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Bright Vision of Rio Grande Estates

Developers pitch friendly folks and sunshine to sell properties

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(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 has 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.)

It all began with a newspaper ad on Sunday, Jan. 8, 1961, when the Horizon Land Corp. ran a large ad that appeared in 20 major newspapers across the United States. These 20 newspapers included the Atlanta Journal in the South, the Minneapolis Star in the North, the Baltimore Sun back East and the Denver Post out West.

The six-column sized ad promoted land sales for investment and retirement homes to be built on the vast open mesa east of Belen. The new community was to be called Rio Grande Estates.

The ad and its response

Horizon’s ad enticed potential land buyers with exuberant praise of central New Mexico. According to the ad, the region enjoyed 350 days of “bright, healthful” sunshine each year. The climate was considered “one of the most healthful in the nation.”

The Manzano Mountains and the Rio Grande Valley were unsurpassed in Western scenery. The ad quoted Ernie Pyle, the famous World War II correspondent, as saying, “of all the places in the world that I have seen, Albuquerque and the Rio Grande Valley are the most beautiful spots of them all and where I’ll make my home.”

Rio Grande Estates was said to enjoy a “prime location” as a “suburb” of Belen and the nearby “booming” city of Albuquerque, 32 miles to the north. Belen was also described as a “charming” small town with a “rich and romantic history.” Belen was reported to have good transportation as well as “modern schools … shopping areas, churches, a hospital and congenial social and recreational activities.” The “majestic” residents of Belen were considered “the most friendly folks you have ever seen.”

The response to Horizon’s ad was overwhelming. In the week after the advertisement appeared Horizon, the Belen city government, the News-Bulletin and the Belen Chamber of Commerce received thousands of phone calls and letters of inquiry.

With 145 letters received on a single day (Jan. 11, 1961), the chamber of commerce hired a new staff member just to keep up with its incoming mail. Most inquiries came from northern states, especially Minnesota, still suffering from the extreme cold and snow of winter. At its weekly meeting, held at Gil’s Bakery, chamber of commerce leaders reported that potential out-of-state buyers especially wanted to know about temperature range, days of sunshine and precipitation.

The News-Bulletin was inundated as well. Letter writers asked questions regarding such important concerns as food prices and the availability of good doctors. Some even asked about farming opportunities and mineral rights, although most people were far more interested in investment and retirement than employment. At least one writer asked the News-Bulletin’s editor, “If you find time drop me a line about the Estates. [I want to know] something other than contained in the ads.”

Horizon executives reported that the response to their newspaper ad for Rio Grande Estates far surpassed the response to ads regarding any other of their corporate projects. Even businesses expressed interest in Rio Grande Estates’ abundant land, good transportation, fine climate and “great reservoir of [local] labor.”

Big plans

Based in Tucson, the Horizon Corp. was a land development operation eager to build new communities near fast-growing cities of the Southwest. The idea of creating whole new communities was hardly original in the post-World War II period.

Eager to satisfy the huge demand for housing to accommodate returning veterans and their baby boom families, builders like the Levitts transformed isolated fields into new suburban towns (Levittowns) in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Puerto Rico and, later, Florida.

The Horizon Corp. had already made considerable progress with one of its first communities, Paradise Hills, launched on Albuquerque’s West Mesa in 1960. Horizon planned other ambitious new communities near Tucson and El Paso.

Horizon hoped to match or surpass Paradise Hills’ success in Rio Grande Estates. Horizon’s president, Joseph “Jerry” Timan, had purchased 100,000 acres of New Mexico rangeland from Gen. Thomas Campbell, who had acquired the land in the 1930s when it was part of the old Belen Land Grant. In buying this property, Horizon became one of the largest land owners in all of New Mexico.

Jerry Timan knew that much of the success in developing Rio Grande Estates depended on gathering strong local support. He and other top Horizon executives traveled to Belen to meet with local civic groups and explain how their vision of Rio Grande Estates could benefit everyone in the greater Belen area.

In mid-January, Horizon Vice President Sid Nelson spoke to the Belen Chamber of Commerce to report that Rio Grande Estates included enough land for 30,000 home sites. He informed his audience that an Albuquerque firm was already building a 30-foot wide road through the property.

Jerry Timan soon followed, speaking to business and community leaders at the popular Owl Steak House in Belen. Timan introduced himself as a former New York City real estate attorney who had come out of retirement to lead the Horizon Corp. because he saw so much potential in creating new communities in the expanding Southwest market.

Timan proudly showed his audience pictures of how well Paradise Hills was developing. Timan simply asked the people of Belen to “have faith in us” as Horizon strove to make similar progress in Rio Grande Estates.

Horizon’s public relations director, Hank Sauro, was the next corporate executive to visit Belen. Sauro spoke to 200 business and school leaders at the old Belen High School cafeteria. He announced that no fewer than 12,000 people had bought Rio Grande Estate lots in the first 90 days since Horizon’s ad had appeared.

With a touch of hyperbole, Sauro asserted that “The impact of the activities of the Rio Grande Estates on Belen is beyond the imagination of the people of Belen. I have never in my life experienced the wave of enthusiasm that the Belen land situation has awakened among the American people.”

Sauro announced that “no other community in the country today is receiving as much publicity as your little city of Belen.” Belen was clearly at “the gateway to success.”

Sauro believed that people were buying land in Rio Grande Estates to leave crowded cities and escape from population centers “that may be exposed to nuclear warfare” at the height of the Cold War.

The Cuban missile crisis had brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in the early 1960s. Horizon asserted that “Few portions of the United States will be exempt from the greater part of such fallout [should a nuclear war begin]. Among the areas so exempt are Arizona, Western Texas and New Mexico. Purely by coincidence, all of Horizon’s developments lie outside this heavy radio-active fallout zone.”

Horizon could not have known that with hundreds of nuclear warheads stockpiled in the Manzano Mountains east of Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, it would be a prime target in a nuclear war. Rio Grande Estates and the entire Rio Abajo were clearly located in one of the most dangerous “radio-active fallout zones” in the country.

Coming to see the land

Horizon executives predicted that as many as 7,000 visitors would visit Rio Grande Estates in 1961. Impressed by this spike in tourism, the News-Bulletin began printing lists of out-of-state visitors who arrived from week to week.

Sixteen thousand dollars worth of lots were sold on one Saturday alone. In one sale, a New York City restaurant owner flew to Albuquerque and took a taxi all the way to the Rio Grande Estates’ sales office. By the time he returned home, the man had bought eight lots for himself and eight more for his wife, using cash to close the sale.

A visitor from the mid-West also flew in by plane and also took a taxi to Rio Grande Estates, where he bought two acres of land, despite a sandstorm with 35 mile per hour winds. Hardly discouraged, the optimistic investor minimized the sandstorm, saying, “That’s nothing. You should see our snowstorms” back home.

Land sold for as little as $695 an acre, with little down and payments of only $10 per month. With land selling at a brisk pace, Horizon soon enlarged its sales staff to four employees.

While many potential buyers visited Rio Grande Estates in person, many more purchased land sight unseen. One such woman, from Portsmouth, N.H., admitted that “sometimes it seems rather a foolish thing to do, but it does give us some happy daydreams. Many of our friends think we are stark raving mad, but we enjoy the thoughts of the sun beaming on our New Mexico,” compared to the cold, damp weather on the New England coast.

The Horizon Corp. ran new ads in 1962. Many appeared in large newspapers, as when an insert called “Horizon in New Mexico” appeared in the New York Times. Other ads were more local, appearing in Albuquerque’s Journal and Tribune.

Horizon also enlisted the help of several nationally-known radio and TV personalities. A group of five radio personalities visited Horizon’s offices in Tucson and subsequently talked about Horizon’s new communities, including Rio Grande Estates, on the air.

Tony Marvin visited Rio Grande Estates in April 1962. A former master of ceremonies on the Arthur Godfrey Show, Marvin praised New Mexico’s “invigorating air” and inspiring “land space.”

In August 1962, Horizon advertised that recording artist Earl “Scotty” Scott of the Grand Ole Opry planned to move to Rio Grande Estates and build a large home. Scott had been introduced to the new community and its potentially bright future by his manager, Rio Grande Estates resident Richie Johnson.

Thousands responded to these marketing tactics, arriving in Rio Grande Estates in their own cars or on Greyhound buses decked with large signs announcing, “We’re Going to Beautiful Rio Grande Estates.” In the summer of 1962 a steady stream of visitors arrived to inspect their land and consider buying additional property.

Horizon drew particularly large crowds when it offered a series of Sunday barbecues at Rio Grande Estates. The company served more than 10,000 guests that summer, with many drawn to the events by ads in the Albuquerque Sunday Journal, as on July 8, 1962.

Gilbert Tabet catered the barbecues from his Circle T drive-in, cooking and serving with the help of family members, such as his brother, Ron, and workers such as Phil Griego. The holes used to cook the meat over hot coals were so large that Gilbert and his crew used a back hoe to dig them. Jim Sloan recalls “tons” of coleslaw. While many came just for the food and entertainment, many also came to consider buying land. Lots sold at the rate of over 100 per week.

The beat goes on: 1963

Horizon continued its aggressive marketing campaign in 1963. The company especially benefited when anchorman David Brinkley of NBC-TV praised Horizon on his national TV broadcast. The respected newscaster reported that Horizon had “successfully developed thriving towns” by not trying to hide anything from its buyers.

The company, in fact, urged potential buyers to visit, ask questions and see the land first-hand. Brinkley concluded that Horizon didn’t have to deceive the public to make money because it “made enough playing it straight.”

Horizon also continued to exploit the arrival of celebrities in Rio Grande Estates. The company proudly reported that Henry Kirker, his wife and their five children had visited their property at Rio Grande Estates in the spring of 1963. A World War II hero who had escaped from a German POW camp, Kirker found his property so “above my many expectations” that he bought five additional acres. He said he planned to move from his current home in Santa Ana, Calif., to Rio Grande Estates in the “near future.”

Riding on the success of weekly barbecues in 1962, Horizon offered similarly “succulent” meals with “heaping plates of Western fare” in the summer of 1963. Thousands attended, especially on Labor Day weekend when a skydiving competition was held in the skies over Rio Grande Estates. Skyjumpers from across the Southwest joined Army, Air Force and Navy aerial teams in what was billed as the “Annual Southwestern Invitational Skydiving Championship.” Six thousand spectators watched 500 jumps on that holiday weekend.

To entice additional customers to visit Rio Grande Estates, Horizon offered a “revolutionary new round-trip Travel-Allowance offer” in 1963. The expense of one’s trip from anywhere in the continental United States was to be covered “at a generous, standard mileage rate” of 5 cents a mile. The catch: Travelers were not reimbursed with cash. Instead, their travel expenses were credited to payment for the land they purchased. No purchase, no travel reimbursement.

Visitors to Rio Grande Estates could stay in places such as the Rancho Verde Motel in Belen, the Auges’ tourist cabins on River Road or, as of May 5, 1963, the new Rio Grande Estates Motel. Built and originally managed by Herman Tabet, the Rio Grande Estates Motel held its grand opening with a beef barbecue dinner and a skydiving event that featured skydivers “spinning down from the sky in a thrilling exhibition.” Phil Tabet also remembers “Peanuts the Clown,” who entertained kids with his juggling acts and tricycle tricks. Free pony rides were available as well.

Visitors were invited to inspect the L-shaped motel’s new guest rooms and modern furnishings. The motel soon reported doing a “brisk business.”

Once completed, the facility was expected to include a 20-unit motel-apartment complex, complete with a swimming pool and a children’s playground. Existing landowners could rent apartments and enjoy the motel’s amenities while their homes were being built.

Potential landowners could stay at the motel, swim in its pool and explore the surrounding countryside while they made their decisions about what (and how much) land to purchase in Rio Grande Estates.

Not all praise

As might be expected, not everyone was pleased by what they found in New Mexico. A resident of Minneapolis wrote that he had seen Horizon’s Jan. 8, 1961, ad in the Minneapolis Star but “would want a lot more information” before ever considering to buy land in Rio Grande Estates.

According to this letter writer, “I came from Los Angles, California, last February along US 66 and from my recollection we said we couldn’t see why anyone wanted to live in either New Mexico or Arizona along that highway. Am wondering if there is so much change just 30 miles” off Route 66 in Rio Grande Estates.

Another critic lived locally. This anonymous letter writer objected when Howard Barman, the editor of the News-Bulletin, suggested that out-of-town visitors could only want to move to Rio Grande Estates if Belen’s homes and streets were in “tidy condition.” Barman had written that “now is the time for everyone to get going to keep Belen clean and bright.”

The anonymous letter writer claimed that the News-Bulletin was only interested in promoting Rio Grande Estates and complaining about “what a dirty little town we have.” The writer informed Barman that many local people were insulted because not everyone had enough money “to do all the things you talk about.”

The News-Bulletin’s editor replied that his suggestions were based on what was being done to attract people to new land development projects in Florida. The editor asserted that “we intend to follow through on our ideas” about how Belen’s “tidy condition” could help make Rio Grande Estates a success.

As the biggest land speculation company in the West, Horizon and other companies of its kind received their share of criticism from the national media. The Reader’s Digest ran an article titled, “Beware the Ranchero Racketeer.” A New York newspaper ran a four-part exposé called “Misery Acres.” Time and Newsweek published articles with equally harsh titles and content.

On Oct. 27, 1962, Nation magazine published a scathing article titled, “Sunset Years in the Cactus.” According to author Stan Steiner, “the romantic dreams of [buying land for] $10 a month, the generous ethics of newspaper advertising departments and the facilities afforded by the U.S. Post Office, the sales of desert wasteland, by mail order, have burst into a boom that would have made old Doc Holliday, of Tombstone, envious.”

In the wake of such criticism, Horizon’s stock fell from a peak of 24 1/4 in late 1961 to a low of 5 by the spring of 1963. The New Mexico Legislature passed new laws to curb the excesses of out-of-state land developers, of which Horizon was the most prominent.

But Horizon also had its defenders. Barron’s, an influential business magazine, claimed that Horizon was unfairly painted with the same broad brush as more unscrupulous companies in the industry. While 90 percent of all land developers deserved the criticism they received from the press, Horizon was said to be among the 10 percent on the “up and up.” The company’s business practices were fair and, unlike other companies, it encouraged potential buyers to see available lots before they decided to purchase one or more of them.

Barron’s concluded its article with a quote by Jerry Timan: “It’s quite a thing to build a community and … a thrill to see people move in and build homes and live happy lives. And, incidentally, it’s a way to make quite a bit of money.”

Timan was right, at least about the money. Horizon Corp. reportedly made (some say “pocketed”) $40 million in profits over the next 20 years as Rio Grande Estates grew and expanded, for better or worse.

(Part 2 of this two-part early history of Rio Grande Estates will appear in next week’s News-Bulletin.)

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