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Cabezon Peak rises against the distant sky in the ghost town of Cabezon. Photo credit: —Barb Belknap

Ghost towns were once breadbaskets

—Amy Griffin, Sandoval Country Tourism Department

West of Zia Pueblo, about a thirty-mile drive from San Ysidro, lies a deeply cut, dry riverbed, surrounded by sagebrush and cacti. Vastly different a century ago, the Rio Puerco fed natural grasses that stood “belly to a horse,” and enticed many to move to this area, then known as the breadbasket of New Mexico.

For decades the Rio Puerco had been a vital part of life in Sandoval County, nurturing several farming and ranching settlements. Fields of corn, beans, and melons grew well. And the abundant grama grass fed cattle and sheep.

Cabezon was first settled by Spanish-American sheepherders in the 1870s. La Posta, as it was originally named, was a small single-street town with a trading post, which serviced Navajos and travellers heading between Ft. Wingate (Gallup) and Santa Fe. It was also the central town for the Rio Puerco communities, including Guadalupe and San Luis. In 1881, two young partners Richard Heller and John Pflueger purchased the trading post, and by 1894, they did enough business for Heller to buy out Pflueger.

The quest for more power didn’t stop there—as the town’s first postmaster, Heller officially changed the community’s name from La Posta to Cabezon.

The Czechoslovakian immigrant, called ‘Gold-Tooth’ by the Navajos, and a ladies’ man by others, was about forty when he proposed to an already-engaged Beatrice Gonzales of Corrales. Wed in 1904, the couple stayed together for 43 years until his death in 1947. The region’s heyday had already passed by the 1930s as the Rio Puerco continued to dig deeper into the soft desert sand, causing the water table to lower.

From 1933 to 1940 Rita Leyba grew up on a farm near Guadalupe, southwest of Cabezon. Drinking water was scarce, so her father Liberato would have to ride into Guadalupe to fill up barrels for both his family and his animals. Life was hard and secluded, but all the families depended on one another to make ends meet.

People bartered whenever possible. Rita’s father sold pelts, both wild and domestic, at the Bernalillo Mercantile forty miles away. The journey back then took one and a half days. Twice a year, the family would load up the wagon and wake up early to make the journey. At night, they would camp about a mile off the trail.

“It was very dangerous at that time,” Leyba Last told a researcher in 2013. Some parts of the region “were known as safe havens for outlaws.... The law in the county was not very responsive to those areas.”

In nearby San Luis, former County Treasurer Lorraine Dominguez’s grandparents married in 1919. Lorraine’s mother Gregorita was one of nine children born in the family home that still stands today. While most of the other Rio Puerco communities are rubble now, a handful of San Luis’ structures have been maintained.

The church, morada, and graveside are still there to this date,” Lorraine said.

Will these ghost towns rise again? Lorraine’s brother Larry, who died in March 2012, left a document for the Sandoval County Historical Society with such a hope for San Luis. He’s buried alongside his parents there.

“Today families make their permanent home in the community where electricity and water have been installed,” he wrote. “Sandoval County has even paved the dirt road that stretches from 550 to Torreon. The recent activity has prompted the old-timers to proclaim that a rebirth of San Luis looms on the horizon.

 
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