An historic record of agriculture

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Textbook history is often the bare bones of the records — the names, dates, places and events of prominent citizens, businessmen, soldiers and wars of conquest or defense.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Rico Gonzales, museum technician and oral history coordinator at the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts, is interviewing local families with a tradition in agriculture to keep a record of the rich Los Lunas heritage.

But what really makes history meaningful are the stories of everyday people.

Rural and small-town histories of people who shaped their communities with the sweat of their brow, the births of their babies, their tragedies and triumphs, are rare.

Yet, these are the stories that provide context for the larger events and form the cohesion of civilization.

Like other small-town museums, the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts has been working to record local family histories and establish a tangible record.

It started with Patty Guggino, the former oral history and heritage preservation program coordinator.

Most of the interviews the museum has, come from her, said Rico Gonzales, the museum’s technician and current oral history coordinator.

The mission of the museum is to connect the current generation with the history of the Los Lunas area and the state to inspire a greater appreciation and understanding of the rich heritage here.

Gonzales wanted to focus on the agricultural heritage to provide a lens through which to view local history, so he aims his oral history interviews at local farming families, he said.

The economic base of the region is rooted in agriculture, from the colonial period to statehood to the present.

The first person Gonzales interviewed was Aurelia Aragon, whose father is the late Alifas Valenzuela, a major farmer of early 20th century in Los Lentes.

His father, Jesus Valenzuela, worked for Joe Tondre II in the mid- to late-1800s. He farmed land a short distance north of Katherine Gallegos Elementary School on Don Pasqual Road.

In return for his labor, Tondre gave Valenzuela land.

Each of his three sons inherited land upon their father’s death, and Alifas Valenzuela grew corn, chile, melons, tomatoes, alfalfa, wheat and oats.

In those days, land was plowed by horse or mule-drawn plow. This practice has its grace. We know today that horse-drawn plows don’t compact the soil like the weight of heavy tractors do.

Alifas was such a dedicated traditional farmer, he used a plow clear into the 1970s after modern machinery had already been available for years.

“His wife, Sara Sais, the daughter of Don Pasqual Sais, liked to bake bread in a traditional horno,” Gonzales said. “The family butchered their animals and canned their meat for the winter months.”

The hired hands loved to work for him because they loved Sara’s cooking. She cooked three meals a day for them.

Alifas sold his produce in Mountainair and at the fiestas in Laguna, Mesita and Isleta pueblos, he said.

“That’s how he was able to provide, he would sell,” Gonzales said. “He called his crops ‘benditos de Dios,’ blessings from God.”

Farming was a spiritual practice to some of the farmers. Crops were the sustenance of life to them, Gonzales said.

Each of the local farmers owned different farm equipment that they would share with each other.

“They had this sense of cooperation, and they relied on one another,” he said. “Alifas owned a baler and an International Harvester thresher.”

Some of the farmers he worked with include Felipe Trujillo, Sara’s brother, Silverio Sais, the Sichlers, his brothers, Senobio and Julian Valenzuela, the Pereas from Valencia, and Pedro Gurule from Peralta.

Another local resident Gonzales interviewed is Jim Sais, Aurelia Aragon’s cousin, and the son of Silverio Sais.

Through him, he learned about George and Mary Sichler II, who came to Valencia County from Tuttlingen, Germany, in 1882, and began farming in Los Lentes next to the Valenzuela land.

“His wife was active in raising chickens and livestock,” Gonzales said. “They had 13 children. Well, 15 altogether, but two died in childhood.”

They’re buried in the family cemetery.

The old Sichler house is still standing in North Los Lentes.

They grew chile, beans, tomatoes, and also had apple and peach orchards.

Their daughter, Ernestine Sichler. married a Sais.

George’s grandson, Ernest Jr., became a prominent farmer in the local community, and his sons, Chris and Steven, run the family business and live in Socorro, Gonzales said.

Another prominent family are the Togamis, who came to Valencia County from Hiroshima, Japan. They moved to Bluewater and then came to Valencia County in 1951.

During World War II, they were able to avoid the internment camps because they were in New Mexico, Gonzales said.

Art Togami began farming in Valencia County and sold his produce at a produce stand at the family home in Valencia.

“Arthur is one of the most revered citizens in the Los Lunas-Valencia area,” Gonzales said. “He is admired for his work ethic and his kind disposition.”

Gonzales hopes more community members will contact him to share their stories and family histories with the museum.

“These are just the families that I know of,” said Gonzales. “But hopefully, some families and individuals will come forward and share their stories of their family’s experience, so we can document it, preserve and display it when appropriate.”

Gonzales is digitalizing his research and entering the files in the University of New Mexico Center for Southwest Research digital archives.

Visitors can view photos in the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts archives, and access local history through UNM’s Center for Southwest Research website at elibrary.unm.edu/cswr/.


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