By Susan Guyette
New Mexico’s rural historic buildings, as sites of rich history important to a past-present-future continuum of cultural practice, are treasures. The Mora Valley contains numerous facilities that reflect architectural style and carry community memories of an era of traditional cultural practices. Renovating and using these buildings is inspiring cultural pride and increasing learning for cultural retention. Renovation of the St. Vrain Mill in Mora is a vital example of historic preservation in motion.
A Vibrant History
Around 1835, the settlement of San Antonio and San Gertrude (now Mora) began with 76 families, primarily from Las Trampas, Picuris and Embudo. Building the acequia system was an essential part of the settlement process that enabled agriculture to flourish.
Land grants under Spanish and Mexican law established land tenure and a unique settlement pattern, with the land above the acequias used mainly for grazing and wood gathering, and the common lands below for agriculture—allowing people and culture to flourish. The pattern of long lots, which made possible access to a range of ecosystems that support self-sufficiency, continues today. This settlement pattern differs sharply from the Anglo method of dividing land into large, square parcels—a contrast that is of interest to today’s visitors to the area. Settlement brought the introduction of a variety of crops that formed a regional diet. Cantaloupes, watermelons and apples were staples, along with grains processed at the local gristmills, or molinos, located near rivers so they could be powered by water.
Major change occurred in 1847 as Gen. Philip Kearny claimed the territory for the United States. A nearby market for farm and ranching products along the Santa Fe Trail and Fort Union enabled the valley’s economy to flourish. Fort Union, an important military outpost in the Civil War era, was situated a half–hour north of Las Vegas. The Santa Fe railway created markets for Mora’s crops.
The first mill, built in 1864 by the French-Canadian trader Ceran St. Vrain, is now a central focus of the Mora Arts and Cultural Compound. Later, the Cueva Mill (now the Salman Ranch raspberry farm), the Sánchez Mill, the Cleveland Roller Mill and the Pendaries Mill supplied flour and grain to the army outpost and to commercial companies in the region. This market declined with the closure of the fort in 1891, the development of roads and subsequent diminished use of the Santa Fe Railroad.
Cultural diversity came to the area through homesteading in eastern Mora County in the late 19th century through the mid 1920s, as families came from Texas, Oklahoma and other regions to stake a claim to 160 acres. Many of these claims were consolidated over time into larger ranches, and grazing cattle became a major industry of the valley. This change in settlement also brought a devastating reduction to many Spanish land grants.
Restoration efforts on the historic St Vrain Mill are now underway, include repairing the collapsing east wall, roof and window. Funding has been secured for this phase and is expected to cover restoration through 2018. When additional funding is secured from donations, interior restoration will cover cultural center functions, including spaces to teach the arts on the second floor, and a combined visitor center and space for talks (community and visitor audiences) on the first floor. Planned cultural center activities are addressed in the recently completed Mora Arts and Cultural Compound Cultural Plan.
The St. Vrain operated as a mill until 1922. The mill’s machinery was sold and the structure was occasionally used as a warehouse. Though over the last 75 years or so the building fell into disrepair, it is still one of the most impressive structures in Mora.
The St. Vrain Mill was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and the list of Ten Most Endangered Historic Places in New Mexico in 2002. In 2013, several members of the Mora community established The St. Vrain Mill Preservation and Historical Foundation (www.stvrainmill.org) for the specific purpose of buying and restoring the mill. In June 2015, with generous donations from foundation members, the project reached its initial goal of purchasing the mill. Progress since then has included securing funds for Phase 1 restoration, which will save the building from further deterioration.
The foundation commissioned both a “Historic Structures Report” documenting the mill’s historical and architectural features and a structural analysis to determine the most practical method to stabilize the foundation and repair the walls. These activities have since been funded in part by grants from the New Mexico Historic Preservation Department and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The organization recently completed the most significant restoration task, stabilization of the mill’s foundation. Efforts going forward include wall repair, window replacement and many other smaller projects that can be done by volunteers and represent opportunities for youth training in restoration skills.
A Cultural Future
The Mora Cultural Compound is part of a network of historic districts and structures in Mora County forming a cultural landscape, an important setting for linkages relating to cultural continuity. The St. Vrain Mill is the anchor of the compound and a future cultural center.
An historic theme of “Valley of the Mills” holds promise as a way to integrate cultural arts, history and new economic directions. Two of the mills—the Cleveland Roller Mill and the Cueva Mill—are restored and, along with the St.Vrain, combine for an interesting visitation experience. A rich history related to agriculture is central for arts and culture activities in Mora. Arts of the Mora Valley reflect the close connection between the church and farming. San Ysidro, the patron saint of farming and farm labor, as well as San Juan Bautista, the patron saint of irrigation, continue to be honored in retablos and bultos.
Bringing the community together to tap resources for restoring the Arts and Cultural Compound is a focal point for increasing community engagement—and a project to rally around. These renderings show planned uses of the three-story structure for cultural teaching and exhibitions. For more information go to www.stvrainmill.org
¡La Cultura Cura!