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El Rancho de Las Golondrinas – Part II

We’ve been journeying into Spanish and Territorial Period life in New Mexico during the 18th and 19th centuries and we’ve just come to Creek Crossing located at El Rancho De Las Golondrinas (“Ranch of the Swallows”) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which takes us to a variety of unique places situated along the dusty path.


El molino grande de Sapello (“the big mill from Sapello”) grinds and winds and squeaks and crunches between rotating intervals. It smells of history and distant days in June when the cottonwood cotton floats through wisps of cool valley air and collect in gentle piles on the dusty earth.

“The snow of June”, folks called it; in fact, they still do.

This commercial mill was built between 1880 and 1890 and is one of the few original Spanish mills that ran until 1975 when it was brought to Las Golondrinas from El Morro Valley. Most mills stopped operating around WWII when the health department declared them unsanitary for commercial production.

But, during the 19th century mills were tremendously valuable to the sustainability of difficult ranch life. Bran and wheat were of such purity and value that wheat transporters of this time had no more than 3-5 days to get their bulk to neighboring villages and towns before the product went rancid because of the natural oils contained within it.

As time went on, mill engineering advanced and soon bolting and sifting grits were added mechanisms that produced a finer wheat flour, which also allowed the flour to remain stable for longer. The problem, now, however, is that the wheat lacks nutritious value because it has become a pure carbohydrate.


At the top of a rocky hill and past an old wooden fence that’s so splintered it literally casts no shadow, is la casa de Madrid (“the Madrid house”). Set in the 1890’s and decorated with patinated brass things and sun-chapped leather whatever-have-you’s, this place is unexpectedly the former movie set of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for the prequel “Butch and Sundance: The Early Days”.

The house was built in 1978 and was intended to be demolished after 2 months, but Las Golondrinas decided to keep it because the house reflects a miner’s cabin in Madrid. 40 years later, this place remains standing and is one of my favorite features of the museum.

Other movies filmed at Las Golondrinas include: “The Missing” (2003) and “All the Pretty Horses” (2000) – both FANTASTIC films, so go watch ‘em if you haven’t.


To the left of the Madrid house and perched on a steep incline that overlooks las milpas (“the fields, traditional crops”), is La Morada de Nuestra Señora de la Paz (“Penitente Meeting House of our Lady of Peace”) and its accompanying camposanto (“burial ground”).

In 1821 people in New Spain (Mexico), revolted against the Spanish and were successful. In lieu, Spain cut of New Spain from the import/export of valuable necessities and New Spain retaliated by ordering the exile of peninsular Spanish residing in their territory. Most of those exiled were catholic priests, who came during the 1521 Spanish conquest and who lived, taught and died in New Spain ever since. These priests were educated in reading and writing, so their presence was important not just for religious reasons, but for the development of new generations to lead, build and innovate the country forward.

Nonetheless, when New Spain exiled the priests, they fled to villages that branched off from El Camino Real in Texas, New Mexico and parts of Southern Colorado. When they arrived, they built moradas at which they practiced corporal penance, giving them the name of penitents.

During the Holy Week (Easter), the penitents organized a procession during which they strapped massive crosses to their backs and walked miles upon miles as a kind of militant pilgrimage to the Lady of Peace. They also practiced an extreme form of mortification of their own flesh by whipping it with various instruments. This behavior was considered bizarre by those who didn’t practice it and so the penitents were often harassed by villagers; it also didn’t help that the Catholic Church disowned them for their flagellant practices.

As a result, the penitents went underground and became private. There are recorded accounts by period villagers that state when walking by the moradas, one was warned with haunting gunshots.

El camposanto at Las Golondrinas is not a real one; in other words, there are no bodies resting underground, but the crosses are authentic. They came to be at Las Golondrinas when the New Mexico Highway Department was widening a road and came across a real graveyard with wooden framework, bodies and all. After an unsuccessful research of who the bodies may have belonged to or if anyone today was/is related to them, the department disinterred the bodies and donated the authentic wooden crosses and frameworks to the ranch and there they remain today.

While meandering through a beautiful summer tree tunnel, just dense enough to let pockets of sunrays burst through groupings of brightly green chitalpa leaves, one eventually comes upon la escuela de Raton (“the Raton schoolhouse”).

It’s a three room schoolhouse built in 1879 in Raton (Northern New Mexico). It predates the statehood of New Mexico and Arizona of 1912 and outside on a roof hitched flagpole, a period United States flag flaps and flies in the dry desert sky with only 39 stars.

In the 1880’s, there was no public school system like we know it today; parents usually relied on church priests, the church itself, and educated individuals to instruct and tutor their children. But as a prerequisite to statehood, Arizona and New Mexico agreed to set up private subscription schools where parents paid 50 cents per student per month for education.

Thus, schoolhouses began to pop up around the American Southwest and were sometimes uniquely built to include a room and an annex to house the schoolteacher; thus is the layout of the Raton schoolhouse.

Towards the turn of the century, education became of popular demand, especially for folks working the Camino Real where they conducted business with English and Spanish speaking tradesmen and women who came from peninsular Spain, New Spain and from the American West.

Depending on their wealth, parents would either send their kids to Mexico City to learn the high Spanish of that time, or would send them to American charter schools in St. Louis, Missouri to learn American English. Otherwise, single and illiterate men in the trade business would marry a Spanish or American woman from whom, and with immersion, they would learn the language they lacked.

An interesting fact about the Spanish spoken throughout New Mexico today is that it’s entirely different than the Spanish spoken in Mexico and Spain, because it’s comprised of preserved lexicons from the Territorial Period. Because New Mexico was so isolated from New Spain and Peninsular Spain, the language remained well preserved. Sadly, these old words and dialects will soon be gone within a generation.


Alas, we make it to la herreria (“blacksmith shop”). The structure is wrapped in billows of grayish black smoke, thick with floating particles of coal and glowing embers. A man is causing movement from inside, he’s using a massive forge blower to send oxygen to the flame with which he’s working. In his hands is iron – such an important material of period life; in fact, more so than silver, believe it or not. Lined along its heaving walls are scraps of rusting wagon wheels that the blacksmith is using to make strong chains by forge welding and overlapping the metal. He heats the iron over and over again, pouring borax on its expanding form. He hammers the connecting joints with strength that ricochets his mutton chop cheeks. The bond gets tighter and soon the chain’s seams begin to disappear, in fact, come to think of it, much like that of the hand tooled trade and technique that made it.


La capilla (“chapel”) was built around the early 1700’s and was originally not a chapel but a family home. In the 1950’s, it was used as a barn; the ranch has photos in its archive that show cows hanging outside and inside this structure. The bultos (saint figurines) and retablos (small oil paintings) were made by modern santeros.


El ranchero office was the workplace of the ranchero, who was usually literate, where he would balance the trade books. An interesting feature of this structure is its vigas that are square in diameter because the saw mill wasn’t invented until 1850.


In the weaving demonstration room, there are different plant dyed yarns that hang from the walls. The bright scarlet yarn, however, is the exception – its been dyed with the natural dye carmine derived from the cochineal bug that is native to South America and which hangs out on cacti.

It takes 70,000 bugs to make a pound of dye and during the Colonial Period the cochineal bug was a trade item that cost $5 per pound of its dye. In comparison, the Spanish flintlock pistol was $4.10.

The dye became a massively valuable commercial product during British rule and was used to make the bright scarlet uniforms worn by the British Army of the 1776 United States War of Independence.

The wool comes from the Navajo-Churro sheep which is a rare descendant of the Iberian Peninsula sheep that came with the Spanish, to the New World, 500 years ago. It’s special for the lanolin secreted  onto its fibers, which is used to treat burns and rashes.


One can venture this museum endlessly and it’s probably necessary to make a few trips out of it, to be honest. I am grateful to my new friend, Gordon, who is a volunteer at the ranch and who spent his Saturday morning giving me the grandest of tours I’ve ever been on of this amazing place. I find that when I follow my passion and dig to cover historical, adventure and human interest stories that I love to the bone, I always end up meeting inspiring people who are so damn talented and knowledgeable with these topics that it hurts. As a result, I come away from these shared experiences a little bit smarter and exhilarated to push forward and keep doing what I love.

I hope you get the chance to visit this place and meet Gordon who is usually manning el molino barela de Truchas (“the Truchas mill”). If you visit because my blog referred you, then please tell him Jess sent you and that I think he’s flippin’ awesome!


The museum is open for self-guided tours June 1 through October 1, Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission fees for self-guided tours: $6 Adults, $4 Seniors (62+) and teens (ages 13-17), and FREE for children 12 years and younger. Enjoy various events throughout the season by visiting their website event calendar.

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