Sunday, August 21, 2005
N.M. Homesteader Named New Town After the Capital of His Native Bulgaria
By Toby Smith
Journal Staff Writer
SOFIA Nearly a century ago, a sturdily built man wearing an Ottoman Empire moustache stepped off a ship at Ellis Island. Alone, knowing not a soul, he carried with him a third-grade education, no command of English and just $4.
But he had a dream.
The man, not particularly tall but physically powerful, was determined to own a piece of America.
America was the land of big breaks, the man believed, if you put your shoulder to the wheel. On the other hand, Bulgaria, his homeland, 6,000 miles to the east, was not. No matter how hard you worked, Bulgaria lay broken from revolutions and poverty.
Upon arriving in the U.S., the man labored on railroad crews, in coal mines and in steel mills, socking away what he could. In 1908, he became a citizen.
A couple of years later, he heard that sections of land in northeast New Mexico, a wind-lashed corner on the high plains, were available to homesteaders.
The man paid $40, filed on 160 acres, erected a stone house and planted pinto beans. But he soon realized he was the only person for miles around. To attract more people, he placed ads in Bulgarian-language newspapers in Chicago and St. Louis.
Immigrants from the Old Country responded by arriving at the isolated prairie. And when they did, the man decided to name the spot Sofia.
Curiously, he had never been to the original Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. But he figured it was a special place, an important place, and so was this new one. In fact, he carved a wooden highway sign and stuck it in the ground up near U.S. 64, 11 miles away.
The state of New Mexico didn't like his homemade sign or the name he put on it. Sofia sounded like somebody's girlfriend, officials said.
Nay, nay, the man argued. Not So-FEE-YA. SOF-ya.
Very great city, Sof-ya, he went on. Very old city.
The sign and the name stayed.
And so did the man for a lifetime.
The story of George Belcheff, the sturdily built homesteader, is one of family and farming and, above all, great fortitude.
It is the story of a stranger in a strange land who knew one thing in life: Hard work never killed nobody.
Home on the range
One recent weekday afternoon, George Belcheff's two sons, George and Steve, along with their wives, chatted around a kitchen table in the house where the brothers were reared, in tiny Sofia, N.M.
The Belcheff men talked in awe of their father, as they often do, even though he's been gone 25 years.
"He thought the streets of America were paved with gold if you were honest and worked hard," said Steve, 85.
"Dad wasn't a farmer," said George, 79. "But he wanted the land. To him, land meant that he was somebody."
The sons of George Belcheff left Sofia long ago. In fact, few people today live in the lonely flatlands. A handful of buildings beneath a stand of locust trees comprise the town's center. In the distance slump several battered, abandoned homesteads, reminders of how hard it is to make a living in this dirt-road, see-for-miles hamlet 40 miles southwest of Clayton. Too cold in the winter, too windblown the rest of the time.
Both Belcheff men, like their father before them, have the broad faces and prominent noses of Eastern Europeans. Only when George speaks, which he does with a pronounced West Texas twang, do you realize you're a long way from the Balkans.
"Dad was a strict man," son George said. "He worked like the dickens and expected us to do the same. More than anything, he wanted things done right."
Spurred by George Belcheff's newspaper ads, Bulgarians started coming to Sofia about 1913: first the Tsochefs, then the Varajons, the Doitchinoffs, the Dimitrovs.
One family, Risto and Spasa Naumoff, originally from Macedonia, arrived with their young daughter. In 1914, Vasilca, only 14, wed the sturdy man, then 29.
"Sort of a mail order bride deal," said George.
Soon a daughter, Evanca, was born, then five more children followed. The man built another house, a five-roomer. The smell of cabbage rolls and banitsa, an egg and cheese pastry, filled the little house on the prairie. Then the sounds of laughter and, eventually, English.
The dream drew closer.
Like many Dust Bowl places in the Depression, Sofia made survival Herculean.
"You couldn't plow the fields because the dirt would fly up and hit you in the face," remembered Steve.
To make ends meet, George turned to raising sheep, then cattle. Somehow, some way, he managed to acquire more land.
One summer in the '30s, hungry grasshoppers descended on Sofia, turning the sky black. Undeterred, George Belcheff went after the bugs. He fashioned a poison spreader out of an old axle, pulled it behind a Model T truck and coated his land. The Belcheffs survived.
But other Bulgarians in Sofia did not. Like Grapes of Wrath journeyers in reverse, they fled back to the Midwest, to secure factory jobs in Ohio and Michigan.
"I don't think Dad blamed anyone for leaving," said George. "That just made him more determined than ever to make it here."
When not nursing his land through the droughts, he bought more of it, or assisted Sofia. He badgered the government to build a new school in the town, and got it with a WPA project. He pushed for school buses, and got those, too. He fought for Sofia to keep its post office even as the population, perhaps 200 at its peak, dwindled.
In 1936, to celebrate enduring the punishing years, .Belcheff put five of his six children and his wife in a new Pontiac touring car and headed for the Midwest. There they visited Bulgarians who had left Sofia the one in New Mexico.
Steve Belcheff said his father didn't make that trip to rub in his success. "He drove us there because he wanted to see his old friends."
It's true, added son George, his father wasn't one to boast. "But let me tell you, he sure was proud of what he accomplished in the country he loved."
The railroad finally came to Sofia in the 1930s, on new tracks running from Clayton down to Farley, N.M. Then quick as can be the rails were uprooted to aid the war effort.
World War II made George Belcheff even more proud. The first time he saw his two sons in their U.S. Army uniforms, his eyes went watery.
In 1959, Belcheff and his bride, Vasilca, called "Lucy" by all, traveled back to Bulgaria for the first time. This would be the couple's wedding trip. Belcheff had toiled so relentlessly for 45 years that he never took time for a honeymoon.
Bulgaria was now part of the Soviet bloc, and the Belcheffs encountered trouble moving about, in the capital city of Sofia or anywhere else.
"The secret police followed them everywhere," said son George. "They followed them because Dad was always talking about how great it was in America."
They stopped in at George Belcheff's hometown of Popova, where most of the people, children included, worked in fields that belonged to the government.
"In the United States," George Belcheff proclaimed loudly, again and again, "you can own your own land."
As George kept proclaiming, Lucy grew nervous.
"Apparently," said young George, "the people back there convinced Dad it was best to shut up."
"When he left Bulgaria," said son Steve, "Dad never looked back."
Returning home, Belcheff designed and built a bridge over a nearby creek so that motorists had a shortcut to Farley. He was well into his 80s at the time. Those who assisted complained of his constant demands to do the job right.
When the Sofia school closed in 1963, Belcheff, self-taught in so many areas, but deeply respectful of formal learning, bought the building.
Said Steve: "He didn't want to see it torn down."
In 1979, George and Lucy moved to Clayton. Mighty as his willpower was, tough old George Belcheff could no longer live in the town he created.
He died in Clayton in 1980. He was 95.
The much younger Lucy lived on. She was 97 when she died in 1996.
"I think she wanted to see her third century," said son George. "But she said she really wanted to see her husband more."
The sturdily built man and his wife are buried side by side, in a small, tidy cemetery west of town. "Founder of Sofia," reads the joint headstone.
Four years ago, county officials, similar to the men who had once battled George Belcheff over his sign for the town and for the name he put on it, installed two green street signs in Sofia, the first of their kind here. One sign says Sofia Road. The other says Belcheff Road.
The signs are more than markers; they're monuments. Monuments to a man who knew that a dream comes true for one reason. When he died, George Belcheff owned more than 3,600 acres of land.