Taos was first colonized by Spain in 1615 after first having been visited by Captain Hernán Alvarado 75 years earlier. When the conquistadors arrived in this area, they would have encountered the Tewa Indians and others who had been here for hundreds of years.
Land grant settlers built the historic plaza in the 1790s in part for protection. The large square was surrounded by adobe buildings and it had no outward facing windows in order to enhance its defenses. During times of conflict, people and their animals would gather in the plaza. The plaza now serves as a tourist destination, but is still a gathering place for the local townspeople.
One hidden surprise on the plaza is in the old courthouse building. Upstairs in a large courtroom are frescoes painted for a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in the 1930s. The four artists are known as the “Taos Quartet” (Emil Bisttram, Ward Lockwood, Bert Phillips, and Victor Higgins).
Taos is famous for its being a haven for artists and there are also many museums to visit. We chose the wonderful Millicent Rogers Museum on one of our day trips into the city.
Millicent Rogers, perhaps most famous for her relationship to Clark Gable, made Taos her home to recover after their breakup. She was a fashion icon and a Standard Oil heiress. She used her enormous wealth to acquire many Southwest sculptures, paintings, jewelry, and other collectibles. She also designed many pieces of fine jewelry while in New Mexico. Unfortunately, she died young at age 51. Millicent had been frail since childhood following a bout with rheumatic fever. After her demise, one of her sons, Paul, was determined to establish a museum of her acquired works in her memory.
Interestingly, the collection is housed in the former home of a close friend. The home is a labyrinth of rooms and each highlights a specific type of regional art.
The house surrounds an open courtyard that displays pieces from the museum’s art collection.
Over the years the collection has expanded to thousands of pieces which include pottery, textiles, jewelry, gold-like straw works, and religious iconography. The exhibits are rotated frequently so you will see something new even if you visit the museum multiple times.
We had many museum options from which to choose, but we felt that we had made an excellent choice.
Perhaps the most famous site in Taos is the Taos Pueblo. Maps, magazines, and brochures will feature the iconic adobe structure that is at the heart of the community. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has been inhabited for over 1,000 years.
Student led tours begin at the St. Jerome Chapel and ours was well attended. Again no photos were allowed inside but this Mission Church’s interior resembled that of the San Francisco de Asis Church. There were several things of note, mainly that the Virgin Mary was the central focus of the chapel. She is dressed in light blue to represent the annual monsoon rains. While 90% of the Taos Pueblo people are Catholic, their religion is a mixture of Catholicism and, according to our guide, an “earth religion” that they do not discuss with outsiders. She also told us that their language had never been written down.
Part of our tour was to see the ruins of the old San Geronimo Church. The remaining bell tower is now surrounded by crosses and the courtyard serves as a cemetery. It was explained to us that the US Army attacked the village in 1847 in retaliation for the murder of the Territorial Governor Charles Bent. Over 150 of the residents had barricaded themselves in the church for safety, but it was destroyed and all of the occupants killed.
We were able to visit a privately owned home and had an interesting conversation with the owner. It was then I realized that the remaining residents still do not have electricity or running water. We also gained a better understanding of the annual work required to maintain the adobe walls made of clay and straw. Water is carried to the homes from the Red Willow Creek which runs through the Pueblo. This stream is fed by the sacred Blue Lake which is located in the nearby mountains, not too far from Mount Wheeler, the highest peak in New Mexico at 13,161 feet.
The pueblo is dotted with “hornos” which are outdoor clay ovens still in use. The hornos are heated with cedar wood and later the ashes are removed before adding the food to bake. Many of the merchants sell baked goods, such as breads and pies, to visitors.
In fact, many of the houses are used by merchants selling art, food, water, and fry bread. There are less than 10 families that live permanently in the Pueblo though many in the surrounding community come for festivals and other events.
This is a wonderful place to photograph with the numerous angles, earth-tones, and vibrant colored accents. When you visit, you are transported back in time and you truly do get a sense of what Pueblo life is like. One thousand years of existence can do that.
We are constantly reminded that we really are “piddlinaround”. I am so thankful that we can take it slowly and explore an area without rushing about. The Bighorn has allowed us to do so and we feel fortunate to have this wonderful opportunity.
Next, we travel to the “Enchanted Circle” of NE New Mexico.
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