In mid-August, David Maes was down in the Ranchos Valley, tending to a 100-tree apple orchard that’s been in his family for generations.
The fruit on the branches blushed with color, signaling the final days of summer and the start of the fall harvest. This year’s is special – as it marks the 100th anniversary since the first tree was planted.
Maes’ grandfather, Fidel Torres, planted the first row in 1920. Then another the year after that, and then another, until more than 100 trees shaded the valley, where Torres lived with his wife, Elvida Struck, and their 11 children.
“He had a strip of land that went all the way from 518 to the Ranchos Highway, all the way down through the valley up into Llano Quemado, which was very common in those days,” Maes said during an interview at the Taos News in August. “Everybody owned large pieces of land and everybody had farm animals and orchards and that’s how they lived.”
That history matters to Maes in a way it probably doesn’t for many other people, especially those whose roots in a particular place don’t run as deep as his do in the Ranchos valley.
Like many other generational Hispanics in Northern New Mexico, Maes feels that the story of the people who came before him is integral to his own, and therefore worth tending to, like the trees.
That connection to the land and people of Northern New Mexico is the reason why Maes knew that he would never put down roots anywhere else.
Today, as a member of the Taos County Historical Society, he is known as a knowledgeable historian. He easily launches into lengthy discussions of Comanche raids, Catholic influence and how one Spanish lineage connects to another.
But Maes also developed a knowledge of the wider world before he decided it was time for him to settle in the valley where he was born.
‘I need to go out and see the world’
Growing up in Ranchos in the 1950s and ’60s, Maes remembers riding with his sister in the back of his parents’ Studebaker on the way to Taos Plaza and passing neighbors along the way who still drove horse-drawn wagons.
“In those days, everyone knew everyone else,” Maes said. “It was a very tight-knit community. At least half our time was spent meeting and greeting.”
Maes attended St. Francis Catholic School in Ranchos, which was run by Dominican nuns from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He went on to middle school in the Taos school system, where his father worked as a junior high principal. At Taos High School he was senior class president and captain of the football team. Upon graduation in 1966, he went to University of New Mexico, majoring in sociology and minoring in psychology.
In the early ’70s, Maes left Taos County for a few years to become a social worker, but he didn’t stray farther than Albuquerque and Las Vegas, New Mexico. He returned home in 1974 to resume living with his parents and worked for the local child protective services office.
“I was single and I was pretty much carefree, and I remember coming home from work one day and calling several of my friends to go out and have a beer with me and everybody was married and nobody wanted to have a beer with me,” Maes recalls.
He said to himself: “What am I doing here? I need to go out and see the world before I settle down like these other guys."
The sea calls
That August, at 25, Maes signed up for officer training school with the U.S. Coast Guard.
“I liked the mission of the coast guard, which at that time of course was saving lives, search and rescue,” he said. “It looked like a real job, instead of just going out and preparing for war, which is really what all the department of defense services do.”
Many firsts came all at once: He had never been out of New Mexico before, never been on an airplane or a ship before. He had never seen the ocean.
Maes boarded an aircraft in Albuquerque on his way to Newport News, Virginia, with a final destination of Yorktown, Virginia, where the US Coast Guard Training Center was located.
He graduated four months later as a junior officer. He believes that he was “the first native New Mexican to have earned a commission as a Coast Guard officer,” but has never been able to verify that claim.
His first duty station was based out of New Orleans, Louisiana. After that, he had options as to where he would go next.
“I always knew I would return home to retire, so I decided to travel as much as possible while I was on active duty,” he said. “I requested, and usually received, orders to various overseas duty stations.”
Maes decided first to go to Guam, a tiny U.S. island-territory of only 210 square miles in the Western Pacific. He worked as a buoy tender, a job that required him to maintain and replace navigational buoys in the ocean.
After two years, he traveled to his next duty station in Puerto Rico, another territory located in the northeast Carribean Sea, where he developed a specialty stopping drug traffickers.
His son, Dominic, was born there in 1985, and after a 12-year stint in the service, he returned home to New Mexico to focus on being a father.
Maes remained in Taos for 10 years, during which time he resumed his career in social work and worked as a juvenile probation officer. But as a Coast Guard reservist, his old job kept calling him back. He answered in 1998.
“I was recalled to active duty to assist with specific missions, all involving maritime law enforcement,” he said, adding that his fluency in Spanish made him an especially attractive candidate for the job.
In Haiti, the Dominican Republic, return trips to Puerto Rico, and his final duty as Coast Guard Attaché in Mexico City, where he worked with the Mexican Navy, Maes spent much of his time stemming drug trafficking, as well as human trafficking.
He met his wife, Margarita, while stationed in the Dominican Republic, where he was “in charge of a team and an operation to interdict drugs coming up from Columbia into the south coast of Hispañola,” he said.
During his final two years of service, he helped to promote the first maritime law enforcement agreement between Mexico and the United States, which was signed by the Mexican Congress in the fall of 2007, shortly after Maes retired.
“There were many folks who worked on the landmark agreement,” he said. “I was proud of the achievement, and glad to have played a part.”
Returning to his roots
Maes’ father, Abiguel, passed away three months before he retired, so he moved into his family home in Ranchos de Taos when he returned to the United States.
Over the 10 years that followed, he immersed himself in community service.
In 2008, he accepted an invitation to join the Ranchos Neighborhood Association and two years later became president. He worked on land-use plans for his hometown and helped halt the development of a proposed Dollar Store in Ranchos.
Since then, Maes has embraced a role as a local historian.
From 2011 to 2012, he served as a board member with Taos Historic Museums. He has been a Taos County Historical Society member since 2008. His achievements include authoring several essays on the history of the area.
Folklore and preservationist
“He does a lot for us. He is one of my board members and he’s in charge of folklore and local history, but he’s also a very active member of the preservation committee,” said Ernestina Córdova, president of the Taos County Historical Society.
Córdova grew up with Maes in Ranchos and nominated him for an Unsung Hero award this year.
“I know he’s very, very active at the church,” she added. “I know he reads and is always helping them with the enjarré (the annual re-mudding) of the church.”
Maes is also currently involved in restoring the historic Talpa torreón. Roughly translated to “keep” in English, the structure served as a kind of watchtower during Comanche raids in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“It’s one of only two torreónes left in Taos County,” Maes said. “According to some other research, there were probably 40 or 50 of them throughout the county back in the Comanche days. The reason I’m so involved in this one is it belonged to my great uncle, Antonio Vigil.”
Maes said tests performed by the University of Arizona date the structure to 1820 or 1830.
Of all his projects, the Torres orchard remains one of the most reliable places to find Maes these days. It remains one of his favorite pieces of history to keep alive, along with the help of four other owners.
“Together we care for the orchard, pruning the trees, irrigating, and harvesting the apples every fall,” he said. “We keep the orchard going in remembrance of the many years of hard work my grandfather invested. And, oh boy – what good apples!”