The Tondre Family


Whenever Los Lunas lawyer Tony Williams hears news about a police shooting, he thinks of his grandfather — legendary lawman Joe Tondre — and how he never fired a shot at anyone.

“My grandfather told me many times, with solemn pride, that he was grateful he never had to fire

Photo courtesy of Tony Williams: Joseph and Ruth Tondre met when he was transporting mentally ill prisoners to Las Vegas, N.M. The lawman courted Ruth through love letters.

a shot at a man,” Williams said.

The value Tondre placed on non-violent law enforcement left a profound impression on him.

Tondre was an outstanding marksman with a six-shooter and could keep a tin can dancing on the desert sands, emptying round after round. But to fire at another man, to take a life, was something he never did. Williams said his grandfather’s attitude contrasts so sharply with the bloodless, sanitized gunfights portrayed in Western movies he saw as a boy.

By the time Williams was old enough to have memories of his grandfather, Joseph F. Tondre III was in his 70s and spent much of his time entertaining a steady stream of visitors in the sunroom of his home next to the old Simon Neustadt general store, near where the Village Inn is today.

Tondre’s days as a two-term Valencia County sheriff in the 1920s followed by seven years as a U.S. Marshal, then a second stint as sheriff as well as warden of the state pen were over, but he had plenty of advice to offer, much of it in the form of old Spanish sayings.

His wife said he had a Spanish proverb for every situation, including his political philosophy: ” Perro que no sale, no encuentra hueso. — Bone will not come to dog, dog must go to bone.”

Tondre was born in Isleta in 1883. He spoke French and German among the family, Tewa and Spanish among his boyhood friends.

“He learned English last, as his maturity and the growing influence of the American expansion into New Mexico merged,” Williams said.

“Spanish, the variety spoken here, was really his primary language,” Williams said, “which he reverted to as his fluid mind failed in the last months of his life.”

During those last years, Tondre would repeat the phrase “viejo y lento — old and slow,” recalls Williams’ second cousin, attorney Tom Garde of Los Lunas

There has been a Tondre in the Rio Abajo since 1864.

The Los Lunas family’s lineage began in the Isleta Pueblo, where Joseph and Josephine Tondre settled after coming to America from the Alsace-Lorraine region of France. They came to New Mexico by wagon train on the Santa Fe Trail, leaving Kansas for drier climate, prescribed for Joseph’s tuberculos

Their wagon contained enough provisions to start a new life in a place described as fine wine country and a good place to settle by Bishop Lamy, who had written to family back in France about his new home. The four Tondre children and an organ also were in the prairie schooner. The organ ended up in Isleta’s Catholic church.

Once settled in Isleta, they opened a trading post they ran until 1890, two decades after Joseph died. He had been the pueblo’s first postmaster.

Josephine — belovedly called “Nana” by the Indians — was a highly respected curandera. She frequently went to Santa Fe on the Indians’ behalf and taught them how to cope with the new American ways. She also was the first to translate Catholic prayers in Tewa, the Isleta Pueblo language.

For helping to convince the Pueblo inhabitants to let the Santa Fe Railway lay tracks through their land, Josephine was given a lifetime pass on the railroad.

In 1876, she bought 51 acres and a house in Los Lentes for $5,000. Soon the land was planted with grapes and, years later, while Josephine and her oldest boy, Joseph, operated the trading post, her two other sons oversaw the vineyards. The Indians ran from Isleta to Los Lentes to work in vineyards for 50 cents a day.

The Tondres, including young Joseph, drove their horse-drawn buckboard wagon around New Mexico, selling sacramental wine to the churches along with private sales of wine and a fine brandy.

Williams’ mother, Anne, who died this January, recorded a family history for the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts in 2005. In it she recalls how the bishop loved to visit her parents and drink Tondre brandy. According to the account book, a 50-gallon barrel of brandy sold for $50.

Sheriff Joe Tondre was infamous for always getting his man.

One old, yellowed clipping from the local newspaper has a criminal taunting the sheriff to try to catch him. That’s exactly what Tondre did, following clues that took him through New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and California until he finally got the crook.

Another story, this one written in 1934 shortly before Tondre left his U.S. Marshal’s post, begins: “One prisoner lost out of some 6,000 handled — and he jumped a train close to the border and beat it into Mexico — is the unusual record of retiring (Marshal Tondre).”

Appointed U.S. Marshal on June 13, 1926 by President Calvin Coolidge, Tondre was presented a special gift by his friends back home a month later — a 10-carat gold badge, with a large diamond on top, above an engraved eagle with a small ruby in its eye. Valued at $250 at the time, the marshal was seen wearing it from time to time.

On the back is the inscription “From admiring friends in Valencia County, July 15, 1926,” said Tondre’s daughter, Patsy Peterson of Santa Fe, who has the badge, minus one diamond.

Besides getting his man, Tondre also got the girl.

How Tondre met and married Ruth Powers was retold by historian Richard Melzer in a 2004 News-Bulletin article, entitled “Los Lunas Love Story.” Their story goes like this:

Tondre was transporting a mentally ill prisoner to Las Vegas, N.M. While there, he met the Plaza Hotel’s lovely young desk clerk. Flattered by many a hotel guest, Ruth brushed off the lawman’s prophesy that she would be his wife someday.

Unlike the others, Tondre was persistent in his courtship. He wrote daily letters to the charming young woman, and volunteered to transport prisoners to the state hospital in Las Vegas just to see her.

They married in 1921. He was 38; she was 18.

They had a 10-day honeymoon in El Paso, which gave workers time to finish the fine home Tondre had built and furnished for his bride upon their return to Los Lentes.

The home, made of sod bricks, was modern-looking for the 1920s. Located just south of where the Village Inn is today, Tondre converted the attic into two upstairs bedrooms as their family grew.

A sunroom was added on the south side of the home years later. Ruth insisted it have a cement floor, to catch the ashes dropped from politicians’ cigars, and a fireplace for the tobacco-chewers to spit into.

With her husband known as “Mr. Republican,” Ruth said she must have fed every politician in Valencia County over the years.

When he retired as marshal, Tondre served on the school board for two decades and, from 1951 to 1952, he was warden of the state penitentiary in Santa Fe.

During his first year as warden, daughter, Patsy, got married.

“My sister, the prison bride,” is how Joe likes to call the affair.

“I always wanted a home wedding,” Patsy Peterson said, “so the home wedding I could find was at the pen.”

She and Douglas Peterson were both University of Colorado seniors. His Lutheran minister married them and they’re still together after 62 years.

“The prisoners were all so excited,” she recalls. The wedding photographer was the man who took the men’s mug shots and “he was so excited, he dropped his camera and none of the pictures came out.”

Being the first grandchild, Tony Williams was there.

“When he was 2 years old, (Tony) was at my wedding, being baby sat by a murderer,” she said.

Joseph F. Tondre IV was born in 1924, during his dad’s first stint as sheriff.

Elected in 1921, he served until 1924. After an unsuccessful run for governor in 1940, Tondre put the sheriff’s badge back on from 1941-1942.

That was when son Joe went overseas to fight in the Army during World War II. When he returned to the states, he moved to California, where he still lives.

“We always had wine at the table,” he recalls. “Dad had a glass of wine at every meal.”

And, every fall, “Dad would work the grapes (into wine). He’d come home and his feet would be purple,” Tondre said.

By this time, the Tondre family’s 30,000-vine vineyards — planted by Josephine back in the 1870s on the west side of N.M. 314 — was long gone, but a small, private vineyard remained near the Los Lentes home.

“It was where the Village Inn parking lot is,” said grandson Tony Williams.

Conflicting stories have been told as to why the winery closed in the early 1900s.

“The old grandmother (Josephine) made them tear up the vines because the men were drinking too much,” recalled Anne Williams in her oral history.

Tony laughs. “I’m sure Prohibition helped,” he said of the winery’s demise.

He too has stories about turning grapes into wine. “As a young boy, up until I became a teenager, I remember going out and pressing grapes.

“I also remember getting sick because of drinking too much grape juice, before it fermented.”

All the work was done by a wine press that grandmother Ruth gave to the Albuquerque Museum after Tondre’s died at the age of 84 in 1968.

Fittingly, cousins Tony Williams and Tom Garde, both Los Lunas lawyers, represent a combination of Tondre’s love of politics and the law, as well as both sides of the political aisle. During the mid-1980s to 1992, Williams was a Republican state senator while Garde was district attorney.

Williams remembers his grandfather banging out letters, with two fingers, on the typewriter. He wrote to congressmen, governors, friends and colleagues, “petitioning for one thing or another.

“He wrote mostly in English, but many letters to friends and acquaintances were in Spanish, each with flawed spelling and grammar that reflected a formal education that lasted only a few years,” Williams said.

“He was a well-read, self-educated man with a broad view of the world around him,” Williams said of his grandfather. And, he said, “he used his personal diversity of culture reflective of all of New Mexico to influence people.”

He could speak to any group in New Mexico, Williams said, and leave the impression “he’s one of us.”