El Malpais
In the Land of Frozen Fires: A History of Occupation in El Malpais Country
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Chapter VIII:

Not since the railroad had one single event so significantly altered the fortunes of El Malpais as the emergence of timber mogul, George E. Breece. Breece, the new owner of the McKinley Land and Lumber Company activities near Thoreau, reorganized the company and named it for himself, the George E. Breece Lumber Company. Breece continued logging operations south of Thoreau, shipping 30 million board feet annually. [1] But the pragmatic Breece realized that 25 years of intense timber-cutting left the forests depleted. In order to profit from his heavy investment, Breece decided to shift timber harvests from Thoreau to the untapped belt of forests comprising the Zuni Mountains southwest of Grant. On the west side of Grant Breece constructed a roundhouse, now the site of Diamond G Hardware, and homes to support his army of laborers that swelled the town and the countryside with 4,000 new residents. [2]

To reach the virgin forests, Breece constructed tracks westward from his roundhouse. Begun in 1926, the route of the Breece Railroad traversed the malpais southwest of Grant ascending Zuni Canyon and continued to Malpais Springs, Paxton Springs, and Aqua Fria Springs--a distance of 20 miles. Upon completion of all the spur lines, 38 miles of track network laced through the southern Zunis. The dismantling of the defunct Zuni Mountain Railway south of Thoreau provided some of the track. [3] By early 1927, timbermen invaded the depths of the forests and began felling trees. Breece endeavored to make his mammoth enterprise efficient. Whenever possible he utilized trucks to haul the wood to the main line railroad, thereby becoming less dependent on the railroad. [4]

Breece Lumber Company guaranteed immediate prosperity for Grant and San Rafael. New businesses exploded on the scene, and old ones enlarged in order to provide services for new customers. Schools, churches, and community buildings sprang up. In 1929, Grant boasted a high school, one of the few in the huge expanse of western Valencia County. The Grant Review, a weekly newspaper published in Gallup and bused to Grant, provided local news and commentary. Running water and electric lights embraced Grant in 1929, catapulting the booming settlement into mainstream America. [5]

While Grant basked in the glow of its success, neighbors to the west in Bluewater, also improved their economic status. The Mormon colony erected a permanent concrete dam to replace their antiquated and troublesome earthen dam. The Santa Fe Railway became interested in the project partly because the porous relic often broke and washed out sections of Santa Fe track. Captain W. C. Reid, attorney for the railroad, spurred efforts for the construction of the Bluewater Irrigation Reservoir and the Bluewater Dam. The final completion of the dam produced immediate results for it converted 6,000 acres of arid wasteland into tillable, irrigated croplands. [6]

Prior to the coming of Breece Lumber, the quantity of homesteaders was a trickle. To encourage settlement, Congress passed in 1916, the "Stock Raising Homestead Act," which permitted homesteaders to homestead the public domain. The 1916 Homestead Act stipulated that individual persons could acquire a section of land upon payment of a $34 "filing fee." To retain the property the homesteader had to remain on the land for seven months out of the year for a period of three years. In addition to living on the land, the homesteader agreed to build a "habitable" home and show evidence of $800 worth of improvements, usually taking the form of fence lines or putting so many acres of lands into production. At the expiration of three years the settler paid a "proving fee" and took official possession of his property. [7] To assist the returning veterans of World War I, the government allowed them to establish ownership after only six months. [8]

With the development of the thriving timber industry at Grant, the number of homesteads on the perimeter of the malpais increased steadily, particularly during the Depression Era. The east side of the malpais became dotted with new arrivals. Most immigrants originated from Texas and Oklahoma. Nearly all were poor. Homes were constructed from long timbers, if available, otherwise a poled house or dugouts sufficed. The poled house was fashioned by setting into the ground four corner posts with a long pole forming the roof. Shorter poles set vertically framed the structure. Windows and doors were fashioned from cutting away portions of the vertical poles. Cabins normally contained two rooms separated into sleeping and eating compartments. A log wall or cloth curtain sometimes partitioned the rooms. Roofs and floors consisted of packed dirt. In some instances homesteaders built rock houses. The eastside of the malpais contained an unlimited supply of rock debris, representing the ruined foundations of prehistoric Indian homes who had initially settled in the area. Resourceful settlers loaded their wagons with rocks and carted them home for use in erecting their own structures. [9]

A hardscrabble existence marked the life of the homesteader. Lack of water defeated most attempts to foster a living from dryland farming. Amenities like schools, churches, and electricity--the latter a creature comfort unavailable in the rural malpais until the 1950s--produced a lasting, negative influence on homesteading. Beans, corn, and vegetables together with chickens, hogs, and beef represented the normal extent of their daily fare. If any food surplus existed, the profits were reinvested in necessary staples such as coffee, flour, and sugar. Yet, the homesteader was not self-sufficient. Often they worked for the larger ranchers, the big timber companies, sold firewood, or sought seasonal employment to make ends meet. [10] Homesteaders took jobs with the Civilian Conservation Corps under the Work Program Administration in the 1930s. Lewis Bright, who homesteaded on the west side of the malpais near the commercial ice caves, found employment with the CCC, helping install culverts along New Mexico Highway 174 (present New Mexico 53), which runs through the malpais from Grants to Zuni. [11] Bright and other locals improved and graded the road. Cinders from nearby cinder cones comprised the road base. [12] Construction of State Highway 174 occurred in the summer of 1938, connecting with State Highway 53 about 14 miles east of El Morro National Monument. [13] Most homesteaders did not last three years. Primitive living conditions, low wages, and the Depression of the 1930s forced them to abandon their homesteads and follow the road to better paying jobs. They left behind their cabins, poignant reminders to those that followed in their footsteps, that life can be bitter and the malpais landscape, unrelenting and unforgiving.

The ebb and flow economics of the livestock growers seemed inconsequential compared to the incessant challenges confronting the homesteaders. Surviving sheepmen and cattle ranchers who escaped the financial debacle of the Panic of 1893 plunged into the twentieth century riding the crest of prosperity. Demand for wool and beef increased through the end of World War I. But the rancher's nemesis, drought, reappeared in 1918 and resulted in decreased production. [14] In 1919, the stock market plummeted, and malpais stockmen witnessed falling prices. To make matters worse for the cattlemen, an epidemic of scabies infected the cattle causing widespread problems. [15] Between 1927 and 1929 sheep prices dipped, while the expense of feeding the animals skyrocketed. In Valencia County, where it had cost twenty-five cents to maintain each head of sheep in 1890 had by 1927 escalated to $4.13. The maintenance expense for sheep, coupled with low wages, forced many of the smaller ranchers out of the business during the 1920s and 1930s. [16]

San Rafael wool baron, Don Sylvestre Mirabal, survived the economic adversity, partly because of his huge land holdings. Shrewd, hard-working, and thrifty, Mirabal built an empire on sheep. Reportedly, the largest landowner in New Mexico, Mirabal owned or controlled land south of San Rafael and west into the Zuni Mountains. Mirabal purchased much of the land at a fraction of its value. Malpais homesteaders often entered into "partidos" agreements with Mirabal, using their homesteads as collateral. If the settler defaulted, Mirabal took title to their land. [17] Despite his enormous wealth, Mirabal remained unaffected by success. His workers described him as a penny-pinching, pot-bellied man, whose habiliments usually consisted of a "worn-out pair of bib overalls, an old hat someone else had thrown away, and, in the winter time, a ragged serape." [18] His workers considered him a kind person but a crafty businessman. Mirabal's death in 1939 terminated large-scaled sheep ranching in the malpais. Cattle became kingpin. The Mirabal estate, an impressive white, two-story, rock house still towers over San Rafael, a fitting tribute to the Mirabals and a symbolism to the four-century dominance when sheep ruled New Mexico.

sheep camp
Figure 6. Sheep camp at Cerro de la Bandera about 1920s.
Sheep remained kingpin in el malpais economics until supplanted by cattle.
Photography taken by W.T. Lee. Credit U.S. Geological Survey.
Photographic Library, Denver, Co.

Timber, that bastion of erratic employment in the region for 40 years, fell on hard times during the Depression. In 1929-30, Breece Lumber Company experienced a soft market, compelling the firm to layoff workers and induce brief work stoppages in order to remain solvent. The economy did not improve. Breece resorted to frequent work halts and imposed a 20% decrease in wages to keep from going under. By 1931, Breece Lumber Company only employed about 300 timberman in the woods south of Grant. By 1932, Breece decided it might be more profitable to lease his operation.

Grant businessmen, M. R. Prestridge and Carl Seligman, co-owners of the Bernalillo Mercantile Company with stores in Bernalillo and Grant leased the timber operations from Breece Lumber Company. Prestridge and Seligman endeavored to modernize Breece's antiquated rolling stock by purchasing several locomotives, but whenever possible they hauled logs via trucks to the railroad. In 1934, Prestridge and Seligman worked the forests around Paxton Springs, a small community located a few miles northwest of the Ice Caves, which employed approximately 100 men. Undeterred by a sluggish economy, the owners expanded operations by building tracks from Agua Fria to Rivera Canyon. Logging camps pursued the path of the railroad in the Zunis. The logging railroad advanced southwest toward Tinaja. By 1941, however, Prestridge and Seligman could not sustain operations on a profitable basis. They terminated logging from Grants (the town had changed its name from Grant to Grants in 1935) selling back to Breece Lumber Company its rolling stock. Breece did not reopen its Grants facilities. By the summer of 1942, it also closed its giant sawmill in Albuquerque. [19]

The pullout of Prestridge and Seligman was followed by one other bid to keep the timber industry big time in Grants. In 1946, Prestridge Brothers, Bill and Red, contracted with the New Mexico Timber Company to haul timber from Mount Taylor. Lumbering activities around Mount Taylor had been active since the 1930s. The Prestridges remained in business for about four years then suspended operations. Large commercial timber operations in the malpais region went the way of the sheep industry. [20]

With timber and sheep hit hard, malpais residents turned toward agriculture and mining as a means of economic support. A decade after the construction of the Bluewater Dam, Mormon farmers began to exhibit the profitability and suitability of raising crops on a grandiose scale. In 1939, businessmen Ralph Card and Dean Stanley purchased 400 acres of land near Bluewater. They initiated an experimental farm to test the adaptability of lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, potatoes, onions, and peas to New Mexico's climate. [21] The pilot program proved successful, propelling the Rio San Jose Valley from Grants to Bluewater into an economic upsurge. Carrots became the chief cash crop. In their best years, 2,000 acres of leafy-topped carrots under brand names like "Sky Top" were crated, refrigerated with ice, and placed inside waiting Santa Fe Railway boxcars. Over the course of the carrot season 2,000 boxcars were filled with vegetables. The carloads of produce rolled slowly out of the Grants depot headed for eastern stores with a market value of $2,500,000. [22]

The carrot industry was seasonal, planting in April, and harvesting in late summer and fall. Locals worked in the fields and in the processing plant. Navajos, hired as cheap labor, found jobs primarily in the fields. To provide shelter for the field workers, the companies erected crude huts with indoor plumbing. Initially, the harvesters accepted their pay in script, to be traded at the company commissary. Later the workers received their payment in cash. The carrot enterprise lasted for nearly 20 years. Its death in the late 1950s occurred with the introduction of cellophane bags, which eliminated the demand for leaf carrots. In addition, Bluewater growers could not compete with cheap produce emanating from California. [23]

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2001