Audrey Alpers, Joe Gherardini, Lester Lewis and Fedelina Trujillo
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the Sangre de Cristo Chronicle’s 1997 Summer Enchantment magazine. Audrey Alpers died June 15, 1997; Joe Gherardini died March 23, 2008; and Fedelina Trujillo died December 28, 2008. Lester Lewis still lives in Red River.
You may have heard somewhere that every time someone dies a library dies. Well it’s true. Talk to someone older than, say, you, and you can learn something. Talk to area old timers, and you can learn a lot. Maybe it would take more than one conversation for their wisdom to rub off, but they sure have some interesting tidbits to share about the history in these parts. These folks have lived through Wild West gambling days, mining booms, homesteading, railroads, the Great Depression (no not the oil bust) and… life.
Ask Audrey Alpers about Cimarron’s past and you’ll get her memories, and a history lesson besides. A member of both the Cimarron and Red River Historical Societies, she is at times a walking encyclopedia. Her house, too, is a living museum filled with photo albums, antiques, artifacts, memorabilia and history books.
“I guess you know I’m interested in history,” Audrey says. “But my mother was too. My mother wrote articles and did a lot of research on the Maxwell Land Grant and Lucien B. Maxwell, so I just naturally fell into it.”
Alpers’s brother, Frank Alpers, Jr., wrote articles for the New Mexico Philatelic. “He was interested in stamps and he was interested in history too, so he wrote all these articles on old post offices.”
Alpers was born in Cimarron in 1915 and has lived in the area most of her life with the exception of the years when she worked at the horse-racing track in Raton. “I worked at La Mesa Park for many years and at one time, I lived in Raton (for 24 years),” Alpers says.
“My mother, Gertrude Rupert came into Cimarron by the train in 1907 with her father and mother and three little brothers and a sister. Grandfather had already been here to look around, then he went back to Oklahoma and convinced his wife this was the place to live.
“My mother wasn’t very happy living in Cimarron. She and her mother both looked out and saw this desolate part of town. This part hadn’t been settled yet. This part was called ‘New Town.’ Anywhere across the tracks is ‘Old Town,’ especially across the river.
“My father came out to New Mexico on his own in 1904 or 1905. He was working in New York City in the stock exchange when his family sent him out here. He said he had typhoid fever but we always suspected it was tuberculosis. He lost his mother before he came out here and they said she had ‘consumption.’”
After a brief stint in Alamogordo, Alpers says her father came to Cimarron where he met her mother. “He met someone who had something to do with railroads and he suggested my father come up here.… Father and mother built this house in 1911.”
According to Alpers, the Chinese elms around the house were planted courtesy of a former governor of New Mexico.
“Clyde Tingley bought a bunch of Chinese elms,” she explained. “He sent out word to all these communities, come and get your Chinese elms. They were fast growing so they made a shade tree quick.”
According to Alpers, “Growing up in Cimarron was very, very nice. I started school here. When I went to school, the school was overcrowded. There wasn’t room for us. (She had 13 in her graduating class.) We were going to school in what was called the ‘meat market.’ Then they built a brick school in the 1930s.”
Alpers says much of the town’s social activities then centered around school activities and the church. “We had a lot of activities, things at the Methodist Church but we always called it the ‘Community Church.’ We all looked forward to a big bazaar they had every year in December. Sunday afternoons everyone ice skated on W.S. (Wilson & Southern) Lake.”
When the Great Depression and the “Dust Bowl days” hit Cimarron, Alpers says, “Some people had to leave, but of course there was always a little sawmill. There was work out at the ranches. And then, at the time, we had a railroad here (it passed through Cimarron to Ute Park) and people worked in the shops.
“The Depression didn’t affect me much because my dad always had work (he was superintendent of the water company in Cimarron for 49 years). We didn’t have the money that people have now ’cause they didn’t pay those kinds of wages, but I had a good life.”
In the late 1930s, Alpers worked for a branch of the Works Progress Administration, the National Youth Administration. She says while the adults did large construction and other projects — “they built the old city hall here.” — the youth were taught skills. For example, young men learned woodworking and metalworking and young women learned colcha embroidery. Alpers still has a hand-carved end table and a hanging light fixture from that era in her home. Another NYA project out of Union County furnished a schoolhouse in Clayton with desks and furniture, many of which were rescued at an auction by an antique dealer in Springer.
“They got wages, $7 or $8 a week,” she says. “They weren’t giving away money like they do now.”
Alpers later worked for two lumber companies before going to work at La Mesa Park. One, the Capital Land and Timber, made ammunition boxes during World War II.
According to Alpers, the war also contributed to the demise of the railroad to Ute Park. “Everything hinged on the war,” she explains. “They had to take up the tracks to use the metal.”
One constant in Cimarron is the number of working ranches. “This country has always had ranches, big ranches,” Alpers says.
One such rancher, Gretchen Sammis, owner of the expansive Chase Ranch, stops by to deliver Alpers’ mail and dispense a hug. “She always kinda looks out for me,” Alpers explains. A lifestyle she says she misses from her youth.
“People were well-acquainted with one another. We knew people. Now there are several families around here and I look around and think I don’t really know who they are. There was a time when I could say I knew everybody, but maybe they don’t stay too long.”
The old days. You know, when your grandpa had to walk five miles through three feet of snow just to get to school. Think it’s a myth?
Before paved roads and big snowplows, before utilities, before a lot of things, the Moreno Valley really was a tough place to live. Ask any of the old timers, many of whom still live in the valley, what it was like 50 or so years ago. They set you straight.
Ask Joe Gherardini, 79, whose family moved to the valley in 1932 with his parents, Alphonso and Frances. The Gherardini’s moved to the valley after cutbacks at the Dawson coal mine resulted in lost jobs.
According to Gherardini, his grandfather, Guisippi, already lived in the Moreno Valley and helped finance the Clover Leaf Motel — three small cabins and a grocery.
Gherardini says he, along with other “old timers,” went to a log school in the Moreno Valley which later burned down.
“I played basketball with the Andreoli boys, Sam and Elliot. Our basketball team was called the Polar Bears. We played against towns that aren’t there anymore, Mills, Folsom, Kiowa — there’s just little shacks there now.”
There was a gravel road in the valley back then and Gherardini says, “there were times when it was impassable for a week to ten days at a time. At that time there were six to eight foot banks of snow and they didn’t have the road graders they do today. Hydraulics didn’t exist.”
Despite the relative isolation of the valley winter and summer, Gherardini says he had a long-distance romance of sorts that began with a note in a pea pod.
“Back in 1937, the California Food and Produce Company came in and leased most of the farms and planted peas. I was working at the pea shed in Ute Park where they were shipping out peas (by train).”
According to Gherardini, he inserted a note into several pods which read “finder of this note, let me know who you are and how much you paid for these peas.”
“That fall I got a letter from Northfield, Minnesota, from a woman named Martha Sherman. While she was selling the peas she found the note. We corresponded for a couple of years.”
While on a trip with her employers, Martha Sherman came through and stayed at the Clover Leaf for several days before heading to California. Then Gherardini went to work for Fish and Wildlife at Yellowstone National Park.
“I received a letter from her then, “ he says. “But I decided ‘that’s all.’ I came back home in December, 1941, and received a card from her that she was going to live with her sister in Long Beach but I didn’t answer the letter.
“Soon after that in January, 1942, I’m in the Navy in San Diego so I made a point to see her in Long Beach. She had a boyfriend so I went my way.
“Then, in 1995, 43 years later, I get a letter from Sacramento, California, from Martha Jones after her husband had died. Again, there was an exchange of a few letters. We’re still corresponding, but that’s enough of that. She’s in a retirement home now and I live here in my “retirement home.”
“Before I got the job packing peas I had a job hauling solid gold ore from Baldy Mountain to the train station at Ute Park. Dad worked at the sawmill.”
“During the Depression, it was rough. There were very small farms here. They grew lettuce pretty well and potatoes. People were just more or less existing.”
Gherardini says his first job out of high school was driving the lumber truck hauling lumber from a sawmill in the Angel Fire area (“where the Country Club is now”) to Cimarron for “$2 a day, 10 hours a day.”
In 1932, Gherardini says tourism was limited to “a few fishermen coming in from Oklahoma and Texas. These little units here rented for $1.50 a day.
“There’s a gap between what you make and what it’s going to cost you. That gap is still there.”
When Lester Lewis’s father brought his family to Red River in 1936, just as now, you had to be resourceful if you were going to make a living here.
The Lewis family certainly was — and is.
L.S. Lewis moved to town along with his wife Jessie and their children Clifton, Evelyn and Lester, who was five.
According to Lester, his dad bought 110 acres from what is now the River Ranch at the west end of town to the Black Mountain Playhouse on Pioneer Road.
“He built seven small two-bedroom cabins at the Lewis Ranch (River Ranch)”, says Lester. “There was no running water. You got your water out of the river and used a cook stove and a coal lamp.
“He bought a sawmill and to power the sawmill, he bought a big steam engine from out of Dawson and then he and another fella drove that thing from Dawson all the way to Red River. It seemed to me like it took 10 days — something like that.
“When they got to the top of the pass, there was a whole bunch of people up there because they figured when my dad started down he’d run over the side of the hill. They had to back it down because on a steam engine that was the only way you could get compression. That thing had eight-foot wheels on the rear and I think the front wheels were like four foot.
“He cut all the lumber for the cabins and all the lumber for the Cliffside Cabins and all the lumber for the Playhouse. He bought a diesel engine and he made a big generator and made electricity for the Playhouse, the Pioneer Lodge and the Three Canyon Camp. He had the first utility company.
“In the ’30s, when he built the Playhouse, it was a gambling casino, it was a 6,000-square-foot dance hall and it was a bar. Old John Dunn, he was the head gambler for the Black Mountain. He furnished and run all the games. He bought an old bar out of Cimarron that had bullet holes in it.
“It was wild and woolly back in those days, I tell ya. Dad was a deputy sheriff ’cause there wasn’t any law up here. I seen him handcuff guys to trees. They’d get into fights and cause all kinds of trouble and he’d handcuff them to trees and leave them there all night.
“I remember one time they had a shoot out right there on Main Street. A bunch of gambling operators from the Silver Spruce (Bull of the Woods) and Tony’s (Motherlode) all got in a big fight. They didn’t never hit anybody, but they hit several cars. Dad declared marshal law and shut the town down for the night.”
Another time the state police broke the door to the Playhouse down and confiscated all of the gambling equipment. Says Lewis, “John Dunn went to Santa Fe and I don’t know how he did it, but he made the state police bring it all back and fix the door.
“Back in those days the gambling was pretty crooked. I was just a kid but you could go in any of the bars and if you had money to play the slot machines, you played the slot machines.”
When he was 14 years old, Lester said a gambler told him and some other kids to come back with $12. “So we scrounged around and he said, ‘I’m going to show you a system how to play roulette.’ He spun it and every time he’d spin the wheel we’d win some chips. Then he’d got tired of playing and before we knew it, he had our $12. We thought we’d got onto something to make money!”
According to Lewis, his father ran the gambling operation for four years before shutting it down. “He didn’t care for that. He put in a four-lane bowling alley and converted the dance hall into a skating rink.”
Lewis says he had many responsibilities as a youth helping with his father’s different ventures. “Dad had 18 head of horses that he rented. My job was to gather up the horses and get them ready to rent. We had two or three milk cows and we had to milk the cows. At night we rented skates and set pins in the bowling alley. I set so many lines of pins I don’t care to bowl anymore!
“We used to cut ice off Tall Pines Lake and then we’d store it in an ice house to sell in the summertime for two cents a pound.
“Dad had this old Best tractor and when he first come here he used that tractor to help build a road up to the Caribel gold mill. A lot of it was a log road where they laid logs down and filled the cracks with dirt.” (The tractor can now be seen in front of Lester’s son’s restaurant, Brett’s Homestead Steakhouse.)
“We worked hard. If it wasn’t for being able to poach a deer once in awhile we’d have probably starved to death!”
According to Lewis, the busy season lasted 40 to 45 days and only about eight families stayed here year ’round.
“I went to school at the Little Red Schoolhouse. I went to school at the Moly Mine and the rest of the time we went out in the winter. Dad was a journeyman plumber and we’d go to school wherever he found work.”
According to Lewis, his father sold 42 acres and the Playhouse in 1944 or 1945 for $15,500. “That was a helluva buy,” he says.
After serving with the 188th Air Force National Guard during the Korean conflict, during which time he says he “never went overseas,” Lewis says he came back and met Janice Moore from Blackwell, Okla.
“Her folks’s home was blown away (by a tornado) at Blackwell so she was working at the Silver Spruce Lodge for the summer.”
They married “around 1955” and that winter Lewis says he went to work for Stoke Bolton building Red River Ski Area. “We welded all the towers for the ski area,” he says. “I helped him build the Alpine Lodge and when he got the ski area opened, I managed the ski area about the second year it was open.
“Bolton sold to J.B. Veale and he came down and helped me build Powder Puff around 1961 or ’62. The first year we built whirlybirds (an innertube sled run). We had a train to haul people up the mountain. We had that for two or three years then we decided to build a ski area. Bolton was a good friend. He helped finance Powder Puff and he come down and did all the work for nothing… wouldn’t take a dime for it.”
Lewis sold Powder Puff in 1970 to John and Judy Miller and Gary and Fran Starbuck. He says he bought the Big Chief gift shop from Bolton and ran that for six or seven years before building the Chief Burger. Since then he has built the Red River RV Park, which he operates next to his son’s successful restaurant, Brett’s Homestead Steakhouse. Lewis says in all the years he has lived in Red River, he has seen his fortunes rise and fall. In ruminating on Red River’s almost inevitable economic ups and downs, he says, “There’s time that you’re on top of the heap and there’s time that you’re at the bottom.
“It takes a helluva lot of work to do anything around here.”
Fedelina Trujillo doesn’t always pine away for the “good old days” before Angel Fire Resort sprang up out of an expansive ranch. Before highways and fast cars made travel easier. Before many of her neighbors passed away… or moved.
Trujillo moved to Black Lake 60-some years ago with her husband, Isaac Trujillo, whom she met when her father came to Black Lake from Valdez, New Mexico, to work on a ranch and at the sawmills.
“There was nothing like this Angel Fire then,”she says.
Trujillo says she misses the community that surrounded her little ranch near the San Antonio Catholic Church (which was built by Isaac’s grandfather, according to Trujillo).
“When I was first married, there were a lot of people here, natives from Black Lake. They used to have a lot of dances and they had mass in the little church once a month in the summer. Now I don’t even know my neighbors. We don’t even know the people around us.”
Trujillo says the sense of community extended beyond the dances.
“When they were putting up hay, the men would get together and help each other put up the hay,” she says. “I used to help my neighbor over here, I used to help her can. I used to do a lot of canning of fruits and vegetables. We relied on gardens we used to plant. Back then they used to plant a lot of potatoes. Now they don’t plant anymore. They’d rather go to Furr’s or Smith’s.”
These days, Trujillo says she is unable to garden because of debilitating arthritis.
“Now that I don’t plant, I get a lot of vegetables from my sister-in-law, Carolina Trujillo. She plants a beautiful garden.
“Back then we never bought bread or milk or eggs. But now they don’t even like to milk the cows. They don’t like the milk. They don’t like the eggs because they’re darker. The eggs are not yellow like the eggs from Furr’s. They’re too red.”
Trujillo says much of the self-reliance of the old days partly was due to the difficulty of traveling.
“The roads were bad then,” she says. “If it rained, it was very muddy. We used to go all the way to Taos for supplies. We used to go with Roger Lucero’s dad in his pickup.
“Sometimes when we’d go to Taos we would go to J.C. Penny’s (which was located in Taos just off the Plaza until recently). I miss it. I still get the catalog so I can call in for orders.”
Trujillo says there were no medical emergencies “thanks to God” and babies were delivered by midwives and, later, at Holy Cross Hospital. Her children, Michael and Lorraine, went to school in Eagle Nest and high school in Cimarron, making the school day last “sunup to sundown.”
“When my daughter was in school, they wouldn’t let them wear pants. It makes me mad now when I think about it. Back then they didn’t have good clothing like they do now. They suffered a lot.”
Despite her lament that “we don’t know the people around us,” though, Trujillo says Angel Fire has changed life for the better in the Moreno Valley because “a lot of people are employed there.
“My husband started working there when they started the ski area and golf course. He worked there until about 1978.”
Trujillo says she is also happy there is health care in the valley, a pharmacy and a grocery store. What gets to her now is the loneliness. Her husband died in 1989, her daughter, Lorraine Sandoval, died in 1993, and her mother, Magdalena, died in 1996.
“I feel terrible sometimes, I really do. Good thing I have my son close by.”
In fact, her son lives next door with his wife, Shirley, and two young sons. And her granddaughter, Amy Sanchez, also lives in Angel Fire with her two young sons.
Of her neighbors from years past, Trujillo says, “The old ones have passed away and some have moved away. Now you have people who come here because they want to get away from the cities. People like to have peace and quiet. But they’re good neighbors.
“When they’re not, you hear something about them!”