“Everyone’s DNA is on that land.”
The Los Luceros story
ON a misty day deep in the gold-vein of fall, the bosque of flaming yellow cottonwoods at Los Luceros seems to conjure the ghosts of those who have passed through these 148 acres on the Río Grande. From Tewa farmers tending terraced gardens to Spanish conquistadors using the river bend as a military outpost, from Mabel Dodge Luhan picnicking on the grounds with D.H. Lawrence to Leonard Bernstein playing a grand piano gifted to the Casa Grande by John D. Rockefeller, from Hosteen Klah and Mary Wheelwright hatching plans for a museum of the American Indian to Muhammad Ali dining riverside with Gregory Hines, the historic estate of Los Luceros might just house the spirit of New Mexico itself, enduring as a centuries-old symbol of regional heritage.
“Everyone’s DNA is on that land,” said Michael Wallis, who wrote the new book Los Luceros: New Mexico’s Morning Star (Museum of New Mexico Press). “There are adobes in that pantry at Casa Grande that allegedly date to 1598.” Wallis is the author of 19 books, including last year’s bestselling The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny. He presents his tome — which examines the storied history of the estate in between Gene Peach’s striking full-page photographs of Los Luceros throughout the seasons — at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 11, at Los Luceros Historic Property off State Route 68 in Alcalde. Another presentation and signing takes place 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 14, at Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe, and Peach’s photographs of Los Luceros are on view at the bookstore through December.
Archaeologists have found thousands of artifacts at Los Luceros, including potsherds from Pioge, an Ancestral Puebloan settlement dating back as early as 1200. By the mid-1500s, those people had moved a few miles south to a place they called Ohkay Owingeh, or the Place of the Strong People. They would need their strength for 1598, when Spanish conquistador Don Juan de Oñate made them swear loyalty to the Spanish Crown and established the nearby San Gabriel del Yunque, the first capital of New Mexico.
Historians speculate that the site served as a defensive outpost until the 1692 reconquest of New Mexico by Don Diego de Vargas. Then, a land grant of more than 50,000 acres was made to Sebastián Martín Serrano, a capitán of the de Vargas force that had taken back the province. Martín and his wife, María Luján, settled in the ruins of Pioge while they rebuilt a nearby adobe house. The couple had 10 children and increased the rooms of the house from four to 24. Some experts posit that the current Casa Grande was built on the site of Sebastián Martín’s original residence.
Archaeologists have found thousands of artifacts at Los Luceros, including potsherds from Pioge, an Ancestral Puebloan settlement dating back as early as 1200.
The settlement Martín had established, La Soledad, became Plaza de los Luceros or Rancho de los Luceros by the mid-1800s, as heirs began to sell off their parcels and the title for the large part of the land grant passed from the Martíns to the Luceros. In 1846, while Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny’s Army of the West delivered New Mexico into the arms of the United States, a son of Los Luceros, Diego Ruperto Archuleta, plotted a revolt against the gringos. When the plot was uncovered, Archuleta fled — but in January 1847, when the Taos Rebellion came to pass, U.S. soldiers burned Archuleta’s residence at Los Luceros to cinders, destroying what had purportedly been the finest library in all of New Mexico.
In the early 20th century, after New Mexico achieved statehood, the property was sold out of the family, but that mortgage was eventually foreclosed upon and Los Luceros fell into disrepair. “Then, in the early 1920s, a ray of hope appeared,” Wallis writes. “A woman from an aristocratic Boston family came to the rescue of the sagging property on the Río Grande. Mary Cabot Wheelwright, a patron of the arts looking for a bit of adventure, purchased Los Luceros.”
Today, the Wheelwright era of Los Luceros is known as the Renaissance of the hacienda. Wallis tells the story of Wheelwright’s 35 years at Los Luceros through a zigzagging tale of several ranches in what he calls “the kingdom of Northern New Mexico” — many of them run by Carol Bishop Stanley, who sold Los Luceros to Wheelwright. Wheelwright’s stewardship of the ranch intersects with the stories of several strong-minded women who made their marks on New Mexico beginning in the 1920s. “I think it’s important to tell the story of that, what I would call cross-pollination, particularly starting in the 20th century, when the Anglo influence was really being felt on the Northern New Mexico culture and way of life,” Wallis said. “All of those ranches touched each other because of the people who were there.”
Mabel Dodge Luhan, doyenne of Los Gallos in Taos, met the new owner of Los Luceros at a San Gabriel party hosted by Stanley and her husband, and soon introduced Wheelwright to an influential coterie of writers and artists. Santa Fe painter Olive Rush came out to Los Luceros to paint whimsical — and enduring — frescoes on the second-floor fireplaces, as Wheelwright renovated the ramshackle Territorial-style Casa Grande, developed gardens, and offered lodging to her friend Hosteen Klah, the Diné artist and medicine man with whom she would eventually found the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. In 1934, a young woman named Maria Chabot arrived under the cottonwoods to photograph Wheelwright’s Native American art collection. She struck up a friendship with the lady of the house that would last 25 years, and eventually came to manage both Los Luceros and Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch.
Wheelwright’s successors at Los Luceros, the art collectors Charles and Nina Collier, also benefited from the interconnectivity of the New Mexico arts scene. Charles was the son of John Collier, a nationally known activist who championed the rights of Pueblo Indians. Charles Collier enjoyed a colorful upbringing during extended stays in New Mexico in the 1920s and ’30s, and never forgot the imposing cottonwoods, the deep flowing río, and the elegant Casa Grande he saw during his family’s occasional trips to visit Wheelwright. As a young man in 1934, he had been the first to show another family friend, O’Keeffe, the majesty of the Chama River Valley, driving the artist out in her Ford sedan to see the badlands near Ghost Ranch for the very first time. O’Keeffe never forgot the favor that changed her life, and in 1958, she returned it, notifying Charles Collier that Los Luceros was for sale.
“The Colliers were remarkable people,” said Wallis, who came to know the couple and their estate in the early 1970s, when his future wife Suzanne was employed at Los Luceros as a translator for the Colliers’ International Institute of Iberian Colonial Art. While the post-Collier existence of Los Luceros
continued from Page 33 was checkered by mismanagement, in 1999 the historic property was bought by Frank and Anne Perkins Cabot, distant relations of Wheelwright. The Cabots oversaw a careful rebuilding of the unstable Casa Grande led by Santa Fe architect Beverley Spears. Spears enlisted adobe restoration expert Ed Crocker to work on the original structures of Los Luceros. “They are rebuilding history — brick by adobe brick,” said one onlooker during the early-2000s restoration period. The Cabots also fostered the establishment of a 5,000-square-foot visitor center, commercial kitchen, and living quarters for a caretaker — a $3.5 million project in its sum. The wool sheared from the resident churro sheep was donated to a group of I traditional local women weavers, the gardens were brought back to life, and the land was cleared of nonnative invasive plants and trees.
2008, the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs signed with the Los Luceros Foundation to purchase the property, ushering in a new era of assured cultural preservation. After Wallis was commissioned to write the story of Los Luceros by former New Mexico Historic Sites director Richard Sims, the author spent a memorable October and November staying in the more recently built River House next to the Río Grande, soaking up the ambiance of the vibrant fall colors and abundant apple harvest. “I wanted to reacquaint myself with the land and the whole spirit of the place,” he said. “In the morning, I’d get up quite early and take my coffee outside on the top veranda, and look at the Río Grande literally right below me, and watch the dance almost every morning of not only golden eagles, but bald eagles fishing those waters. And then a little while later — it was almost like clockwork — three juvenile coyotes who lived down in the bosque would come rambling and sniffing by, and they’d kinda cut their eyes up at me.”
At first, Wallis was apprehensive about the state’s ownership of the property. “When I heard the state bought it, I had mixed emotions, because it could either be good or it could be the doom of Los Luceros. It just depended on what they did with it, how it was handled, who got custody of it.” A 2009 project helmed by Robert Redford — to transform the property into an institute that would offer job training for Native and Hispanic filmmakers — collapsed in 2011, when Gov. Bill Richardson left office.
Wallis has since cautiously changed his tune. “I’m delighted that Cultural Affairs has embraced this place — especially now, with a change of leadership in New Mexico, there’s a chance for that morning star to shine brightly again,” he said. “The state is welcoming camera clubs, civic meetings to be held in the bottom of the River House, the annual open apple harvest for people, schoolchildren — I mean, what a tool that is for the kids.”
“It’s kind of like the Plaza in Santa Fe. The Plaza, I consider a stage for history,” he continued. “Los Luceros is the same kind of place. All kinds of things have happened there. A lot of tears, a lot of joy, a lot of sorrow — the whole mix.” ▼ ▼ ▼
Clockwise from top: Horses at Casa Grande and Mary Cabot Wheelwright on balcony, Los Luceros, 1923, Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian; Maria Chabot at Los Luceros on tractor, undated, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum; Wheelwright and Amigo at Los Luceros, 1924, Mary Cabot Wheelwright Collection; historic images from Los Luceros: New Mexico’sMorning Star, courtesy Museum of New Mexico Press
All contemporary color photos by Gene Peach from Los Luceros: New Mexico’s Morning Star, courtesy Museum of New Mexico Press