Raton centenarian Laura MacDougall recalls 100 years of area history

Laura MacDougall with daughter Jeannine Neal in 1999.

Editor’s note: This is a reprint of a story by Ellen Miller-Goins from the July 15, 1999 Sangre de Cristo Chronicle. Laura MacDougall died Feb. 18, 2004. Her daughter, Jeannine Neal of Eagle Nest, died Sept. 28, 2007. 

When a person has lived close to 100 years, the idea of recording their history is a little, well, daunting, everything, from the everyday details of living almost a century ago, to the nuts and bolts history — dates, family trees, land grants — is interesting. And when your subject is Alice “Laura” MacDougall whose mind is as sharp as ever… How much time do you have?

“All the things that happen in your life… you can’t remember everything,” she asserts.

Her mind is as sharp as ever, however, and given a little encouragement, she’ll share adventures from her horse and buggy days — everything from the everyday details of living almost a century ago, to dates, family trees, land grants…

‘An interesting family’

Alice Ritz Heck

Laura MacDougall was born to John Mathias “Matt” Heck, Jr. and Alice Ritz Heck July 21, 1899 in Cimarron. Her grandfather, John Heck, was a German immigrant who served in the Union Army during the Civil War, was discharged in 1864, and married Margaret Blum in Mora in 1867. Her grandmother, Rumaldita Bent, was an adopted stepdaughter of Governor Charles Bent.

“I think I came from quite an interesting family,” MacDougall says. “They were certainly pioneers.”

In 1876, the Hecks began ranching on Maxwell Land Grant property. The ranch, called Cimarroncito, was 16 miles from Cimarron, and according to MacDougall, is now part of Philmont

When he finished his education, Matt joined his family’s ranching and farming operations, which included 30,000 acres in the Moreno Valley. (His brother Theodore managed the north Moreno ranch.)

MacDougall and her siblings Theodore, Minnie, John M., Margaret, George and William, grew up on the ranch. Her brother Charles died at 14 when his horse fell after stepping into a prairie dog hole. Laura remembers her brother lingered but finally died of an internal infection that predated antibiotics.

One of the few photos of Laura’s brother Charles, with the bat, who died from a horse riding accident.

When she’s pressed for details about her day to day life, MacDougall seems a little surprised by all the fuss — it was just life after all.

They all had chores to do, sure, but she says, “The one that really was burdened with everything was my oldest sister Minnie.”

“It was all horse and wagon days,” she says. “Once a month my father had to journey to Springer to get groceries in a spring wagon. He was buying enough groceries to feed eight kids and the ranch hands.”

Sometimes the children needed shoes and MacDougall says her father would have to trace their foot on a piece of cardboard. Then he’d have button-up shoes made in Springer on one of his monthly treks.

Her mother, she says, was “a lady who always wore three or four petticoats… We never thought of such a thing as going into church without something on our heads. They don’t dress like that anymore.”

‘They really pioneered the Moreno Valley’

“My father was owner of the American Creek Ranch,” MacDougall says of the property that is now the Monte 7 Ranch, owned by the Lebus family. “We didn’t live up there. We had a home up there near where the LeBuses built.”

Besides raising hay and lettuce and Hereford cattle, MacDougall says, “My father started the cheese factory there. The Swansons went in with my father. They had to bring in cream from all over the valley to make the cheese. I don’t remember who the cheesemaker was but he was an Italian fellow who really knew his stuff.”

The Heck family also owned property that went from outside Elizabethtown to the top of the Red River Pass, on both sides of the highway.

“They really pioneered the Moreno Valley,” MacDougall says.

With the exception of the Swansons, who still have a ranch in the Moreno Valley, most of the names MacDougall recalls are of people no longer living, or in the area.

She remembers a “wonderful lady” who was the mail-order bride of one of the ranchers, and Tom Graney a “real bashful” rancher who “never did marry” but who always came to the dances.

“He always wore a hat and it looked like all the cows had stomped on it.”

Two of the Heck family homes can still be seen off Highway 38 at the base of the pass.[Editor’s note: These structures have since been torn down.] The upper house, now boarded up, was the home of William and Geneva Heck and the lower home was the home of Theodore and Lula Young Heck (the daughter of B.J. and Sara Elizabeth Young, who settled in Red River in 1896).

“Theodore lived in the lower house,” MacDougall says. “That’s where his little boy Buddy was accidentally shot and killed when he was only 7 years old.”

The cabin can still be seen to the front of the East Moreno Ranch and later, Laura’s only daughter Jeannine, would spend a great deal of her summer vacations there, eventually meeting her husband-to-be, Tal Neal, in the Moreno Valley.

An arduous trip

“We spent a lot of summers up there,” MacDougall says.

She says they took the trip over a pass below Ute Park to American Creek by wagon. Her mother found the switchbacks a little terrifying and “later when we went down in a car, my mother didn’t want to see and she’d hide in the backseat.”

Laura’s father John M. Heck, Jr.

Their first car was a Model T Ford and MacDougall remembers the climb was a bit of a challenge.

“He’d go a little ways and we’d put rocks behind the wheels, he’d go a little ways and we’d move the rocks behind the wheels again.”

When her father embraced the auto revolution, MacDougall says her brothers learned to drive but “the boys were too busy to teach us. You know how my sisters and I learned to drive? We’d get in the car and go out on the ranch and practice.”

Sometimes the practicing didn’t go too well, like the time her sister took out a gate, but, of course, they persevered.

A banker’s life

The family moved in 1912 when Matt bought a banker’s house in Cimarron. MacDougall says it was her first experience with indoor plumbing and other “modern” conveniences.

“Before that we used old Sears Roebuck catalogs,” she says. “No, don’t write that down!”

Her father was a stockholder and director of the First National Bank in Cimarron and was its vice president a number of years. He was also a loan inspector for the Northern New Mexico Loan Association and for the National Bank of Raton.

For Laura and her siblings, life was perhaps a little more carefree than it had been on the ranch.

She remembers going to dances in the Moreno Valley and in Cimarron.

“Everybody went to those dances,” she says. “My father was quite a good accordionist and he played the violin. He’d play the accordion and stomp his foot and we’d dance in the kitchen.”

MacDougall met longtime friends Winifred and Florence Oldham at some of these dances.

“They always told us about their uncles who mined in Red River,” she says.

Once when her parents were supposed to be in Phoenix to buy cattle, MacDougall says, “We took all the rugs out of the big front room and invited all our friends over for a dance and who should come up the front walk but my mother!”

Seems her mother had left early because she didn’t like the heat.

The Heck’s Cimarron home burned down a few years back, a fact that still leaves MacDougall a little sentimental.

“We had one of the nicest homes in Cimarron.”

A lifelong career

The Heck children went to school in Cimarron, but “my sister Margaret and I finished high school at the Loretto Academy, a Catholic girl’s boarding school in Santa Fe.”

Laura Heck, second from left, while attending the Loretto Academy in Santa Fe.

The Loretto school is now a landmark Santa Fe hotel and Jeannine says she took her mother for a visit recently.

“She showed me her room,” Jeannine says. “They rent it for $250 a night.”

Laura graduated in 1919 and after two week’s additional training, she says, “I was ready to teach school.”

Her first post was teaching employees’ children at the Navajo Indian Reservation at Crown Point in McKinley County. MacDougall reminisces about her experiences there, recalling students’ names and their particular antics.

After 1 year she left to teach at Baldy, a gold mining community outside Ute Park.

“That was an interesting time,” she says. “That’s where I learned to play bridge. I lived at the boarding house at Baldy. I was the only woman and they needed an extra person.”

After Baldy, MacDougall taught in Cimarron 2 years.

“That was my first experience teaching in a butcher shop. My classroom was next to a butcher. There was a great big fat man that was the butcher there.”

In May 27, 1927, she married James MacDougall and moved to Van Houten, a coal mining community outside Raton. (Their daughter Jeannine was born in 1930 while they were still living in Van Houten.)

Later she taught in Raton 18 years. She was 54 when she finished getting her degree from New Mexico Highlands University in 1953.

“I taught all the time I was working on my degree,” she says.

Her two-year-old granddaughter attended her college graduation.

MacDougall taught a total of 37 years and Jeannine says, “then they made her quit because of her age.”

She tried substituting but she quit because she says, “teaching isn’t what it used to be.”

She says the pay is better, but the children are different and the rules for teaching are different, too.

“The man who was training me gave me a board. I gave them a little swat to let them know who was taking care of them.”

“It was wonderful teaching, you know,” she says.

“They made her quit because of her age,” Jeannine says, adding former pupils still remember her mother fondly as one of their favorite teachers. Judging by the way MacDougall remembers pupils’ names and still calls a few “my special boys,” it isn’t hard to fathom.

An independent life

Her husband James died 21 years ago and she still lives alone in her Raton home, content to let friends and hired folks help her with her day-to-day tasks. Jeannine says her mother’s cleaning lady, Annie Trujillo, is 84 and has worked for MacDougall over 25 years.

MacDougall still has a wry sense of humor as illustrated by friend Frank Antonucci: “Four or five years ago she said, ‘They finally did it to me. They took my driver’s license away.’ And I said, ‘Do you know why?’ And she said, ‘DWI.’”

She says television is one of her most favorite modern inventions although she finds some of its content disturbing.

“I’m not the modern type.”

She enjoys music and is still an avid reader, reading Time magazine and Reader’s Digest cover to cover and, of course, the newspaper.

MacDougall still prides herself on her cooking.

“She makes wonderful cookies,” Frank says. “I always call her my little cookie.”

Frank’s wife Betty adds, “She still does canning every fall and she makes cherry pies off the cherry tree.”

Betty says she first met Laura playing bridge.

“She’d scare me to death. Here this lady was who knew everything and I knew nothing. But she was always good at teaching whenever I did some dumb thing.”

Jeannine visits her mother from Eagle Nest weekly, but she confides she is used to being on her own — Jeannine left Van Houten to attend school in Raton, while a fifth grader.

Hay fever drove Jeannine to spend summers in the Moreno Valley where she met and married Tal Neal, son of T.D. Neal, founder of Eagle Nest…. But that’s another story and as MacDougall says, “If you live all those many, many years, a lot happens.”

Laura MacDougall with three generations present at a 1989 family reunion in Idlewild: (front, l-r) the late Jeannine Neal, Holly Neal, Laura, Josh Shields, Dawson Neal; (middle, l-r) Chris Shields, Kym Neal Perino, Lynn Neal Shields, Kathy and Dirk Neal; (back row, l-r) the late Tal Neal and Kent Shields.