Inaugural BF Historical Exchange Forum draws crowd

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The inauguration of the Bosque Farms Historical Exchange Forum kicked of Sunday at the Bosque Farms Community Center.

Bob Courtney, the forum director and president of the Bosque Park Neighborhood Association, said he had planned for 100 people but had expected about 50 to show up, so he was beyond thrilled when close to 90 attendees filled the center for Dr. Richard Melzer’s presentation on the history of Bosque Farms.

Ungelbah Daniel-Davila-News-Bulletin photo: Dr, Richard Melzer, an author and a professor at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus, spoke about the history of Bosque Farms at the inaugural Bosque Farms Historical Exchange Forum.

“My wife, Mary, and I have really worked hard to set this up to preserve the history of Bosque Farms, while also celebrating the history of our historical family along the Rio Grande corridor,” said Courtney. “I like that terminology, ‘historical family,’ because we like to include everybody.”

He considers the Rio Grande corridor to include Isleta, Peralta, Tomé, Los Lunas, Los Chavez, Belen and Bosque Farms. His hope, once the forum becomes more financially sustainable, is to involve the whole state in the project.

But for right now, his emphasis is on Bosque Farms, saying making the forum a reality has been a “monumental effort” of the community coming together.

Vice president of the forum, Mike Romero, of Bosque Farms, said he got involved because he thought it was a very worthwhile project to educate young people about their community.

During his introduction, Courtney thanked former Bosque Farms Mayor Wayne Ake, who is now a village councilor, for his support of the forum, and the continued support of current Mayor Robert Knowlton.

Among many other individuals and organizations, he also thanked the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts and the Valencia County Historical Society for their “moral support,” saying without their help the forum would not be where it is today. He also thanked Jan Quigley, Ruth Romero and Benny’s II for donating food.

“That’s what I’m looking for, people to come to me and say, ‘Bob, what can I do to help?’ and that’s what’s starting to happen,” he said. “You can’t just do this all by yourself, and for that help, I’m deeply appreciative.”

Courtney conceived of the idea to begin the forum after realizing that the community’s history would be quickly forgotten if measures were not taken to preserve it in ways that include audio and video recordings of the oral stories of elders and long-time residents of the area. Sunday marked the debut of the forum’s first of many planned talks.

“I couldn’t be more pleased to have Dr. Melzer be here to talk about the history of Bosque Farms,” said Courtney, introducing the historian to the front of the room.

Melzer proceeded to spend the next hour captivating the audience of members young, old and every age in between about the history of The Farm — from the Dust Bowl era to the present day.

During the 1930s, the Dust Bowl reeked havoc on the country, displacing many people, especially those from Oklahoma and Texas, who were no longer able to survive on their land as farmers.

“It was said that if you were from Oklahoma and lived in New Mexico, you didn’t have to be homesick, you just had to look up to see Oklahoma (in the dust),” joked Melzer. “It was said if you sat down for a meal, dust would cover your food.”

The extreme dust was the result of poor soil conservation and over grazing, and the outcome was a migration of “Okies” to the West in search of jobs and a more optimistic future.

These individuals, who were mostly married and whose average age, said Melzer, was 39 years old, traveled down old Route 66 from Texas and Oklahoma to California, travelling right through New Mexico. He said at that time, there was a store in Los Lunas that would give these migrants $5 worth of gas just to keep them moving along since they had enough “poor people” living there already.

“It’s amazing, just amazing the misery these people went through,” said Melzer, who used a projector to show the audience pictures of families sitting atop their possessions piled high in the back of rattle-trap automobiles, or of families simply walking down a dusty dirt road with their few belongings in hand after their vehicle had given out.

“The problem was what to do with so many displaced people,” he said, explaining that in 1935, the federal government came up with a solution — the Resettlement Administration.

A New Deal agency, the new administration created 64 resettlement communities to relocate displaced farmers on, four of which were in New Mexico and one in present-day Bosque Farms.

“Nobody else wanted it,” said Melzer of the former Los Pinos Land Grant.

He said that after the death of Ed Otero, the land went to the federal government.

“But it had problems,” the historian said. “We look back and wonder what the federal government was thinking settling here.”

The land’s problems included about 280,000 cottonwood trees that had to be cleared, the sandy and alkaline soil and the swamp land than needed to be drained in order to begin farming.

All the same, 59 families were located here, the first family arriving on March 1, 1935. A lottery was conducted in which families drew names from a hat to find out what farm they’d work, each averaging about 53 acres.

Some of the families were able to build homes, some lived in the barns that Ed Otero had left behind, sectioning off their living quarters by hanging carpets. Then, 17 individuals were told by the project manager that they had to leave because there were too many people living there, said Melzer.

After hunting for the “smoking gun” in the historic tale, he found a memo from the governor’s office that identified the “real” reasons the individuals were told to leave. These reasons included the person being too old or ill to work the land, while others were targeted for being “troublemakers.”

The people responded with meetings and protests, but in the end were forced on to other resettlement communities.

“You have to admire these people,” said Melzer. “They were angry, frustrated, but they went about things peacefully.”

He said the federal government planned each farm down to how many trees it could have and which way the windows would face. Each family had to have an annual budget approved by the project manager.

In the end, the people “voted with their feet,” and by 1938 most of the original families were gone.

“That was probably the low point in the community’s history. The rest is all uphill,” said Melzer, explaining that the government learned from their mistakes and began involving the farmers and asking their opinions on matters.

A second wave of migrants moved in and by the 1940s there was a community council and school house. The focus also switched from dry-land farming to diary production and 31 dairies sprang up, the last one finally closing in the ’90s.

Individuals could also buy their own homes, but only two of the original 59 families ever got to own their home — Ray Mitchell and George Wood.

Melzer says he is amazed at how much Oklahoma culture still exists in the community. He said 41 of the original structures still remain, including the Village Hall and the Cox farm.

Margaret Gutierrez, who moved to The Farm in 1976, said she didn’t know much about Bosque Farm’s history despite having grown up in the area.

“Anything across the river was way over there,” she said, adding that the presentation was “very well versed” and gave her a lot of insight into the community’s history.

Mary Chamberlain, who moved to Bosque Farms in 1959 and whose husband was the first police chief, said her favorite part of the presentation was remembering how hard times were for those people that came to New Mexico during the Dust Bowl days, who were homeless and didn’t have jobs and were struggling to survive.

Courtney and the members of the forum welcome the public to their next presentation, which will be by B.G. Burr. The topic is the road to statehood, and will be held from 2 to 4 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 9, at the Bosque Farms Community Center.


-- Email the author at udavila@news-bulletin.com.