Back in the day before interstates and freeways, most highways were slow two-laners, and air-conditioning as standard equipment in cars was still a few decades off. In summertime, fruit stands were …
Back in the day before interstates and freeways, most highways were slow two-laners, and air-conditioning as standard equipment in cars was still a few decades off. In summertime, fruit stands were particularly inviting to overheated drivers and passengers, and especially backseat children, with offerings of cold — though not refrigerated — soda pop and fresh cherries, and in fall peaches and plums and apricots, melons and watermelons, apples and apple cider. From my childhood trips through the Central Valley of California on the way to Sequoia National Park in the first years after World War II, I remember little else than staring out the backseat window of our 1939 Ford at all the fruit stands we didn’t stop at.
Northern New Mexico still has a good representation of what has become a dying breed — fruit stands that elsewhere are a casualty of four- and six-lane highways, air-conditioned cars, efficient coolers and a fixation on reaching one’s destination as quickly as possible. Highways used to go through the countryside; now interstates bypass it and everything else. But north of I-25, New Mexico is still interstate-less, with US 84/285 from Santa Fe north to Pojoaque being the only controlled-access portion of the road system. As a result, a handful of interesting fruit stands prevail in the Velarde-Rinconada stretch of NM 68 (the Taos Highway) and along US 84/285 (the Chama highway) through Hernandez west of Española.
But fruit stand is a term too narrow for the roadside phenomena of the north. As a novice farmer back in the 1970s, I first sold Indian corn and strawberry popcorn to Loretta and Herman Valdez in Velarde. Loretta was nationally famous for her dried flower arrangements and wreaths, while Herman was an important apple grower in the valley. Their stand — in reality a large metal warehouse with a smaller showroom — was always teeming with workers and customers. Loretta encouraged me and my wife, RoseMary, to turn our rapidly expanding garlic crop into decorative arrangements, which we then wholesaled to her. After the Valdezes retired and sold the property, the new owner turned to selling produce at the Santa Fe Farmers Market and the stand was closed.
Another customer of ours back in the ’70s and ’80s was Anna Mae Salazar, whose unnamed stand in Velarde is immediately north of Black Mesa Winery and attached to Flavio's Farm Service. Anna Mae also creates dried arrangements of flowers and decorative corn and chile — her Flor del Río Decorations. Across the highway lies the Salazar orchard of a hundred apple, peach and cherry trees, plus plots of Indian and strawberry popcorn and chile. In the fall, her stand, like most in the area, is festooned with long ristras of Chimayó and Hatch chile, and wreaths and shorter ristras of fiery chile pequin. Next to the stand is her head-turning rose garden.
Velarde is named after a Velarde, and the most prominent grower of the productive valley is Eddie Velarde, whose 40 acres of apples, peaches, apricots and cherries supply his roadside fruit stand, the Fruit Basket, and his Santa Fe Farmers Market stand. The highway stand is open from June through October. His mother, June, and his sister, Linda, help with the extensive operation. The Velardes have lived in Velarde for 15 generations, according to Linda. Before the days of regular highway traffic, the earlier Velardes sold fruit and vegetables door to door and out of baskets by the side of the road, and also delivered produce to the daily Denver and Río Grande Western narrow-gauge Chili Line trains at either nearby Embudo Station or more distant Española.
A few miles north on NM 68, you pass through the community of Rinconada, site of another venerable fruit stand, established long ago by a Ukrainian immigrant couple, the Sopyns. Besides apples, peaches and cherries from the roadside orchard, the Sopyn Stand sells large bottle gourds, which can be seen drying out in the sun next to the stand. In good fruit years, there are also a number of what we would now call pop-up fruit stands along the highway, selling in-season cherries, peaches and apples, plus roadside pickup trucks laden with Colorado potatoes and California oranges.
Another once-prominent fruit stand corridor is Hernandez, northwest of Española, on US 84 before US 285 splits off for Ojo Caliente and points north. The sole survivor today is Romero Fruit Stand, owned by Jake Romero and established in 1983. The stand is in reality more like a convenience store with a strong emphasis on chile wreaths and ristras, dried chile from Hatch and Artesia, beans and potatoes, and in season green chile from Socorro and local fruit. The store is open seven days a week, except for four national holidays.
Northern New Mexico sights and tastes await visitors and locals who heed the advice and take the time to pause at fruit stands. Here and there will be the collapsing hulk of an old wooden fruit stand that has remained closed for years now, a remnant of a world of narrower highways and slower cars, which to some of a certain age will evoke memories of long-ago road trips and thirst-quenching peaches and apples and ciders and sodas.
Stanley Crawford writes and farms garlic in the Embudo Valley. His many nonfiction books include Mayordomo, A Garlic Testament, The River in Winter. He’s also has written many novels, most recently, Village.
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