On the road to Taos

‘New Women’ find a new purpose in life along the Río Grande

By Cindy Brown
Posted 9/28/18

“They do as they please, they say what they think, and nobody cares, for everyone is busy doing likewise.” — Mabel Dodge Luhan in “Ladies of the Canyon: A League of …

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On the road to Taos

‘New Women’ find a new purpose in life along the Río Grande


They do as they please, they say what they think, and nobody cares, for everyone is busy doing likewise.” — Mabel Dodge Luhan in “Ladies of the Canyon: A League of Extraordinary Women and Their Adventures in the American Southwest,” by Lesley Poling-Kempes

Travelers wishing to reach Taos from Santa Fe in the 1920s had two primary choices: either catch the Chili Line (Santa Fe branch) narrow gauge railroad to Tres Piedras and then come to Taos by stagecoach or travel up the road along the Río Grande by horse, wagon or car. 

The road followed the footsteps of Native peoples and what became the Spanish route of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro from Mexico City. In the 1920s, it was described as a “rutted dirt road that meandered for 30 miles up the Río Grande Valley, past buttes streaked with white bones of creatures that antedated the modern traveler by many millions of years,” in an essay by Taos painter Gustave Baumann and his wife Jane. 

The road became a corridor especially for the “New Woman,” the adventurous female from the East who discovered the Southwest as a place to be free and true to herself. Socialite and art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan took this road in 1917 when she came to Taos for the first time. Many other women — writers, painters, businesswomen and patrons of the arts — followed in her footsteps to create new lives, setting down roots here and adding their stories to those of the Native and Spanish peoples who came before them.

Women of high society with financial means didn’t need marriage to survive. Unconventional marriages for these women were not uncommon, like the one of Mabel Dodge to Tony Luhan from Taos Pueblo and that of East Coast pianist Carol Stanley to a younger cowboy, Roy Pfaffle. 

Because traveling from Santa Fe to Taos during this time required hours of bumping over the rough dirt road, many travelers stopped for lunch or longer at ranches along the way that were owned and operated by “New Women.”

San Gabriel Ranch and Carol Stanley 

San Gabriel Ranch is in the historic settlement of Plaza del Alcalde, halfway between Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico and in the center of America’s most famous 50-mile square — altitude 5,800 feet. San Gabriel Ranch is the logical starting point for every variety of trip in the Santa Fe–Taos region.” — Brochure advertising San Gabriel Ranch in Alcalde, New Mexico near Old Santa Fe

In “Ladies of the Southwest,” Poling-Kempes describes the arrival of women from the East who were drawn to experience the freedom and cultures of the Southwest. One of these women, Carol Stanley, was a concert pianist from Nahant island in Massachusetts. She first came to the Southwest in 1915 at the suggestion of friends and family, after a scandalous affair with a violinist. Stanley traveled across the U.S. by train to Evergreen, Colorado and then south to Durango. The trip continued cross-country to reach Kayenta, Arizona. 

By 1916, she had come to Santa Fe and visited a rustic guest ranch on the Pajarito Plateau. During this time, she met Roy Pfaffle, a former forest ranger who owned a trail riding operation. By October, the two had married. The following January, they opened their outfitting business at the Oñate Hotel in Española.

They ran the Ramon Vigil Ranch on the Pajarito Plateau and helped establish Bishop’s Lodge in Santa Fe. Wanting to have a ranch of their own, they purchased 34,000 acres on the eastern bank of the Río Grande in 1920, a place that they named San Gabriel Ranch. 

Guided adventures

The ranch was famous for its excursions to nearby San Juan Pueblo (Ohkay Owingeh) to take in the ceremonies and purchase pottery and weaving. Longer trips by horse went to Taos, Mesa Verde in Colorado, and other points in New Mexico, southern Utah and Arizona. During its peak, the ranch attracted well-to-do families from the East who came to experience the Southwest dude ranch for their summer vacations.

Famous visitors included author Willa Cather and her traveling companion Edith Lewis who came in 1925, before continuing on to Taos. “In late June, Tony and Mabel Dodge Luhan drove the 40 miles from Taos to Alcalde to retrieve Cather and Lewis who spent the next two weeks at Los Gallos with Mabel and her other illustrious houseguests, including D.H. and Frieda Lawrence,” writes Poling-Kempes in “Ladies of the Canyon.”

Although the ranch was prosperous in the mid-1920s, trouble visited in the form of Pfaffle’s drinking and gambling. It was in a poker game that Pfaffle won the deed to a 157-acre homestead near Abiquiu known as El Rancho de los Brujos (The Witches’ Ranch), according to legend. After the couple lost San Gabriel Ranch, Stanley divorced Pfaffle and moved to the property. She renamed it Ghost Ranch. 

Florence Dibell Bartlett

Ownership of the San Gabriel land eventually passed to Florence Dibell Bartlett, a philanthropist from Chicago and herself a “New Woman.” She built a summer house here in 1922 and began to collect Native arts. Her collection formed the basis for the Museum of International Folk Art that she established in Santa Fe. In the 1950s, Bartlett deeded the ranch property to the State of New Mexico and it was later sold to New Mexico State University. 

Los Luceros Hacienda and Mary Cabot Wheelwright 

One of the visitors to San Gabriel Ranch was another New Woman, Mary Cabot Wheelwright. From a prominent family in Boston, Wheelwright first came to New Mexico in 1918 to visit Rancho Ramon Vigil, run by Stanley and Pfaffle at the time. She returned for an extended stay at San Gabriel in 1920. 

“In the autumn of 1923, while out riding with Carol through the golden-leafed cottonwoods of the Río Grande bosque (woods), Mary saw the abandoned, two-story adobe mansion with sagging wraparound porches called Los Luceros (The Stars). Carol and Ray purchased the dilapidated house and the surrounding 138 acres of fields, orchards and outbuildings on the east banks of the Río Grande in January of that year. The Pfaffles were using the property to grow alfalfa and to pasture San Gabriel’s horses, but they had no plans to rehabilitate the old hacienda,” writes Poling-Kempes in “Ladies of the Canyon.”

Soon after, Pfaffle and Stanley sold the two-story house known as Casa Grande (Big House) and 6 acres along the banks of the Río Grande to Wheelwright. Stanley oversaw a massive renovation of the house to meet Wheelwright’s specifications. Stanley hired Ted Peabody of Española to take on the remodel of the territorial-style adobe, incorporating elements Spanish-Pueblo revival architecture and New England touches like bay windows, built in cabinets, bookshelves and closets. 

In her travels through the Southwest, Wheelwright became fascinated by the cultures of the Native people she encountered. She met Diné (Navajo) medicine man Hostiin Klah, an influential spiritual leader. They struck up an unlikely friendship that led Wheelwright to act as scribe for the recording and preservation of Diné myths and music. Her work formed the basis for the museum she established in Santa Fe, known as the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. 

Legends of Los Luceros

Current Los Luceros docent, Marie Markesteyn, who has been studying the property for almost 40 years, says there are many stories — both historical and folklore — associated with the property. Pottery has been found that was made by the Phioge Pueblo people who lived just east of Los Luceros between 1200 and 1555 A.D. When all of New Mexico was claimed for Spain by Don Juan de Oñate in 1598, an outpost was established in this area, perhaps in the room that is now used as the pantry of the big house, according to local tales. There is evidence that a four-room adobe house was built by a member of the Lucero de Goday family during this time. 

The land passed to various relatives and a chapel was constructed in 1779 that still exists on the property, along with the 5,700-square-foot Casa Grande. Buildings on the property were restored beginning in 1999 by Wheelwright’s relatives through the Cabot Foundation. Apple orchards, farm buildings, the original village jail, corrals and irrigated pasture land are preserved at Los Luceros. 

New Women

In “Ladies of the Canyon,” Poling-Kempes points out that Stanley and Wheelwright, along with the other “New Women” who came to travel and live along the road from Santa Fe to Taos “had rejected the disillusionments, rigid structure and materialism of modern life for the psychological space, spiritual freedom and unconventional society of New Mexico.”

Much like the 1920s, today both women and men who seek a new way of life with freedom and adventure are drawn to the beauty of life along the Río Grande in New Mexico, establishing roots and joining the long-established Native and Spanish cultures to create their own legacies.

Today at San Gabriel Ranch and Los Luceros

San Gabriel Ranch

 Sixty acres that once formed the northern part of the San Gabriel Ranch is now home to the New Mexico State University Sustainable Agriculture Science Center. Research projects here focus on the agriculture of north-central New Mexico, including greenhouse crops, fruit growing and studies of red chile and bee health, says Steven Guldan, superintendent of the center. Experiments with compost can be seen inside the old corral of the San Gabriel Ranch. The southern portion of the property now houses the Santa Maria El Mirador program for people with disabilities. 

Los Luceros 

The State of New Mexico purchased the property in 2008 and the Department of Cultural Affairs acts as the steward for the site. Los Luceros is open by appointment and for special events that invite visitors to tour the property and learn about its history. 

In addition to preserving the 148-acre hacienda, there are plans to partner with other groups to preserve its agricultural heritage, says Dr. Patrick Moore, director of historic properties for the Department of Cultural Affairs. In his two years in the position, Moore has been exploring ways to tell the story of Northern New Mexico through historic properties like Los Luceros. “It is such a pivotal property, not only for its location on the road from Santa Fe to Taos but, also for its connection with ancient Pueblo People and with El Camino Real,” says Moore.
Working together with the U.S. Parks Service, the history of Los Luceros is being preserved and shared. In addition to the Amigos de Los Luceros, who help with the upkeep of the buildings and grounds, a new partnership is being formed with the New Mexico Acequia Association that will allow the association to move its offices to the site’s Victorian house. “What better place for the association to be located than Los Luceros?” asks Moore. “Here we have a long history of irrigation from the Río Grande during the time of the Spanish farms. With the acequias we are still a vibrant producing agricultural site.”
For more information, visit ranchoslosluceros.org or newmexicoculture.org. 


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