Ute Park … the great little ‘Ute-opia’

This is the old Sammis Stage Stop in Ute Park. (Courtesy Photo / Ute Park Post Office)

Editor’s note: The following article by former Chronicle news editor Jo Bynum originally appeared in the 2002 Summer Enchantment published by The Chronicle.

Many continue to fall under the charm of Ute Park… whether new to the area, traveling through or even second, third or fourth generation Ute Park residents.

Sherry Gray, whose family moved in 50 years after the first settlers, sums up the mood of Ute Park residents today.

“Ute Park is unique and not dependent on the stock market. Instead, it has a blue-collar base that holds it steady. I have a lot of allegiance to Ute Park. It’s my favorite place,” she says.

I turned to oldtimers to share Ute Park’s history rich with stories of ranching, a railroad line, hotel and dance pavilion.

Enjoy this journey into the past as we learn more about this “Uteopia.”

Ute Park pioneers

The original St. Louis Rocky Mountain and Pacific Railroad depot burned in December 1921. (Courtesy Photo / Ute Park Post Office)

By 1930, Ute Park already had over 50 years under its belt. The Jackson/Atmore family has been in Ute Park for four generations, since about 1875 when Bridget Mahon Jackson saved enough money from her boarding house in Baldy Town to buy 1,700 acres from Lucien Maxwell.

Around 1905 Rodney Atmore married Alice Jackson, Bridget’s youngest daughter.

According to Rodney’s grandson Frank Atmore, Rodney and Alice first setup housekeeping in the Ute Park Hotel. Work began on the Cimarron/Ute Park train track in 1903 and locals were anticipating the arrival of the first train and the economic boost it would provide. Rodney and Alice’s first son, Dick — Frank’s father — was born in the hotel in 1906.

Frank says before the first Ute Park train arrived in 1907, the hotel offered a resting place and meals to stagecoach travelers and freight wagon handlers stopping by the Sammis Stage Stop on their way to Baldy Town, Elizabethtown, Red River and Taos. The Stage Stop, owned by Edward Payson Sammis, grandfather of Gretchen Sammis of the Chase Ranch in Cimarron, provided goods for miners at the Baldy and French Henry mines north of Ute Park and also served as an early “unofficial” post office.

All aboard …

This little locomotive chugged through Cimarron Canyon about 1916. The train stopped running in late 1942. (Courtesy Photo / Ute Park Post Office)

The original St. Louis Rocky Mountain and Pacific (SLRM&P) Railroad depot was built less than a quarter mile north of the Ute Park Hotel. Postal records show that on Sept. 22, 1908, Rodney Atmore established the first post office in the train depot and served as postmaster for two years.

In 1908 SLRM&P built a dance pavilion near the hotel and made plans for a large resort at Ute Park to stimulate passenger traffic. Other than the hotel and pavilion, no other plans came to fruition. In 1913 the line was sold to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad and renamed the Rocky Mountain and Santa Fe Railway. It continued hauling coal, cattle and farm produce. Passenger traffic remained light.

Rodney also served as Justice of the Peace for Colfax County, Territory of New Mexico for over 10 years and started the first Ute Park school in 1915 — a one-room school housing 8 grades. Frank Atmore’s father, Dick, was 9 when the school was completed and he began attending.

On Dec. 22, 1921, the depot burned after robbers used too much dynamite to blow the safe. SLRM&P immediately rebuilt, but moved the depot closer to the end of the line, about 1 1/2 miles to the west, near the location of the current Ute Park Post Office.

The 1930s

Ute Park Hotel was west of the original depot (on Cimarroncita property today).(Courtesy Photo / Ute Park Post Office)

In February, 1932, Dick Atmore married Doris Ellen Lane.

“Dad and mom had a dollar between them,” Frank recalls from stories told by his parents. “They were trying to decide whether to go to lunch or head over to the Justice of the Peace in Taos to get married. Getting married won.”

Around the same time Dick and Doris were settling in, Dick’s sister Margaret married Wilburn K. (Ike) Glaze. The Glazes set up a store and operated the Conoco Filling Station in Ute Park. Ike was postmaster from January 1936 until September 1942 and the post office was housed in the store, 1936 – 1938.

The Roy Gray family

Early Ute Park resident Grant Gray’s family first moved to Ute Park in October 1934 when Grant was 12.

“We had driven through Ute Park on a return trip from visiting one of Dad’s old World War I buddies,” Grant remembers.

“A few months later my mother went to an Extension Club meeting in Colmar. The wife of the Colmar depot agent announced that Mr. Shoemaker, the Ute Park train agent, was looking for a family with school age children. The school in Ute Park was about to be closed due to a lack of students. With two school age children, Mr. Shoemaker didn’t want to lose the school.”

Grant’s dad, Roy Gray, accepted the job with Continental Tie and Lumber Company. Other families residing in the area included the Atmores, Burks, Sodens, Gonzales, Grays, Glazes, Reeds, Shoemakers, Sammis, Parks and Espinosas.

For 1 and1/2 years Grant attended class in the one-room Ute Park School with about 12 schoolmates. Classes ran from May – December and were taught by Miss Dolores Atwater of Raton.

Ute Park students attended high school in Cimarron. For awhile, Grant lived alone (at age 13) in Cimarron during the week, going home weekends when he could catch a ride.

By his second year at Cimarron High School, the Ute Park school had changed to a September – May schedule, his sister Myrtie Dora was ready for high school and the Clark family at the Philmont line camp east of Ute Park had children headed for Cimarron. Grant’s dad decided it was time for Grant to drive himself, his sister and the Clarks back and forth each day.

The road between Ute Park and Cimarron was not the road we use today. At least half of Highway 64 between Ute Park and Cimarron runs along the rail bed of the old train line. Between 1936 – 1939 when Grant was driving back and forth to Cimarron, the train to Ute Park was still operating. The narrow dirt road he used ran up and down steep mountain slopes, crossing under the train track at two points. Blowing dust obscured vision on dry days while rain and snow made the road extremely slick. 

Into the 1940s

The Rocky Mountain line never continued on to Elizabethtown and was finally abandoned in November 1942. The track, along with the Cimarron and Ute Park depots, was quickly disassembled and the steel sent to supplement the war effort. The rail bed within Ute Park became Hummingbird Lane, and travelers began using portions of the rail bed east of the current New Mexico Forestry office to avoid the steep inclines and deep potholes of the old road. The highway was not paved until the early 1950s.

As a child, Frank Atmore remembers the “core of things” being the old rock building, the Phillips 66 station owned and operated by Lewis and Stella Heath who moved from Baldy Town to Ute Park in February 1941, the old train depot and the stockyards where cattle were loaded on the train headed for Denver.

“The memory of that last trip to load calves on the train in Ute Park is one of my most vivid memories,” says Frank. “It had rained and snowed and the stockyard (located east of the current Post Office) was knee deep in mud.”

Frank, 7, and his younger brother John, 5, helped their father and uncle — clad in hip-length waders — work the calves through the chute into the train that cold November day in 1942. When a calf squeezed between the chute and the train in a bid for freedom, Dick bailed off the top of the chute, caught the calf and saw to it that it made that train. Cows and calves were the life-blood of the Atmore Brothers Ranch. Survival depended on getting those calves to Denver.

Frank also remembers the old “pea shed” located near the depot, about 100 yards east of the current post office. One of the industries that tried to take root in Ute Park in the late 1930s was a pea processing plant. When Frank was “little bitty” his dad switched some of his alfalfa fields one year to grow a crop of peas. The peas were picked and hauled to the pea shed — which also received shipments from the Moreno Valley — for processing.

“That business didn’t last because of our short growing season,” Frank said.

The Sylvan Gray family

The Sylvan Gray family ran the sawmill at Ute Park 1946-48. (Courtesy Photo / Sherry Gray)
Sylvan, wife Jo and one of the Gray brothers loading lumber at the Gray Lumber Company in the late ‘40s.(Courtesy Photo / Sherry Gray)

But the pea shed remained and was used as storage by the Sylvan Gray family when they bought the Ute Park sawmill in 1946 and started the Gray Lumber Company.

Sylvan Gray, with wife Jo, son Tommy, daughter Sherry, and two brothers, L.E. and Roy, took over the old rock building, updating it with electricity and plumbing. The sawmill was located east of the current fire station. Timber for the mill came from Maxwell Land Grant Company property south of the sawmill, across the highway on Touch-Me-Not and from the Atmore ranch.

The sawmill business wasn’t profitable and after two years the Gray Lumber Company was liquidated and the land cleared.

Frank Atmore attended the Ute Park School through the fifth grade. The Moreno Valley’s T. D. Neal kept yearling bulls in a pasture beside the school. The close proximity was too much for the boys at the school who would enter the pasture, catch the bulls and try to ride them during recess.

The school closed after Frank’s fifth grade year and combined with Cimarron.

“Cimarron was the biggest school I’d ever seen in my life,” Frank recalls. “I was scared to death that first day.”

There were 13 students in his graduating class at Cimarron, and 75 students in the entire school, grades 1 – 12.

The first “school bus” used to transport students to and from Cimarron was an old Army carryall. Frank became the bus driver responsible for 6 students his eighth grade year while many of the men from the area were involved in World War II. He gladly relinquished the job when the men returned, and became involved in judging cattle and playing basketball.

Frank graduated from Cimarron in 1951 and went to New Mexico State University on a basketball scholarship.

The 1950s and beyond

Electricity did not come to Ute Park until the 1940s after the Rural Electric Act was passed. Telephones came a few years later, with lines strung along the same poles as the electric lines.

“I never talked on a telephone until I went off to college,” Frank said.

The Baldy Mine closed sometime around 1948 and the Maxwell Land Grant Company hired Victor Van Lint to survey Ute Park and divide it into lots.

In August 1948, Sylvan Gray and his brothers were closing their sawmill business and preparing to move back to Fort Worth, Texas. Visits from Fort Worth friends had encouraged the family to build their cabin in 1947. As they prepared to leave Ute Park, they bought the 10 acres previously leased as a living area for sawmill employees — cabins and all — with the intent of selling the lots to their Fort Worth friends for the price paid plus $50 for each cabin.

“I guess you could say we began the summer home deal,” says daughter Sherry Gray. “For awhile Ute Park was just a little Fort Worth.”

The McGees were the first to accept the offer, followed quickly by the Hills,
Cummins, Bairds and Withers. Most of these families are into their second generation of Ute Park ownership.

When Phelps Dodge Company shut down the Dawson coal mines in 1950, several Dawson families bought lots in Ute Park and brought their houses, or favorite community buildings, with them.

Another family buying into the Ute Park way of life was the Goldstein family from New Jersey.

Jimmie Goldstein came to New Mexico to attend college with hopes of curing allergy problems in the clean, dry air. During those college years Jimmie spent summers working at Philmont Boy Scout Ranch.

Irving and Victoria (Vicki) Goldstein bought two acres in Ute Park during the early 1950s and built a summer cabin. It’s said that Vicki coined the phrase “Uteopia.” After a Scouting career, the cabin became Jimmie and Barbara Goldstein’s retirement home.

From 1953 – 1956 Jimmie ran the Chuck Wagon Cafe specializing in quarter-pound hamburgers. Among other menu selections were home-made pies created from recipes obtained in phone calls to his mother and scribbled on whatever scrap of paper was nearby.

Only open Memorial Day through the hunting season, the Chuck Wagon Cafe was supported by fishermen and hunters coming to the area around the Cimarron River and Eagle Nest Lake. Around 1955 drought conditions caused Eagle Nest Lake to drop to a volume of 800 acre feet. Fishing conditions degenerated and fishermen went elsewhere to sink hooks.

“If there weren’t any fishermen, there was no business,” said Jimmie, who sold his cafe in 1956.

The constant link

The Ute Park Post Office has been a steady presence in Ute Park since 1908. Over the past 96 years, 14 postmasters have handled the comings and goings of Ute Park correspondence. Two postmasters lasted more than 20 years with the Ute Park postal service.

Doris L. Atmore, daughter-in-law of founding postmaster Rodney Atmore served 22 years as postmaster, was president of the New Mexico Association of Postmasters and vice president of the National Association of Postmasters of the United States (NAPUS).

Rosemary Rockenfield started as a part-time clerk working under Doris in June 1967. She assumed charge of the post office when Doris retired Dec. 31, 1976 and was commissioned as postmaster May 21, 1977.

Rosemary was postmaster when the post office was moved into its current permanent home. She retired in June 1999 after 22 years as postmaster and 32 years as a Ute Park postal worker.

On Oct. 9, 1999 Kathy L. Lee was commissioned as Ute Park postmaster and continues to serve in that capacity.

History taps us on the shoulder

About the time we settle into living for tomorrow, history taps us on the shoulder.

At least that’s how Kathy Lee felt when she received the envelope from 9-year-old Nick Coffer of Yuma, Arizona, in mid-December 2001.

Inside was a small metal tag reading, “If found return to Jas. F. Shoemaker, Postmaster,
Ute Park, N.Mex. and receive reward.”

The late James F. Shoemaker had been postmaster of Ute Park from 1930 – 1935.

Kathy made sure Nick received a gift certificate from the marketing department of the United States Postal Service. And Ute Park got back a 70-year-old piece of history.

One can only wonder what will happen 70 years from now in this little Uteopia.

Today’s travelers see this popular stop in Ute Park, a 1920s structure owned by John and Norma Hardesty. (Chronicle Photo by Jo Bynum)

Grant Gray’s life at ‘the end of the railway’