Love and Hate at Los Luceros
Updated: Jan 11, 2021
I think a lot of farmers have love/hate relationships with farming. For the most part, it's nothing but hard work and frequently, the cruel hand of Mother Nature doesn't give a rat's ass about your hard work. A single dose of rain, wind, cold, or frost can ruin everything. And often does. But, oh, the beauty of it all when it does work out.
Los Luceros is a ranch near Alcalde, New Mexico, about 40 minutes north of Santa Fe, bordering the Rio Grande river. Over the years it has been whittled down to 148 acres but in the words of the New Mexico Dept. of Cultural Affairs "is surely one of New Mexico's most scenic and historically significant properties".
The property has a long history, from original settlement by the Spanish in 1598 through 1821 when the Spanish Southwest came under the jurisdiction of the newly formed Republic of Mexico. The main house was built in the 1700s and served many functions -- from home to courthouse. A stump in the corner of the fenced yard was once the courthouse "hanging tree".
In 1923 a wealthy Bostonian heiress, Mary Cabot Wheelwright, purchased the property and refurbished the Hacienda and other buildings - including a chapel, guest houses and outbuildings.
In 1936 23-year old Maria Chabot, as the executive secretary of the New Mexico Association of Indian Affairs, had already conceived the Santa Fe Indian Market and had traveled throughout New Mexico and Arizona documenting the arts and crafts of Native Americans. Wheelwright hired Chabot to record her extensive collection of Native American art. The two hit it off and Maria became the manager of the ranch at Los Luceros, planting thousands of fruit trees and transforming it into a working farm.
Over the next 20 years, Chabot spent the bulk of her time in New Mexico at Los Luceros. She managed the ranch, oversaw care of the the orchards and cattle herd. She was also president of the local irrigation association, an unheard-of post for a woman at the time. When Wheelwright died in 1958, she deeded the ranch, but not the house, to Chabot. Maria did her best to keep the ranch but with all of the work, the inability to find good employees (many of the able-bodied men had left in the 40s to work at Los Alamos), and the fact she did not have the money to pay the taxes on the property, she eventually was forced to let it go.
I visited Los Luceros (now owned by the State of New Mexico and on the National Historic Register) a few days ago and was left to wander the property on my own. I spent four hours there, visiting with the animals (a couple of fuzzy donkeys, a herd of wooly sheep, a few curious goats, a gaggle of not-so-wild Wild turkeys, and some really loud peacocks), exploring the main house and guest houses -- including the Chabot house -- and walking along the bank of the Rio Grande.
The caretaker who met me, Matthew, gave me a quick tour of the property before leaving for the day. "You can go in all of the buildings. Just close the doors and turn off the lights," were my only instructions. "Also, the main house is haunted so be sure to take lots of pictures because you can get the orbs in them."
Great. Just what I want to do. Wander around a sprawling 300 year-old haunted house. Alone.
But I did. I definitely felt like someone was there walking with me. I just hope I left whoever it was there. And... it was beautiful. Being able to spend time in the places Maria loved (and also complained a lot about) was a real treat. It's amazing to look at the sprawl and think that she undertook it all on her own. I only had to manage 20 acres of farm and that, in the 2000s, was hard enough. Maria mostly got a kick out of it, frequently joking about the looks on the men's faces as she went along on her tractor. But she also felt the pain of the land, figuring out the systems, working for someone else, managing expectations...
"The front field is plowed...and the snow sinks into it, a slow wet almost warm snow. The opened earth is very dark and fragrant. I am told this promises to be the best season in years -- there is a deep moisture in the earth...There are many things I must learn: the cows, the garden, the orchard, the tractor, the truck, the ditch system, the fences. Mary isn't going to let me revolutionize anything." -- Maria Chabot to Georgia O'Keeffe. March 25, 1945*
It was at Los Luceros that Wheelwright introduced Chabot to Georgia O'Keeffe. And that, my friends, is a whole 'nother love/hate story.
*(pp.261, Maria Chabot - Georgia O'Keeffe: Correspondence, 1941-1949.)