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Wagon Mound's Bean Day Turns 100

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
          WAGON MOUND — We make our pilgrimage today along the storied Santa Fe Trail, aiming toward a little rock outcropping, shaped like a prairie schooner, that overlooks the village of Wagon Mound.
        We have one thought in mind: beans.
        If summer is drawing to a close, a long holiday weekend is approaching and you've got beans on your mind, Wagon Mound is the place to be and has been for 100 years.
        A friend of mine who grew up in Wagon Mound was 14 before he even knew there was a holiday called Labor Day.
        That's because when the rest of the nation is celebrating Labor Day on the first Monday of every September, Wagon Mounders are gathering for Bean Day, a festival that glorifies the humble pinto bean. They've been doing it for 100 years, ever since Higinio Gonzales and some buddies cooked up beans in wash boilers behind the schoolhouse at harvest time and Bean Day was born.
        A Bean Day highlight is the annual Bean Day parade, in which high school bands, campaigning politicians and random Wagon Mound residents march five blocks up Railroad Avenue, then turn around and march five blocks back.
        In a small town, you run out of parade route fast. Or as Zach Montoya, a Wagon Mound native who, at 97, is almost as old as Bean Day, explains it, "People want to see the other side of them, I guess."
        Bean Day consists of more than the famous double-sided parade. Over the three-day weekend, there is also a dance or two, the state's largest amateur rodeo and a Monday lunch-hour feed for thousands that features — all together now — beans.
        And that means that this year, like all the others since 1910, pounds and pounds of pinto beans are being washed and cooked until they're tender and scooped onto paper plates along with barbecued beef, coleslaw, sliced pickles and a flour tortilla and served for lunch. For free.
        Free beans?!?
        Wagon Mound was astir in preparations when I paid the village a visit to learn more about this generous offer. I met Bean Day Association Secretary Ron Luebke, a Wisconsin transplant, on Railroad Avenue. We went looking for Luis Lopez, the man in charge of Bean Day food preparations, and found him within minutes in his pickup a few blocks away.
        Lopez revealed to me the secret of Bean Day beans: onions, salt pork and red chile powder cooked in huge pots in a fire pit underground. No one grows pinto beans around Wagon Mound anymore — the Dust Bowl put an end to that — so the village buys its beans. This year's 300 pounds are coming from Estancia, Lopez said. Add to that 1,200 pounds of beef roasts. The population of the village will swell to several thousand this weekend, and a couple thousand lunch plates will be handed out.
        Wagon Mound being Wagon Mound, Luebke, Lopez and I had been chatting in the middle of Railroad Avenue for a few minutes (and not impeding traffic because there was none) when Nick Pino drove up and stopped his pickup in the other traffic lane.
        He's the Bean Day Association chairman and also a Wagon Mound native. Pino has missed one Bean Day in his 52 years on this earth.
        I asked Pino whether Bean Day, which originated as a harvest festival, is really about beans anymore.
        "Bean Day is about culture and tradition," he said. "It's about families getting together and reminiscing about the old Bean Days or reminiscing about their school days and talking about their grandkids. That's what keeps Bean Day going."
        Kicking about town with Luebke, I had noticed a weedy field near the rodeo grounds that had been mowed and leveled by some volunteer with a tractor. And the rodeo bleachers and picnic tables in the park that had been painted by volunteers. And the neatly stacked oak logs ready to fuel the 40-foot-long cooking pit in which Bean Day beans and beef roast overnight. We had run into Theresa Carmody-Hamrich and Betty Rankin, who were trying to whip a downtown storefront into shape for the Bean Day silent auction.
        Then Eloisa Montoya, Zach Montoya's 95-year-old wife, told me about the Friday night bean-cleaning parties at the firehouse she has taken part in for decades — Wagon Mounders, mostly women, painstakingly picking stones and dirt out of beans for hours.
        Every step in the preparation for the three-day event involves people in Wagon Mound getting together and working together — not for money but for something more enduring. Everybody pitching in is the only way a town of 300-or-so people has managed to feed a couple thousand people and put on a rodeo every year for a century.
        Why would a town put so much effort into feeding strangers and keeping Bean Day alive?
        Eloisa Montoya said it's simple. "That's the only day that Wagon Mound shines."
        UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Leslie Linthicum can be reached at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com.

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