Harvest Festival at El Rancho de las Golondrinas
Harvest time at El Rancho de las Golondrinas
The sky at El Rancho de las Golondrinas in the fall is so perfectly blue that it looks as if it were computer-generated for a movie. It is made all the more vivid by its juxtaposition to the various golds of sunflowers, chamisa, turning leaves, and corn husks at harvest. The ranch, a 200-acre spread just south of Santa Fe in the La Ciénega Valley, is a living history museum dedicated to demonstrating as authentically as possible how people lived and worked in Spanish colonial, Mexican, and Territorial New Mexico during the 18th and 19th centuries. On Saturday, Oct. 3, and Sunday, Oct. 4, the ranch holds its annual Harvest Festival. Children and adults are welcome to tour the village and watch and take part in demonstrations of blacksmithing, cider making, sorghum milling, traditional fiber arts, and more.
“Kids ask all the time why the pumpkins at the Harvest Festival have dirt on them. It’s important to show them where their food comes from — how it was grown and still is,” said Sean Paloheimo, the director of operations for El Rancho de las Golondrinas. Though people have always lived in and farmed in the area, the permanent Spanish settlement dates to the early 1690s, after the reconquest of Santa Fe by Don Diego de Vargas. Las Golondrinas was an established rest stop on the trade route from Mexico City to Santa Fe by 1780, but in the latter half of the 19th century the ranch was abandoned. Paloheimo’s grandmother Leonora bought the property in 1932 with her mother. In the 1940s, Leonora’s husband, a Finnish man named Yrjö Alfred Paloheimo — known as Y.A. — had the idea to turn it into an open-air museum. Three decades were spent restoring old buildings, constructing period replicas of certain structures, and bringing in historic buildings from other areas of New Mexico before the museum officially opened its doors in 1972. Ever since, the Harvest Festival has been its most popular community event. Paloheimo, who has worked at the ranch since he was twelve, is in charge of general upkeep, including mud plastering of the buildings and making sure the grounds are in good shape, as well as the care and feeding of the goats, Churro sheep, and burros that live there. He also oversees the historic garden, where crow corn, beans, squash, watermelon, and other crops are grown. The ranch has a paid staff of about a dozen people working in administration, grounds and maintenance, and in the museum proper. The time and effort of about 160 dedicated volunteers is crucial to daily operations and the visitor experience.
The early colonists harvested the land and processed goods for trade, including sorghum molasses. In the Spanish colonial era, sorghum stalks were pressed by hand for their cane, the juice squeezed into hollowed-out logs before it was boiled down and thickened. “They wasted a lot of juice that way,” said Donald Coleman, a volunteer in the sorghum mill. “Our press is stamped Sears Roebuck 1898, and it was a real improvement over using arm power.” Coleman has been volunteering in the sorghum mill with his partner, Keith Austin, since they moved to Santa Fe from California almost 10 years ago. He explained that while there will be molasses to taste at the Harvest Festival, it’s not made on the premises anymore, because the process is lengthy, sticky, hot,
and attracts bugs. The ranch buys its molasses at Natural Grocers. But the sorghum being pressed is real, as are the burros assigned to walk in slow circles, pulling the eight-foot wooden bar that rotates four metal cylinders.
“Harvest Festival is the one weekend out of the year my burros actually work,” Paloheimo said. “They just sit around and eat otherwise.” The ranch currently has four burros. Burros — or donkeys — are small, social beasts of burden, explained Larry Marken, who has worked with the animals at the ranch for almost 20 years. Burros are distinct from horses and mules, the latter of which is a cross between a male burro and a female horse. (Female burros and male horses produce hinnies.) The burros at Las Golondrinas are never ridden, but Marken sometimes leads the less cantankerous ones through the village for a few hours to meet visitors. All visitors are warned not to pet the animals at the ranch, as they are not domesticated. Visitors are also warned to be mindful of low doorways with high, wide thresholds. According to ranch history, doorways in the 18th and 19th centuries weren’t lower because people were appreciably shorter then, but because low doorways were less expensive to make, structurally sound, and provided some measure of defense against intruders.
Jacob and Abby Stelzer are among the youngest volunteers at the ranch. Jacob, who is ten years old, works in the blacksmith forge, and Abby, twelve, cards and spins wool for the weavers. “I like just sitting and spinning skein after skein,” Abby told
Pasatiempo. “I find it very relaxing, and I feel like I’m being productive.” She works with Patricia Tucker, the employee in charge of the Las Golondrinas weavers and embroiderers, men and women who create period textiles for the 32 museum structures. Wool is shorn from the ranch’s flock of Churro sheep and dyed on the premises in the dye shed. Of her young spinning volunteer, Tucker said, “Abby took to spinning like a duck to water. I have very few volunteers who get it that fast. She’s also very good at telling visitors what she’s doing and why.”
Jacob has a small collection of items he’s made, including an over-door hook and a fireplace poker; a long roasting fork is still in progress. “I really like thinking over how things work. It’s like a very technical puzzle — you have to figure out how things fit together, how you’re going to shape things so that in the long run it’s not going to break or be too long or too short.” He is overseen by Roberto Valdez, a blacksmith who has been volunteering at the ranch for 20 years. Jacob’s mother, M’Liss Stelzer, is required to be there as well, because of her son’s young age and the potential dangers of working with heated iron. The Stelzers, who are homeschooled, volunteer once a week when the ranch is open, late spring through early fall. M’Liss considers their time there an important addition to their formal history curriculum.
“We can read in a textbook that people had to smelt their own iron and make their own tools, and it’s one sentence and it’s gone,” she said. “You don’t know what that smells like, what it feels like, or what it sounds like when the hammer hits the anvil. Golondrinas allows you to experience history in a tactile way.” She adds that the rugged simplicity of the ranch has also given them an unexpected gift. “I didn’t anticipate the sense of gratitude we’ve developed for all we have. Jacob has to have a bucket of water in the blacksmith’s forge to cool his tools and put the fire out, and he has to get that water from the stream. There’s no tap. When Abby spins, we understand how much effort goes into making one piece of cloth, and you don’t take your clothes for granted anymore. And being at the ranch, just getting the kids outside to run around in the fresh air, to visit the bullfrogs in the creek, we just soak it all in.” details Harvest Festival 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3 and Sunday, Oct. 4 El Rancho de las Golondrinas, 334 Los Pinos Road $8, discounts available for seniors and teens, no charge for children twelve and under; 505-471-2261
Volunteers Abby and Jacob Stelzer; below, Gloria Ortiz demonstating tortilla making; opposite page, harvest at Rancho de las Golondrinas