second home to the west. Perhaps a grouping of homes was originally planned and the idea later abandoned.

The adobe bricks for the home were laid by Cimarron resident and stone mason Narciso Federici  - a recent Italian immigrant who also used the "Americanized" name of Fred Narciso. He had worked on the building of the Aswan dam in Egypt to earn money to immigrate to the United States.  Federici moved to Cimarron several years earlier and had constructed a number of stone buildings in town. It is believed that Federici also cut the stone for the library fireplace at the Casa, and completed some of the other stone work for the building.

The Nairns returned to Cimarron in late spring 1912 and, presumably, took up residence in their new home shortly thereafter.  The property was re-titled from Jack and Gertrude Nairn back to George Webster on July 12, 1912,  then titled back to Gertrude Nairn on July 15, 1912.  It is likely that Gertrude Sisson Nairn received a sizable inheritance when her father passed away in 1907  followed by her mother in 1910.  It would appear that Gertrude Nairn may have paid for the construction of the home and preferred the property titled in her name only.

The Nairns traveled often, mentioning residences in Santa Barbara, California; Hartford, Connecticut; and Washington D.C. They enjoyed several trips to Europe as well as driving tours to the West Coast which must have been quite the adventure in the day. One newspaper account from February of 1915 notes the rains were so heavy at one point that Nairn gave up the drive and loaded his car on the train to be taken to California.

Jack Nairn was a delightful, dapper fellow who dressed in English tweeds and wore a large, white cowboy hat. He was also fond of dressing in the kilt of his Scottish heritage for special occasions. Nairn was known far and wide for his charm, wit, and generosity. He was a very entertaining host and guest, and much sought-after for banquets, dinners, and other special occasions. Gertrude Nairn was also well respected in the community. She worked as a nurse when needed and assisted during the flu epidemic of 1918-1919.

In 1921, future 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 at the Casa del Gavilan. Twitchell, Nairn, and Ed Springer, owner of the CS Ranch, rode out to La Grulla cow camp and visited Will James. By and by, Burton Twitchell provided Will James an art scholarship at Yale. Mrs. Nairn and Ed Springer 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 writers, artists, and publishers that would begin his writing career.

In 1922 Nairn was one of the founding members of the Maverick Club--a local civic organization which has been an enormous benefit to the Cimarron community since its founding. Following George Webster's first term as president of the Mavericks, Nairn was elected the second president in 1924. For many years Nairn was very instrumental in working on behalf of the Cimarron community to bring in electric power, improve postal service, protect the train service, and obtain a doctor for the town - all critical institutions for a small, remote town such as Cimarron. After serving over a decade as the president of the Mavericks, he resigned the post in September 1937. But the Mavericks would have none of it. Not only was his resignation soundly rejected, he was made "president for life" by the Mavericks, along with two vice presidents to assist Nairn with his duties.

In 1924, while wintering in Santa Barbara, California, Gertrude Nairn died after an extended illness.  Her body was cremated and her ashes were returned to the Casa del Gavilan and kept on the living room fireplace mantle in a wooden box tied with a purple ribbon for the rest of Jack Nairn's days at the Casa. Fresh flowers adorned the box on her birthday and other special occasions.

The years quietly slipped by at the Casa del Gavilan. Nairn lived comfortably at his Casa, surrounded by momentoes of his many trips to far away lands. Nairn was a gracious host and renowned story teller, and he loved sharing his artifacts with visitors. Chope Phillips recalls visiting with Jack Nairn in his later years consisted mostly of listening as Nairn was very hard-of-hearing so he spent most of his time talking instead of listening.

In 1942, at the age of 83 and in failing health, Jack Nairn was no longer able to reside at his beloved Casa del Gavilan. His good friend Ed Springer, along with other local friends, helped Nairn sell most of the furnishings--as well as the Casa del Gavilan which was purchased by Waite Phillips. Nairn's friends took up a collection to pay for his residence at the St. James Hotel in Cimarron, later moving to the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe.

In May of 1942, Waite Phillips, Oklahoma oilman and owner of the Philmont Ranch which surrounded the Gavilan property, purchased the Casa del Gavilan.  Phillips had recently donated the mountain portion of his ranch, his summer home Villa Philmonte, and the ranch headquarters to the Boy Scouts of America. This property would later become the Philmont Boy Scout Ranch. Phillips still held the remainder of the UU Bar Ranch consisting of over 100,000 acres. Phillips needed a local residence while in the area looking after the remainder of his ranch. The Casa del Gavilan would serve as his home when he was in the area. The grand adobe home would also function as the ranch headquarters of the UU Bar. Local residents still remember the days when cowboys lived at the Casa and held long card games in the living room when their duties permitted. Several of the sconce lights in the living room are cast with the UU Bar logo and are similar to those from Phillip's Villa Philmonte two miles distant. These sconces remain at the Casa from Phillips' days as owner of the Casa del Gavilan.

In June of 1943, the McDaniel family from Arizona purchased the UU Bar Ranch. Although the Casa del Gavilan property did not directly adjoin the UU Bar Ranch property, Phillips included the Nairn-Gavilan property in the sale for the home to be used as the UU Bar Ranch headquarters until other ranch buildings could be constructed. Nairn visited the McDaniel family at the Casa del Gavilan numerous times over the next several years, always preferring to stay in what is now known as the Phillips guest room.

While residing at the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, on November 2, 1947 after asking his private nurse for a tumbler of bourbon, Jack Nairn laid back in his bed and quietly passed away. Nairn's remains were cremated and, together with the ashes of his long-departed wife, were buried near Lovers' Leap, a rock formation one mile west of Casa del Gavilan in Urraca Canyon. Ed Springer, Ed Sitzberger, Sr., and F.W. Haegler buried the Nairns' ashes and then returned to Springer's home to drink a toast of Scotch to their departed friend. Sitzberger recalls it as being his first taste of the strong drink.  Nairn had none of his former wealth at the time of his death. Nairn's will bequeathed furniture to specific friends, several Napoleonic etchings and chairs to Yale University, and his library to the Cimarron High School.

The Faudree family of Midland, Texas, purchased the UU Bar Ranch, including the Casa del Gavilan, in 1969. After many years of neglect, the Casa del Gavilan was not in good condition. The Faudrees considered demolishing the grand old home but chose instead to restore the home to its former glory. It was during this renovation that the front portico was added and the sun porch in the courtyard extended west about 20 feet. Aside from these alterations, the building retains its original footprint and character.

The Casa del Gavilan was opened as a Bed-and-Breakfast by the Faudrees in the mid-1980s. In 1993, the Faudree family placed the UU Bar Ranch, including the Casa del Gavilan, on the market for sale. Several parcels, including the Nairn-Gavilan property, were offered for sale separate from the main ranch property. It was at that time that a group of individuals came together as the Gavilan Limited Liability Company to purchase the Casa del Gavilan and surrounding property in order to protect and preserve the Casa and its history for the local community and our guests. Since the purchase of the Casa del Gavilan, the Gavilan LLC has continued operating the Bed and Breakfast business in order to keep the Nairn home open to be shared with the public. Each year thousands of guests from across the country and around the world visit the Casa del Gavilan to experience the remote tranquility that originally brought the Nairns to the Cimarron area over a century ago. Since the purchase of the Nairn Ranch the Gavilan LLC has continued to restore the home to protect both the structure and the Nairn's remarkable history and contributions to the Cimarron area. Most interior vigas were plastered and painted white after Phillips purchased the home in 1942. The interior vigas have been carefully stripped back to their natural finish. Exterior ends of the vigas have been replaced. Carpeted floors have been returned to their original oak or tile-simulated concrete finish.

Renovations over the years have been carefully planned to not interfere with the original architecture and the special ambiance so unique to the Casa del Gavilan. The setting nestled in along the Sangre de Cristo range, views far out to the eastern plains, and the sense of calm in the Nairn home all form a rare combination cherished by our guests. Far more than just a place to spend the night, many of our guests take away with them a unique sense of peace after a visit.