(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society.
The author of this month’s column has taught at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus since 1979, when it was located in the Rio Communities Plaza. He was lived in Rio Communities for 31 years and will serve as the grand marshal of the Rio Communities annual parade on Saturday, Sept. 19.
The author wishes to thank Paul Baca, Bob Davey, Teresa Scott and Jim Sloan for their kind assistance with this two-part series.
Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the author’s only and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)
Last week’s edition of La Historia del Rio Abajo described plans for the creation of an entirely new community, known as Rio Grande Estates, on the vast mesa east of Belen and the Rio Grande.
Established by the Horizon Land Corp. of Tucson, Ariz., Rio Grande Estates were marketed in newspapers across the United States.
Thousands came to see the property; many bought one or more lots. Most bought acres of land sight unseen. Horizon drew its share of early praise and criticism as one of the nation’s largest, most successful land development companies of the early 1960s.
Time to build
Many families who bought lots in Rio Grande Estates had no plans to move to New Mexico in the foreseeable future. But quite a few were eager to relocate and build right away. The new community needed restrictive covenants and Horizon provided them as early as March 1961.
Most of these early covenants seem reasonable. Each one-acre lot could have only one single-family residence. Houses were to be built at least 25 feet from the front property line and at least 15 feet from each side or rear property line.
“No building or wall shall be erected until the design has been approved by the seller or his assignee.”
No business operations other than arts, crafts or professions operated by members of the family occupying the dwelling were allowed. No exterior advertising was permitted. No livestock or poultry could be kept for commercial purposes. No mining or oil drilling were allowed. All trash must be kept in sanitary containers. And at least four trees “shall be planted on each lot within 60 days of occupancy.”
By May, a model home had been constructed, although it was soon used by Horizon as its sales office. Sunshine Valley Homes built three additional model homes. Each model was furnished and landscaped, using individual water wells. Sunshine Valley Homes were available with variable designs, including flat or pitched roofs.
The largest Sunshine Valley model had three bedrooms, one and 3/4 baths, a kitchen, a living room, a family room and a two-car garage. Selling price: $11,800 (or $93,650 in today’s money). Another model had the same accessories, but came without a living room and had a one-car garage. Price: $10,095 (or $80,119 today). A third model had two bedrooms, one bath, a family room, a kitchen and a utility room. Its price: $9,000 (or $71,428 today).
Other construction companies offered models of their own. Tabet Construction Co. of Belen started two “very attractive models” in mid 1962. One, a flat roofed, three-bedroom house was named after Herman Tabet’s daughter, Debbie. The second, also three-bedrooms, came with a pitched roof and was named after Herman’s son, Larry.
By December 1963, newspaper ads described large, three-bedroom stucco houses with one and 3/4 baths plus built-in appliances for $16,000 ($101,500 today). A “moderate size” three-bedroom, pueblo style dwelling with garage sold for $13,000 ($101,500 today). A new model, called the Royal Greenwood, went for $12,250 ($95,700 today). The slightly more expensive Royal Barton sold for $13, 250 ($105,500 today).
Clearly, landowners had a variety of moderately priced, attractive new homes to choose from. Most of these original homes can still be seen on half- or one-acre lots, mostly between Hillandale and Goodman avenues.
Unlike many new housing “projects” across the country in the post-World War II era, Rio Grande Estates was not destined to be a monotonous, cookie-cutter suburban development.
Not the first “Estates”
Archeologists discovered that the folks who built in Rio Grande Estates were not the first residents to ever do so. In late 1968, four workmen found Indian ruins at the corner of Horner and McDougal streets. Called in to examine the ruins, Ronald Switzer, curator of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico, believed that the ruins were 600 to 900 years old, dating back to between 1050 and 1350 AD.
The four-eight room adobe dwelling was buried 5 1/2 feet below the surface of the ground. Workers also found pottery shards, manos and metates (used to grind grain) at the site.
Most interestingly, archeologists discovered the skeleton of a male who had apparently died of natural causes. By examining the condition of his teeth, archeologists determined that the man had been between 25 and 35 years old at the time of his death.
Curiously, all items, including the skeleton, were not brought back to the Museum of Anthropology, but rather kept for display at the Rio Grande Estates’ sales office. One wonders if these artifacts, especially the skeleton, helped or hindered land sales.
Wild animals were also sighted in or near Rio Grande Estates. In addition to the usual rabbits, snakes and prairie dogs that inhabited the mesa, a News-Bulletin reporter saw a coyote and a herd of 15 to 20 antelope, mostly mothers with their young, just a few miles southeast of Horizon’s sales office.
Rio Grande Estates could claim to be the first human settlement in this area in the 20th century, but it could not claim to be the first human settlement—or animal habitat — on this site in history.
Most 20th century residents spoke highly of their new community. In 1962, after a year in her new home on a one-acre lot, Martha Atkinson praised Rio Grande Estates as “an ideal place to live.” Martha claimed to be able to see miles of mountains and much of the river valley from her home’s large picture windows.
She was also “enchanted by the brilliant sunsets’” She claimed that she could grow almost any kind of flower or plant in her yard. She had to mow her lawn every four or five days and even had to dig up some of her many plants “so that we will not have a wilderness.”
With new residents from across the country, Martha wrote that Rio Grande Estates were “quite cosmopolitan.” The people of Belen were described as “friendly and progressive,” with many excellent schools, churches and recreational facilities. Martha had clearly honed her public relations skills as the able secretary of Belen’s chamber of commerce.
Reading of such supposedly ideal conditions, more than 2,800 Rio Grande Estates landowners responded to a 1962 survey regarding their plans for the future. Almost 90 percent reported that they had purchased their land as investments, but planned to build on their property and relocate to Rio Grande Estates within five years. A 1963 survey with more than 4,000 responses produced similar results.
By November 1961, Horizon could report that Rio Grande Estates’ future residents came from every state in the country, including the new states of Hawaii and Alaska, and from several foreign nations, including Panama, Canada, England and Germany. Nearly half of all lot owners lived in New York and California.
The next largest numbers came from Illinois, followed by New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Some even came from beautiful Florida to escape that state’s high humidity. On March 5, 1962, the News-Bulletin used front-page banner headlines to announce that “New Mexico Has More Sunshine Than Florida.”
Frank Leonard was a particularly enthusiastic new landowner and home builder. A 61-year-old recent retiree from the Eastman-Kodak Co. in Rochester, N.Y., Leonard and his wife had moved to an apartment on River Road while their new house was under construction in early 1962.
Leonard never tired of boasting about his new house in Rio Grande Estates. He often visited its construction site, talking to the workers and admiring their progress.
Tragically, Leonard never got to move into his new home or enjoy years of retirement in it. He died of a heart attack on March 18, 1962. But he did get to stay in New Mexico. He was buried at a local cemetery.
A “good many” Belenites had joined out-of-staters in purchasing property and moving to Rio Grande Estates. Al Atkinson (a retired Santa Fe Railway worker) built a 2,000-square foot home on his one-acre lot.
Ted Douglas (the Public Service Utilities’ manager in Belen) moved because he liked access to town from an uncongested new neighborhood. Paul Shue (a Santa Fe Railway employee) built a brick house because he liked the Estates’ scenery, reasonable cost and abundant water for his grass and flowers.
Golf course added
Horizon Corp. executives knew that the families and retirees they hoped to attract to Rio Grande Estates would want recreational facilities near their new homes. As at its other new communities in Paradise Hills west of Albuquerque and Horizon City near El Paso, the company quickly made plans to build a golf course to entertain early residents, while hoping to attract new ones to Rio Grande Estates.
As one of its first steps in building a golf course in Rio Grande Estates, Horizon created a 1 1/2-acre Rio Golf Course Lake to serve as a hazard and as a reservoir for the course’s sprinkling system. It took 24 hours to fill the lake with 2.4 million gallons of water.
Rio Grande Estate’s 9-hole, 20-acre golf course opened on Sunday, Sept. 16, 1962. Four professional golfers played an exhibition match, entertaining onlookers with their expert driving and putting skills.
Ralph Sutton was introduced as the course’s first golf pro. Maxine Conant was identified as Miss Rio Grande Estates. Ms. Conant represented the new community in the New Mexico Golden Anniversary Pageant, a competition to help celebrate New Mexico’s fiftieth anniversary of statehood.
Horizon mailed golf course membership cards to all 20,000 Rio Grande Estate landowners as a benefit of purchasing property in the new community. Horizon claimed that with 20,000 “members” the golf club was by far the largest of its kind in the entire United States.
Thanks to the new golf course and other marketing schemes, Horizon was doing so much business that it opened a new sales office near the Rio Grande Estates Motel by 1963. The building included a reception area, five offices, a map room and a pro golf shop.
Baby steps at building a community
It takes more to create a community than building houses, streets and golf shops. Horizon worked to make Rio Grande Estates into a viable community, if only to make it more attractive as a real estate investment. Only baby steps were possible in the early 1960s, but at least they were attempted.
One such baby step was taken in 1962 with the publication of a newspaper called the Rio Grande Chronicle. Printed by the News-Bulletin, the Chronicle was little more than a house organ to promote land sales, but the few issues that survive reveal a great deal about what transpired and what was planned for the future.
The Chronicle didn’t last long. By 1963 it folded to become part of a new publication, called New Horizons, a slick marketing devise to advertise all of Horizon’s Southwest communities, in Arizona and West Texas as well as New Mexico.
In a far larger step, new neighborhood associations were organized in Horizon’s communities by the spring of 1963. Rio Grande Estates’ neighborhood association focused on civic, recreational and social activities. The association also helped raise funds for worthy causes. Known as the Rio Communities Association (RCA) since 1972, RCA ably served the community for more than 50 years before closing this year.
None of these baby steps would have been possible without the hard work of Rio Grande Estates’ dedicated new residents. Men and women such as Peggy Smalley sincerely wanted the community to grow and succeed because they had uprooted their families from often-distant states and had chosen to make Rio Grande Estates their permanent new homes.
Accompanied by her parents and her 1-year-old son, Mark, Peggy Smalley moved from Minneapolis to Rio Grande Estates to escape northern winters and seek a better climate for her dad’s poor health. She had toured Horizon properties in El Paso, Paradise Hills and Rio Grande Estates and was convinced that the community east of Belen was the best for her family’s needs.
The Smalleys arrived in 1965, moving into their new house on Horner Street, built by Austin Capps, a contractor and fellow Rio Grande Estates resident.
Peggy became an active member of her new community from the moment she arrived. She was among the early residents who organized a volunteer fire department in 1966; the department’s first fire truck was parked at Walter Manley’s private residence. Peggy served as one of the department’s first firefighters and later served as the department’s captain and EMT instructor. She also supported the Firehouse Players’ performances at the fire station, when it was finally built in Rio Grande Estates.
And Peggy was not alone. A wall commemorating Rio Grande Estates’ 20th century modern pioneers should be erected just as surely as statues commemorating 19th century frontier pioneers were erected in other new Western towns.
Impact on Belen
As predicted by Horizon Corp. executives, the company’s national sales campaign helped put Belen “on the map.” With thousands of people coming to see and hopefully buy lots in Rio Grande Estates, the News-Bulletin reported that many of these visitors stayed in the area for several days to get the “feel of the community.”
With each guest spending an average of $25 ($200 in today’s money) a day on such things as fuel, food and lodging, the annual impact on the surrounding area, especially Belen, was optimistically predicted to equal $175,000 ($1.4 million today). Belen’s Rancho Verde Motel, Gilbert Tabet’s Circle T and Gil’s Bakery did especially well. Gil Sanchez reported that more tourists ate in his restaurant in June 1962 than had eaten there in June, July and August of 1961 combined.
The News-Bulletin itself profited from many of the people who purchased land, either as investors or as future residents. These families were eager to buy newspapers in order to learn more about happenings that could affect the value of their land or the quality of their future lives in central New Mexico.
As a typical new News-Bulletin reader, W.B. Creighton of Kewanee, Ill., had sent a check for a six-month subscription for what he called a “very interesting” paper. A full year’s subscription cost $6 ($50 today). The twice-weekly News-Bulletin was soon mailed to more than 125 families across the country. Advertisers took note and were more likely to place ads in the newspaper to appeal to its new, expanded readership.
Belen as a whole experienced unparalleled growth in the early 1960s. Two new bank buildings were constructed, including a new one for the First National Bank of Belen (now used as Belen’s City Hall) and one for the recently chartered Ranchers State Bank, which opened in June 1961.
A new Sprouse-Reitz five-and-dime store was built and Becker-Dalies underwent a major remodeling. A new Dairy Queen opened on Main Street and a new post office opened on Baca Avenue. A new Church of Christ building was completed north of town.
Building supply and construction companies profited from these new buildings and the construction of the first houses in Rio Grande Estates. Existing businesses such as Hub Furniture, Buckland Pharmacy, Trembly’s Jewelry and Sugar Bowl Lanes saw increased profits as well.
In July 1961, state highway crews began surveying for the eventual construction of I-25 west of Belen. A long-awaited overpass was also built over the railroad tracks on Reinken Rd., making it far easier to travel between Belen and its eastside neighbors, including residents of Rio Grande Estates.
With so many new construction permits issued in 1961 and 1962, the News-Bulletin called this the greatest building boom in Belen history. Much of this boom was the result of Belen’s role as an important railroad center, but much of it was also caused by the optimism that local businessmen felt with the addition of many new neighbors—and potential customers—east of the Rio Grande.
Just the beginning
By 1963, Horizon had clearly met or exceeded its expectations for growth and profit in Rio Grande Estates. Of course, this early period was just the beginning of the new community’s history.
There would be many other new developments in the coming years, including an enlarged golf course, a new country club, a 53,000-square foot shopping plaza, a firehouse and an industrial park. Churches would be built and the University of Albuquerque (and later the University of New Mexico) would offer classes (and later whole degrees).
Rio Grande Estates would even change its name, becoming known as Rio Communities by the early 1970s. And, after twice rejecting the idea by large margins, residents of Rio Communities voted to incorporate as an entirely new city in 2013.
There would be many challenges, some to be expected in a new community and others that no one could have foreseen in these early years. By 1972, the area included almost 450 single-family houses, 154 townhouses, a 31-unit apartment complex and a 120-unit mobile home park. Miles of roads were paved and parks were built, including one named for Horizon president Jerry Timan.
New businesses like Vito and Vince Roselli’s Rio Communities Service Station, a Pontiac-Buick-GMC car dealership and George and Jeannette Pappas’ Choices restaurant would open. And, in a dramatic development, Horizon vastly expanded its holdings with its $4.7 million purchase of the 47,000-acre Tomé Land Grant in 1968.
The sale of the land grant was extremely controversial, with legal proceedings that dragged on for years. And Horizon Corp., which had avoided legal problems in its early years, became mired down in legal proceedings and class action suits by the 1970s.
In 1981 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) essentially closed the corporation down, citing it for such disreputable practices as misleading ads, mass misrepresentation and overaggressive sales representatives.
Pulling no punches, the FTC concluded that “Horizon’s representations were fashioned out of exaggeration, innuendo, ambiguity, half-truths and omissions of material facts. Horizon lots were, in fact, bad investments with little or no potential for growth.”
Many investors would agree. Writing for the New York Times in 2005, Fred Bernsteinnov described how his father had been scammed when he bought land in Rio Grande Estates from a slick salesman who had visited their Long Island home in 1965. Bernsteinnov remembers that the salesman “laid it on so thick” that Bernsteinnov’s dad was convinced that buying land in the “booming Sun Belt” would “secure his family’s future.”
Bernsteinnov’s mother opposed the purchase, saying that they were just “throwing their money away.” The father prevailed, buying $2,000 worth of property.
Forty years later, the land was valued at only $1,000. The Bernsteinnovs would have done better by just leaving their $2,000 in a savings account. Looking back on the family’s land “investment,” Bernsteinnov—and thousands of his generation—still asks, “What was Dad thinking?”
Organized to help bring order to the near-chaos Horizon had left behind, the Horizon Communities Improvement Association (later called the Valley Improvement Association or VIA) opened in 1976.
A non-profit home and property owners group established to serve as an “interim municipality,” the VIA spearheaded or supported the creation of new communities (like Las Maravillas), parks, roads, a utility company (in operation from 1981-2002) and new schools, on the elementary school, middle, high school and branch college levels.
But all of these developments — good and bad — were far in the future in the early 1960s.
The future looked positive to almost everyone in those early days: Horizon executives, out-of-state landowners and Belenites who moved to Rio Grande Estates or otherwise profited from all the new activity across the river.
The morning looked bright, although, as with New Mexico’s unpredictable weather, many storms lay just ahead for the Horizon Corp. and Rio Grande Estates.