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Urban legacy

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Colonel D.K.B. Sellers, wearing a fedora and greatcoat, saw only untapped potential in the sparse landscape when he had photos taken of himself next to a “NOB HILL” sign on stilts for his 1937 custom-made holiday greeting card that would become an iconic image of the area.

“Happy New Year from the Newest & Finest Located Residential District in Albuquerque,” says the black-and-white card framed and hanging on the wall of his granddaughter’s house in the Northeast Heights.

Mayor of Albuquerque at the time of statehood in 1912, Sellers was a jack-of-all-trades in business whose imprint on the city is largely from real estate development. Granddaughter Sally Veseth remembers him as a Runyonesque hustler who was well-read, well-traveled and “very, very gregarious.”

He was called Col. Sellers, even in newspaper articles, because it fit into the rather grandiose image he had of himself, she said.

“He was never in the military. It was an honorary title someone gave to him,” she said. “He latched onto it.”

The historic and well-known Nob Hill photo, which shows one of Sellers’ beloved hunting spaniels, was taken in the vicinity of Tulane and Silver SE. The name “Nob Hill” was inspired by a high-rent area on one of the inner hills in San Francisco, where Sellers had worked and lived, Veseth said.

The photo, available from the Albuquerque Museum archives, shows up at some Nob Hill shops but gets its most dramatic commercial treatment as a wall graphic at the Nob Hill Bar and Grill on Central SE.

“It was a real easy decision for us — it’s a great photo,” said owner Matt Ludeman. “A stark photo from Nob Hill’s past that contrasts with the neighborhood’s vibrant present.”

Local legacies

Col. Sellers’ legacy includes naming streets after colleges and schools — Yale to Carlisle — in his University Heights subdivision and leading the effort to change the name of Railroad Avenue to Central Avenue.

“He believed no town would amount to anything if its main street was called Railroad,” Veseth said.

He championed state legislation to permit construction of the first permanent buildings at the state fairgrounds and helped to organize the first performance by Navajo dancers at what was then the Territorial Fair, now the State Fair.

Most of all, he is credited with developing an estimated 10 mixed-use subdivisions that define the Southeast and near Northeast Heights, including several in the University of New Mexico area that have stood the test of time and are popular with homebuyers even in today’s slow real estate market.

But Veseth remembers a grandfather who lived life large in a big house with a staff of three and what would today be considered a “man cave” with shields, knives and hunting prints cluttering the walls. The grounds had an apple tree, vegetable garden and greenhouse, a pond with rose bushes and a grape arbor.

The house at the corner of Vassar and Silver SE was torn down and in 1956, six years after Sellers’ death at age 89, was replaced by the 12,380-square-foot office building that’s now home to the Hartman + Majewski Design Group.

During summer visits, Veseth remembers her grandfather downing a ”beaker” of whiskey equal to several shots with his breakfast.

“He had a little bar in a hallway,” she said. “He would buy a good bottle of whiskey, drink it, and buy a cheap whiskey and put it in the good bottle.”

Sellers was estranged from his only son and Veseth’s father, Harrold, who resented the colonel’s lack of ethics, she said. Anecdotal stories from the family paint a picture of a vain man who was not above conning people for personal profit or gain.

‘Value of printer’s ink’

Born in Ohio in 1861, Sellers tried to make a name for himself as a civic-minded broker of food and tobacco products in the city of Eureka in Northern California in the 1890s. He started to keep a scrapbook of newspaper clippings in which his name appeared in about 1893.

“There are many ways in which a man in business may keep himself prominently before the people and Mr. Sellers appears to know the value of printers’ ink,” says the Humboldt Times in 1893.

The clippings are plentiful, documenting his activities coaching a baseball team, chairing the Sequoia Carnival, investing in residential lots, serving on the board of the chamber of commerce and a right-of-way committee to get rail service extended to Eureka. He was married with two kids.

The Panic of 1896, which was an economic downturn caused by deflation, apparently hit Sellers hard. He filed for bankruptcy in mid-1897 and, less than a year later, was in Alaska trying to make his fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush.

“I and four others were the first to locate claims on El Dorado and America creeks,” Sellers wrote in an April 1898 letter to an uncle that was published in an Ohio newspaper.

“I am now cut (sic) with four Indians and 12 dogs for supplies,” he wrote. “The truth is we are short on grub and long on gold.”

He was back in San Francisco in 1899, attempting unsuccessfully to make a comeback as a broker of tobacco products. There’s no family lore on whether or not he actually got rich from his claims in Alaska, Veseth said, but El Dorado and America creeks produced significant gold.

He moved his family to Farmington, N.M. in late 1900, where he was involved in the dried fruit business, mainly apples, and organized an effort to get telephone lines. He started a newspaper with the telling name of “Farmington Hustler,” but his scrapbook has few clippings from this period.

Arrival in Albuquerque

In 1903, he moved to Albuquerque, where he was in charge of the reorganization and subsequent sale of the Mutual Automatic Telephone Co. He quickly got involved in running the Territorial Fair, which earned him some criticism when it lost money in 1905.

By 1906, Sellers was back to his publicity-hound ways. His scrapbook is thick with newspaper clippings from this period, including one detailing how he caused a local sensation by ordering two Oldsmobiles at the same time.

At a time when dirt streets and horse-drawn carriages were the norm, Sellers was an advocate of the car and paved streets. He was the first vice president of the New Mexico Automobile Club when it was formed in 1908. For all that, he was a notoriously bad driver who was no stranger to one-car accidents.

“My father didn’t want me to travel in a car with (the colonel),” Veseth said.

He’d developed land and built some houses in what is now EDo, but it was in 1906 that he launched the University Heights subdivision, which was his breakthrough development. As it was built into an upper-middle-class neighborhood, Sellers kept one entire block vacant for decades.

“When I was young, my father told me the reason my grandfather didn’t sell the block was because that was where he buried his hunting dogs,” Veseth said.

A ‘live wire’

An Albuquerque resident for only eight years, Sellers ran for mayor largely on the strength of his reputation as a booster of what he called “the city of progress.”

“We have the best city and most energetic people in New Mexico,” he said in a news article on the eve of the April 1, 1912, election.

His campaign theme was to conduct government affairs like it was a business, which has since become a cliché in politics. The Albuquerque Morning Journal endorsed Sellers, describing him as a “live wire” and his opponent as a “peanut politician.”

Sellers was elected and unabashedly undertook public projects that benefited him as a land developer. He started a street-paving program and expanded the city water system in the Southeast Heights. Critics were told that development was good for the local economy.

He established a program charging nominal rents for farmers to grow produce on city land to sell at local markets, thus saving consumers from paying the cost to truck in produce grown at out-of-state farms.

Albuquerque was described as full of “saloons,” not bars as we call them today, at the time.

“The saloons which prove troublesome places should be put out of business and licenses revoked without any discussion,” he said.

Sellers stirred up a controversy in 1913 when he proposed the placement of warning placards outside houses with tuberculosis patients inside. He didn’t go through with the proposal.

In 1914, he lost his re-election bid by a close vote, but later served in the state Senate as the only Democrat in the 1920s. Clippings in his scrapbook trail off and end after the re-election loss.