In January 2020, a chunk of the north adobe wall inside the historic Kit Carson Home and Museum in Taos collapsed into a pile of rubble.
The collapsed wall became one more reason the Freemasons of Bent Lodge No. 42 - which actually owns the property - wants to part ways and break its lease with the Kit Carson Home and Museum.
Bent Lodge has sued Kit Carson Home and Museum for the return of the property. A hearing in 8th Judicial District Court on the motion to abandon its lease was scheduled for early November.
But last week, Taos News learned the Kit Carson Home and Museum filed bankruptcy on Sunday afternoon (Nov. 8), the day before the court hearing.
"Clearly they knew they were going to lose and so they did this in order to steal jurisdiction away from the District Court. [Bankruptcy] stays any court proceedings," said Lee Boothby, the lodge's attorney,
John Smedly, the president of the Kit Carson Home and Museum board, did not return a call or email seeking comment regarding the bankruptcy filing.
Mason against Mason
The legal fight is pitting Freemason against Freemason.
Smedly is a Mason like his father, John Smedly Sr. Both are lifelong members of the Bent Lodge.
"The Kit Carson Home and Museum leases the Kit Carson House from Bent Lodge. We have a 50-year lease which was signed in 2013 which allows the Kit Carson Home and Museum to operate the building as a museum," Smedly said in an earlier interview.
The collapsed wall was only the latest in a set of problems between the Bent Lodge and KCHM that led to the lawsuit, with the lodge claiming KCHM had failed the terms of the lease, which included repayment of a $100,000 loan.
The lawsuit details the history of the building and the complex relationship with its owners at the Bent Lodge.
A storied past
The Kit Carson Museum is the former home of the infamous frontiersman Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson, himself a Freemason.
While master and father of American Freemasonry, George Washington, is a symbol for Masonry in general, Kit Carson represents Masonry west of the Mississippi. During America's westward expansion in the mid 1800s, otherwise known as Manifest Destiny, President James K. Polk (another Mason) sent cartographers and topography crews to map out routes for the military's move westward to California.
One of these cartographers was John C. Freemont, another Mason. He met Kit Carson on a riverboat outside St. Louis, and discovered that Carson was not only one of the best mountain men but also one of the best guides. He promptly hired him, and it would be through this relationship that Kit Carson would become famous.
Traveling along the Santa Fe Trail, Carson arrived at Bent's Fort in southeast Colorado, where he met the Bent brothers, both Masons, before he headed for the Rockies with Freemont to begin mapping the highest and lowest points for passage. His ongoing adventures have become the stuff of legend.
Many dime-store novels were published during his day called "Blood and Thunder," and Kit Carson was as famous during his lifetime as John Wayne was in his.
Carson was originally a member of the Montezuma Lodge of Santa Fe until he moved his lodge membership to Taos. During the Civil War, the lodge went dark and re-formed some years later. Carson was made a general in the Union Army at this time. He fought two skirmishes in New Mexico but spent most of his time serving as an Indian agent and managing the various Indian wars of the Southwest.
He kept a house in Taos for the majority of his adult life, making it back here as often as possible to see his third wife, a local woman, Josepha Jaramillo (whose sister was married to Governor Charles Bent), and their children. After the couple's death - both died in 1868 - the house fell into disrepair.
After acquiring the property, the lodge transformed it into the Kit Carson Museum. Although most of his personal possessions were sold at auction shortly after his death to support his orphans, Carson's famous Hawken 50 caliber rifle, his double barrel 8-gauge shotgun and his Masonic apron are on display at the museum. Other relics have been recovered and donated over to the museum the years.
But the feud between fellow Freemasons over the lodge's management and care was brewing.
Boothby said there is even more to the lawsuit than the leak and the lease.
"This is a nasty litigation suit," said Boothby. She explained that the agreement between the lodge and the museum has been through many changes over the years.
The Grand Lodge of New Mexico bought the property in 1904, and sold it to the local lodge, Bent Lodge No. 42, in 1916, to keep and maintain it as a memorial to their fellow Mason, Kit Carson.
According to Smedly and an affidavit filed in the lawsuit, the original Kit Carson Museum was created in the 1960s as a foundation. That organization eventually became Taos Historic Museums as new properties (Blumenschein Home, Maxwell House, Morada on Las Cruces Street and the Martinez Hacienda) were added.
As the organization became larger, the Masons felt that the Taos Historic Museums organization was more concerned with upkeep on the other properties and was receiving income from the Kit Carson Home and spending it on other buildings.
"There was a 'splitting of the ways,'" Smedly told Taos News. "Taos Historic Museums removed a significant number of artifacts from the Kit Carson Home and returned the building to Bent Lodge. That occurred prior to the current Kit Carson Home and Museum Board and the 2013 lease signing with Bent Lodge. Since that time, the current board of KCHM has negotiated with Taos Historic Museums for the return of several items to the Kit Carson Home."
In addition, Boothby noted "that the original agreement says it needs to be run by Masons, as Carson himself, was a Freemason."
In 2005, the brethren (as the Masons refer to themselves), voted to run the property themselves under a new organization - Kit Carson Home and Museum. They formed the board and renovated the property, in part with two loans from lodge members, equaling $100,000, according to court documents.
The lodge now says KCHM and its board have failed to continue payments on the loan and blame the organization for the continued disrepair of the building.
"The wall collapse occurred in early November ," Smedly said. "The north wall in the newer portion of the building gave way toward the inside of the room. An area of the wall, approximately 6 by 10 feet, gave way due to saturation from a roof leak. The lodge sent a representative to inspect the damage shortly after the event occurred. Within a few days the master of Bent Lodge came to have a look and offered to split the cost of the repair," he explained.
A few weeks after his initial visit to inspect the collapsed wall, the lodge master returned, saying that the lodge membership had refused to help with the repair but he offered a personal check to help with the problem. "It is a good possibility that the incident contributed to the suit," Smedly said.
As for the ownership of the artifacts, Smedly maintains that the Kit Carson Museum owns all of the artifacts on display, as well as those stored for conservation and, possibly, future display. "The ownership of these items by KCHM was acknowledged in a document signed several years ago by an authorized officer of the lodge," he said.
Taos adobe expert and former contractor Anita Rodriguez weighed in on whether a leak causing so much damage could have gone undetected for so long.
"Absolutely," she responded after viewing the photographs of the collapsed wall. "Especially if stucco was used to plaster over the adobe. The dampness would have gone undetected for a long time, until the wall collapsed, in fact.
"Adobe needs to breathe," she pointed out. "Also, if you look at these photographs, you see there are no water marks on the plaster."
Boothby said, "This goes way beyond the leak. There are questions regarding monies that were given to restore the property, including large sums bequeathed to the museum from Agnes Martin and the Lineberry Estate."
She also mentioned a Walter Ufer painting that is included in the dispute. Ufer was one of the Taos Ten, who were associated with the Taos Society of Artists. His paintings of the West and Pueblo Natives are highly regarded, and fetch high sums at auction. The museum (which has filed a countersuit), wants the painting returned and claims it was unlawfully removed from the premises by the lodge.
While the museum's management was constantly changing, what didn't change was the museum's attraction for thousands of visitors every year.
The museum is currently closed due to current COVID measures, and as of press time Wednesday (Nov. 18), no one had responded to calls or emails seeking comment.
Meanwhile, the future of the notorious frontiersman's legacy remains a question.