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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Indian Mummy Mystery (for young readers) by Troy Nesbit

October 1, 2018

Taylor Trade Publishing:  Lanham, Maryland
First published in 1954
2013 (PB)

When I was a lad of about ten or eleven years of age, I would occasionally take a break from reading my favorite series books—Hardy Boys and Rick Brant, for the most part—and take up one of the stand-alone adventure/mysteries written by “Troy Nesbit” and published in inexpensive (49 cents!) picture cover editions by Whitman Publishing of Racine, Wisconsin.   The books, which bore such titles as The Diamond Cave Mystery, The Hidden Ruin, and The Jinx of Payrock Canyon, were notable in that they took place in the desert Southwest and Rocky Mountains, and their boy heroes tended to be a bit younger than the average series book protagonist and often demonstrated adolescent fears, foibles and character flaws never to be found in a Hardy Boy.  In other words, the boys in Troy Nesbit mysteries (and they tended to all be boys) were a lot more like me than Frank and Joe.  And for sure no Troy Nesbit hero had a speedboat, motorcycle or roadster in his family garage!

I also found out years later that Troy Nesbit was the pseudonym of a gentleman named Franklin Folsom, a University of Colorado graduate and Rhodes Scholar, who worked as a guide in the Rocky Mountains and authored more than eighty books, many of them adventure/mysteries written for young readers, as well as non-fiction works like The Story of Archaeology of the Americas and the seminal America’s Ancient Treasures:  A Guide to Archaeological Sites and Museums in the United States and Canada. Folsom was also very active in the left wing political movements of the 1930s and 40s, and it may have been for this reason that he adopted a number of pseudonyms when writing children’s books in the 1950s, when Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee were busy “protecting” America’s children from lefties like Franklin Folsom!

These books had faded from memory until I recently found, to my great pleasure, that Taylor Trade Publishing of Lanham, Maryland, has re-issued a number of Troy Nesbit mysteries under the rubric of the “Wilderness Series.”  I ordered and then read the edition that stood out best in memory—The Indian Mummy Mystery—and for a few hours returned to my grandparents’ big farmhouse front porch in 1957.

The setting for The Indian Mummy Mystery is the Rocking O Ranch in southwestern Colorado, some 45 minutes away from Mesa Verde National Park with its grand array of prehistoric cliff dwellings.  The ranch, once run by Lyman Cutler, has been converted to a tourist destination of rental cottages for summer tourists.  Lanky 15 year old Joe Cutler whiles away his summer helping his mother and her father Lyman Cutler operate the Rocking O guest cottages, along with his younger buddy Denny Grogan.  They are soon joined by Harold “Huff” Hanson, a tenderfoot visitor from Denver, whose over-protective mother would, if she could, protect Huff from any and all dangers—and any and all fun, too.

The three boys discover a common thirst for adventure and Huff’s hobby of collecting rocks, minerals and artifacts of all kinds lead them to excavate at the nearby Canary City, a ghost town that burned to the ground in the late 19th Century.  Their discoveries in the ruins of the Swink General Store are meagre to say the least, but they trigger Grandpa Cutler’s memories of his greatest adventure when he was about grandson Joe’s age and already a working cowhand. Like many of his contemporaries, Lyman searched the ruins of nearby the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings, seeking artifacts—in fact, looting the site—that could be sold for hard cash.  On this particular day, Grandpa had discovered some intact pottery and the mummified remains of an ancient cliff dweller.  He was set upon by rustlers and horse thieves—likely members of the infamous (and historically true) Stockton-Eskridge gang that terrorized southwestern Colorado in the 1880s and were known to hang out around Swink’s General Store in Canary City.

When Grandpa Cutler takes the boys to Mesa Verde to show them where he found the mummy and where the outlaws had held him up, the three adventurous boys, led by Joe, determine that they will hunt down the missing mummy if it’s the last thing they do—which it very nearly comes to that as they experience a very real and literal cliffhanger.

This is a lovely tale of high adventure and derring-do, told by a master storyteller.  I don’t know if the very obvious old-fashioned nature of the story and the characters would be appealing to young readers today, but I hope so.  The book is not only a mystery but it’s something of a time capsule that captures some of the essence of the 1950s.  Some publishers have chosen the update and modernize their offerings, e.g., the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, to make them “relevant” to today’s young readers.  Taylor Trade Publishers, I’m pleased to note, have chosen not to do so.  There are no cellphones or video games—I’m not certain television is even mentioned—and soda pop costs ten cents and Joe buys a jalopy to work on for $30!  But what comes through in a very contemporary way is Troy Nesbit/Franklin Folsom’s very progressive views on the stewardship of our country’s cultural patrimony—a lesson the boys learn in a very natural and non-polemical way.

Four trowels for this trip into the literary past—whether it be a journey taken by a youthful reader of today or a now-“mature” reader returning to his or her youth for a few hours!