Straddling 50 miles of the Rio Grande, Socorro County is rich in agriculture and is the third largest county in the state of New Mexico. From raising cattle on the prairies to growing alfalfa and chile along the fertile river valley, agriculture exists much like it did in the days of the Old West.
Ranching consumes approximately 60 percent of the land mass in Socorro County, with cattle production playing a big part. Alfalfa and chile are two of the largest crops raised, along with a variety of others such as corn, Sudan, oats and winter wheat rotated in and out.
And there’s nothing better than the smell of fresh green chile being roasted at local roadside produce stands and at the local farmers market.
The outdoor farmers market season begins in mid-June and ends in late October. Vendors can be found selling their wares from 5 to 7 p.m. every Tuesday and from 8 a.m. until noon every Saturday on the historic plaza in Socorro. The indoor winter market operates from 9 to 11 a.m. every Saturday from November through February at the Socorro Community Kitchen on Center Street.
Satellite markets spring up from late July to late October on the Alamo Navajo Reservation and in the Village of Magdalena.
A community that boasts a diverse population of cowboys, artists, Native Americans, scientists and direct descendants of the original Spanish explorers, Magdalena is a favorite stop for those going west on Highway 60. The village offers visitors motels, restaurants, art galleries and a variety of historic sites.
Serving both the ranching and mining industries, Magdalena was once a rip-roaring Old West town in the most traditional sense. Saloons and hotels catered to the cowboys and miners who moved into the area and cattle rustling, shootouts on Main Street and barroom brawls are all part of the town’s legendary history. WS Ranch manager Capt. William French relates in his book “Some Reflections of a Western Ranchman” that Butch Cassidy, and possibly the Sundance Kid, once worked cattle drives into Magdalena, stating that they were two of the most well-behaved cowboys that ever worked for him.
Much of the town’s history is preserved at the Box Car Museum, located next to the restored railroad depot that now houses the Magdalena Public Library. The museum collection holds photographs, memorabilia and artifacts donated by residents that tell the story of miners, cowboys, homesteaders and Navajo natives who settled the area. Although the picturesque territorial jailhouse on Elm Street has stood empty for several decades, many of the town’s historic buildings are still in use, either as homes or businesses. Unfortunately, fire has claimed most of the hotels, bars and restaurants that once lined Main Street.
Nicknamed “Trail’s End,” Magdalena was the destination for those who traveled the “Hoof Highway” — a thoroughfare used by ranchers and cowboys to drive cattle and sheep from as far away as Arizona. The driveway was used annually from 1885 when a railroad spur was built connecting Magdalena to Socorro, and became a designated driveway by the Grazing Homestead Act of 1916.
In 1919, as many as 150,000 sheep and 21,000 cattle used the trail to reach the stockyard. The original stockyards are still intact on North Ash Street.
The driveway was five to 10 miles wide and extended about 125 miles west to Springerville, Ariz. Another branch of the trail extended from cattle ranches in and around Reserve, including the sprawling WS Ranch in Alma, and merged with the main trail at Datil. Cowboys could drive cattle about 10 miles a day, while herders moved their sheep about five miles a day, allowing them to graze along the way. Wells were drilled every 10 miles to accommodate the herds, and in the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps dug out earthen stock tanks along the route.
In 1971, highway trucking supplanted transport by train and within a year, the area’s cattle drives ceased.
Magdalena owes part of its origins to the mining industry. The operators of Kelly Mine, located about three miles south of town in the Magdalena Mountains, were at least partly responsible for bringing the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad spur to Magdalena, so that its ore could be brought to Socorro by rail to be smelted.
Today, Magdalena is a quiet village of roughly 900 residents. Its history, galleries and outdoor recreation opportunities make it a popular tourist destination. There has recently been a growth of new services, and the village’s lodges, inns, local marketplaces and restaurants have experienced a renaissance.
There’s plenty to see and do within easy driving distance of Magdalena. The Very Large Array is just 19 miles west on U.S. 60. The Alamo Navajo Indian Reservation is a half-hour drive north on Highway 169. There are numerous hiking trails and camping sites in the surrounding Cibola National Forest. The ranger station on First Street has maps and information about the forest available.
Today, the Magdalena Trail Drivers Association holds Cowboy Action Shooting events a few miles west of town.
For more than 40 years, the village of Magdalena has celebrated its history as an Old West mining and cattle-shipping center on the second weekend of July. The event includes a rodeo and street dance on Friday; a parade, barbecue cookout and more rodeo events on Saturday; a pancake breakfast and the Kelly Mine walk-run on Sunday; and arts, crafts, music and other entertainment throughout the weekend.
For more information on Magdalena, visit www.magdalena-nm.com.
The farming community of Polvadera is a few miles north of Lemitar along the I-25 Frontage Road.
Polvadera is a rendition of the Spanish word polvoriento or pulverdero, meaning “dusty” or “pulverized dirt.”
It is believed that the name Polvadera may also be based on the name of an old Piro Indian pueblo in the area of a similar-sounding name.
Socorro, Luis Lopez, and Pulvidero are the oldest documented “New World” settlements in Socorro County.
In 1680, all of the people in the Socorro region, both Spaniards and the Piros, abandoned their homes and pueblos and fled to El Paso during the Pueblo Revolt. The Piros never returned.
Families from Belen and Tomé were the first pioneers to venture back into the region in the early 1800s.
The San Lorenzo Land Grant, upon which Polvadera is built, came to an end in 1898. Upon 1912 statehood, the private land ownership of the residences was honored; the rest of the grant became state land. Years later, ownership of San Lorenzo Canyon was transferred to the Bureau of Land Management and land along the river was given to the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.
To this day, many of the pioneer families in Polvadera believe some of their land was stolen from them.
The region was known for grapes and wine; however, constant floods down the Rio Grande periodically destroyed thousands of acres of good farmland and vineyards, from San Acacia to San Marcial. Polvadera was hit hard, since so much of the farmland was only a few feet above the river level. During flood stages, the Rio Grande waters would become two miles wide.
Although the people of Polvadera seemed to always bounce back with their wines following a flood, it was Prohibition in 1920 that brought a centuries old industry in the area to an end.
Alamo Navajo Reservation
Nearly 30 miles from Magdalena on state Route 169 is the Alamo Navajo Indian Reservation, an isolated division of the Navajo Nation. Roughly 2,200 residents live on the reservation and many of them carry on the traditions and language passed down from their ancestors.
As a chapter of the Navajo Nation, Alamo is governed much like a state in the United States. Decisions affecting tribal members and Alamo’s infrastructure are made by elected officials at the Chapter House — the center of the reservation.
How the people came to live at Alamo remains a bit of a mystery. It could be that the Anasazi migrated to the area after abandoning settlements to the north. Another theory is that bands of nomadic Indians wandered from Canada and the Northwest — perhaps initially across the Bering Strait — down the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. The Navajo people — known in their native language as Diné, which means “the people” — meandered to the American Southwest. The tribe probably sustained themselves as hunters and gatherers long before bands turned to shepherding and formed settlements.
The bloodlines of the people living at Alamo are largely mixed. The territory roamed by the Apache Indians and settled by the Navajo overlapped and intermarriage between the tribes occurred. Some residents of Alamo claim to be descendents of the great “war shaman” Geronimo.
In October, the Alamo people celebrate Alamo Indian Days, honoring their culture and customs.
Alamo Navajo encompasses 63,000 acres in the northwest corner of Socorro County, an area that provides spectacular views of mountains, rolling hills and slanted mesas. Bordered on the south by the Gallinas Mountains, the landscape is dotted with cactus, juniper and piñon trees.
Sheep can be spotted grazing in secluded sections of the countryside, even on the north side of “Unnecessary Ridge” — named in a previous era when it blocked access to a trading post. Shepherd markers still stand atop some of the peaks. Former homes (called hogans) and sweat lodges used for purification rituals remain scattered on parts of the reservation.
Other evidence of the past can be found in petroglyphs painted on rocks bordering the Rio Salado. Fossils millions of years old are imbedded in rocks and shark teeth have been found scattered over some of the land’s flat, rocky floor.
Although rich in culture, Alamo is one of the poorest communities in New Mexico and it has suffered the affects of socioeconomic conditions. Much of its development has come in recent decades, with the building of a modern school, courthouse, health clinic and wellness center.
The modern development that has come to the reservation in the last 10 years is largely due to the Alamo Navajo School Board Inc., instrumental in bringing services to the area.
Alamo is served by 1500 KABR-AM radio, which, for the last 25 years, has provided information and entertainment to those who reside there.
Seven miles north of Socorro on Interstate 25 is the tiny community of Lemitar. Once a lively business and farming community, it’s a bit quieter now and home to a little over 300 souls.
In the 1820s, many settlers ventured along the river north and south of Socorro looking for good farm land. By the mid 1820s, farming settlements were cropping up along both sides of the river.
Some of these settlers established farms about six miles north of Socorro. Word of the good farm land must have gotten out, and by 1831, additional families moved to the area. The descendents of these families remain to this day in Lemitar residences.
Some say these early settlers named their growing village “Plaza Limitar,” derived from lemita, the berried squashbush abundant in the area at the time. Others say Lemitar is slang for “sticks” or “twigs.” Over the years, the spelling has changed from Limitar to Lemitarcito to the present form, Lemitar.
Regardless of the spelling, historical sources cite 1831 as the establishment of Lemitar as a village.
Lemitar’s population was about 400 people in the 1860s. In 1854, the county seat for Socorro County was transferred from Socorro to Lemitar for undocumented reasons. By the 1860 census, Lemitar’s 780 people outnumbered Socorro’s 523 residents, which made Lemitar the largest town in Socorro County.
During this time, Lemitar was a post for the New Mexico Militia — volunteers under the approval of the American government for protecting the villages in Socorro County against marauding Apaches. The first U.S. Dragoons also quartered at Lemitar and Socorro to protect travelers along the Camino Real.
When the railroad arrived in the Socorro area in 1880, Lemitar farmers were able to quickly ship their goods to market. This created an unexpected market — grapes. Lemitar quickly became one of the largest vineyards in New Mexico. By 1890, more than 100,000 grapevines were producing grapes for distant markets and local wineries. This lucrative industry came to an end in 1895, when a Rio Grande flood devastated the area. Today, there are a few remnants of these historic vineyards.
By the 1950s, farmers discovered cotton grew quite well in their silt-covered fields, and Lemitar became somewhat famous for its pure white cotton. This ended when the Lemitar cotton gin went out of business. The old cotton mill still stands north of the Lemitar Roadrunner Truck Stop.
Heralded by some as the gateway to the Bosque National Wildlife Refuge and by others as the home of the world’s greatest green chile cheeseburgers, the Socorro County community of San Antonio, N.M., has achieved a certain notoriety worldwide.
A quiet farming and ranching community 10 miles south of Socorro, San Antonio holds many surprises.
San Antonio is the birthplace of Conrad Hilton, one of New Mexico’s earliest legislators and founder of the Hilton hotel empire. Hilton’s father managed the Harvey House in San Antonio, where he learned the hotel trade.
Since the 1940s, when J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leslie Groves and others working on the Manhattan Project at the nearby Trinity Site stopped here for meals, San Antonio has been known as the place to go for a world-class green chile cheeseburger. For decades, hungry travelers in the know have planned their itineraries to arrive at San Antonio just in time for lunch or dinner.
San Antonio is transformed every fall into a birder’s paradise with the annual arrival of hundreds of flocks of sandhill cranes at the Refuge. During the third week in November, visitors from around the globe flock to the area for a week-long tribute to birds of every feather, nesting in hotels, motels, bed and breakfast establishments and guesthouses for miles around.
To a great extent, the San Antonio’s economy rises and falls with the arrival and departure of the migrating birds and birders. It’s a connection reflected in the names of some local businesses, such as the San Antonio Crane Mexican Restaurant, the Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park and the Dancing Cranes Guesthouse and Gallery.
Although there’s not much left of it, Kelly, N.M., three miles south of Magdalena, was once a bustling mining town with schools, banks, grocery stores, saloons, churches and a clinic serving a population of well over 2,000 residents.
People started flocking to the area in the early 1880s after lead, zinc and silver were found in abundance on the slopes of the Magdalena Mountains. From the many mine shafts, ore was transferred by tram down to Magdalena where it was loaded onto cars of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railway and taken to smelters in Socorro.
By 1910, Kelly was one of the state’s active mining centers. The Tri-Bullion company was producing heavily, and a man named C.T. Brown was said to be shipping about 2,500 tons of lead and zinc monthly from his lease.
The high spirits in Kelly were dampened in May, 1910, when a miner was entering Kelly Mine through the tunnel and a rock struck him on the head, causing a deep gash in the front of his skull. Rushed to an Albuquerque hospital by train, he died shortly after his arrival. This is significant in that over the years, from the 1890s into the 1950s, there were relatively few deaths in the mines at Kelly. Far more perished in the coal mines at Carthage than the hard rock mines at Kelly.
By 1947 the rich ores played out and the population dropped to zero. Most of the wood frame houses and structures were dismantled and laboriously moved the three miles down the hill to Magdalena.
All there is to see of the town now are stone foundations, stone walls and remnants of concrete sidewalks. Evidence of mining operations still remain above the ghost town with the famous Traylor shaft headframe of the Kelly mine still standing, with the refractory, boiler and assay building nearby.
The population of Kelly is currently two.