LOS OJOS, N.M. – Many miracles have occurred in northern New Mexico, and one of them began with a runaway horse.
A century ago, the pretty Hispanic wife of Irish mercantile magnate T.D. Burns lost control of her horse and buggy atop a steep hill between the villages of Tierra Amarilla and Los Ojos. She screamed in Spanish as the runaway horse plunged down the slope. Farmers irrigating their fields, or varas, and herders tending sheep in the ejidos, or common pastures, turned toward the screams.
By all rights, the thin wooden wheels of the buggy should have shattered, throwing the woman into a ditch and causing great harm. But the farmers in their fields and the herders with their borregas quickly made the sign of the cross against their chests, whispered prayers and the hand of God steadied the buggy as the wet and perspiring horse finally slowed as he entered the main street of Los Ojos. It was a miracle, they all said.
That Sunday, the church was full for Mass, and Mr. Burns, who owned several stores throughout northern New Mexico, vowed to build an Italian-style grotto and shrine to honor God because his wife believed she had been saved by divine intervention. I've been to the grotto, peacefully set beneath swaying pines in this area about 60 miles southeast of Pagosa Springs along U.S. Highway 84. You can't see it from the modern highway; you have to take the old road.
I like traveling older, slower roads because I see so much more. That's how I came to find Mr. J. Gabriel Abeyta, who'll turn 87 this year, and I entered his distinctive adobe house in Los Ojos with its 22-inch-thick walls, which his family began to build in 1848. Descended from French trappers who came into New Mexico and who married Hispanic women, Abeyta tells stories about his family's history. His mother had 12 children, the last when she was 42 years old. He tells me, “My mother was lonely as an only child. She knew it was no fun, so she had 12 children, and I'm the only one left.”
Parkview – an Americanization
As the family grew and prospered, they remodeled their home. In 1907, a Swiss carpenter from Chicago named Butler came into the area, and the low-roofed traditional New Mexican house acquired a high-pitched roof, delicate wooden gingerbread in the gabled eaves, and a long porch with colorfully painted posts that face the street. Farms and ranches did well, and Eastern investors sought to colonize the area with Midwestern immigrants. Thus, the historic village of Los Ojos became the town of Parkview in anticipation of new residents seeking to “Americanize” an Hispanic village.
World War I changed all that. The immigrant colony failed to come, and those who came failed to stay. Abeyta chuckles at the attempt to change tradition. He explains, “It's called Los Ojos, or ‘the eyes,' because of little springs. We have fluid in our eyes, and there is fluid in the springs everywhere near here.”
So the town changed its name back to Los Ojos, but the Swiss carpenter's ideas lived on to become a unique northern New Mexican folk vernacular architectural style of high-pitched roofs with projecting, narrow, gabled windows. Just like T.D. Burns, the carpenter married into a local Hispanic family and had plenty of work. Abeyta sighs when he describes the once-thriving community.
“There were three or four stores and bars and dance halls. Life was good,” he explains. “Everybody had a garden. At 4 p.m., your mother would say bring carrots, onions or corn.” But then during World War II, “Everyone left Los Ojos and did not come back. The houses and boardwalks gradually disappeared. People abandoned or sold their homes.”
The village shrank to one-fifth of what it once had been. Hopefully, another miracle, this time with sheep instead of a horse, will revitalize the community.
Silky vs. greasy wool
Local New Mexicans always raised borregas because in the 17th and 18th centuries, Spanish families moved north from Santa Fe with long-wooled churro sheep that possessed two horns on each side of their skulls. The silky wool fibers made for excellent weaving, and a strong tradition developed of wooden looms and families weaving blankets, serapes and mantas by firelight. Then in the 1850s, the U.S. military introduced a different kind of sheep with better meat but a greasy, tighter wool. The weaving tradition declined. Thirty years ago, a search began for any descendants of those original rams and ewes. A few venerable churro were discovered in remote pastures and distant corrals. It was a miracle, the village elders said.
Now, the very building that T.D. Burns built for his mercantile empire in Los Ojos is home to Tierra Wools and Pastores Lamb, a local cooperative employing herders as well as weavers who once again are using the long, silky fibers of churro sheep, perfect for hand spinning. The colors of the tapestries dazzle, with rich earth tones and zigzag patterns, some of which are family designs. I enjoy walking across that scarred wooden floor with its pits and grooves and touching the massive adobe walls of the 19th-century building that needs occasional patching and repair.
The rebirth of Rio Grande weaving is a miracle in Rio Arriba County, where low wages persist. Now, there is laughter in the old Burns building as men and women work together to learn an ancient trade. From churro sheep raising comes wool gathering, hand dyeing of colorful yarns and local handspun wool that can be purchased along with blankets, jackets, vests, rug runners, shawls and even woolen bookmarks. There are weaving classes and casitas with kitchens that can be rented for a weekend or a month from Tierra Wools, a grower/spinner/weaver-owned company.
It's been over a century since a runaway horse dragged a careening carriage into the main street of Los Ojos. T.D. Burns' wife was not injured, and that is a miracle. In the small New Mexican village of Los Ojos, miracles still happen. Go see for yourself.
gulliford_a @fortlewis.edu Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest studies and history at Fort Lewis College.