Group building torreón in Agua Fría to commemorate area's past

Rick Ruggles, The Santa Fe New Mexican
·5 min read

Apr. 12—The village of Agua Fría boasts its own dynamic history and some resent the notion that it's in the shadow of Santa Fe, its neighbor to the northeast.

Agua Fría has an extensive past as an agricultural hub, and its main road, Agua Fría Street, was long part of the trading route between Mexico and Santa Fe called El Camino Real. Residents of the area in 1835 built their own Catholic church, San Isidro.

And if those elements seem vanilla, the Agua Fría area is where an unpopular governor was captured and beheaded in 1837.

Now, the Santa Fe organization known as Cornerstones and a band of volunteers seek to pay tribute to Agua Fría by building a torreón — a small tower — along Agua Fría Street.

The stone tower, which the builders plan to be 11 to 12 feet high and completed in June, will indicate to those passing by that the dusty village of roughly 3,000 people has centuries' worth of stories to tell.

"This road has a long history," said one of the volunteers, Eddie Montoya of Deming. He volunteered to help build the torreón, he said, because he "thought this would be really special, historic, since I do have lineage from the area."

The torreón stretches 10 feet across at the base and will narrow somewhat toward the top. Such towers were used by Spanish colonials and Native Americans as lookout posts and to store crops, and long ago were found across New Mexico and elsewhere. Entering this structure will be impossible because it will be filled with stone.

Cornerstones strives to preserve communities' heritage, structures and traditions and also offers opportunities for people to work on restoration and construction techniques. Jake Barrow, program director for the organization, said his group chose the Agua Fría project because residents there showed keen interest in their past.

"What impressed me was the active community involvement and the concern and the attention that they were paying" to their village's identity, Barrow said.

Cornerstones brought stonemason Alan Ash from Portland, Ore., to lead the endeavor. Ash said the project will use about 60 tons of sandstone, acquired from a quarry near El Pueblo.

The tower will stand with the help of gravity and the builders' skill, for no mortar, mud, bolts, nails, duct tape or super glue will hold it together. The stones are cut with hand tools and a hammer drill, and gaps between the larger stones are filled with smaller rock.

On a windy day last week, Ash's pants and shirt had a fine covering of orange-red silt. "I'm authentic," he said. "I've got the achin' back." He quoted writer Studs Terkel as saying stonemasons "need a strong back and a weak mind."

Santa Fe County Commissioner Anna Hansen, who represents the area, said the county allocated $60,000 to the project. Cornerstones has chipped in money for an internship and has provided supplies and equipment and coordinated volunteers.

Many towns across the country are being swallowed by their big-city neighbors, Barrow said. In the 1990s, Agua Fría won the "traditional historic community" designation, which provides some protection from annexation.

William Henry Mee, a community leader and an Agua Fría historian, said he believed the towers enabled people to survey vast distances for smoke signals from other communities alerting them to invading Apaches.

"They were used for protection," State Historian Rob Martinez said. "They're part of our colonial heritage."

Mee said the more he learns about the history of the area, "the more I realize how much the elders struggled — especially farmers." Their main crops were corn, wheat, alfalfa, beans and squash, he said, and they frequently traded their commodities in Santa Fe.

But water supplies diminished as reservoirs were built, he said, and Agua Fría's farming tradition became severely limited.

Long before then, various peoples enjoyed the agua fría —cold water — found in the area, which is along the path of the Santa Fe River. Mee said the remains of pit houses from a civilization 5,000 years ago have been found in the Agua Fría area. Remnants of Pindi Pueblo communities also have been found there dating roughly to the years A.D. 800 to 1350, Mee said in his "unofficial timeline" of the place.

The village was officially established in 1640. Besides supporting agricultural interests, the town served as a resting spot along El Camino Real.

Martinez said El Camino Real, or just Camino Real, was used by Native Americans and Spaniards to travel from Mexico City to Santa Fe and possibly farther north. The road served as "the bloodline of culture," he said, supporting people and commerce.

"Everyone used it," Martinez said.

In 1835 residents of the Agua Fría area built San Isidro Catholic Church, named for the patron saint of farmers.

And in 1837, citizens grew weary of disdainful treatment by New Mexico Gov. Albino Pérez, who had been appointed to his position by leaders in Mexico. "He imposed taxes," Martinez said. "He was not nice to the local people."

Martinez and others said rebels chased Perez south and eventually caught him somewhere around Agua Fría, assassinated him and beheaded him. By many accounts, they then booted his head like a soccer ball northward.

In time, reservoirs in the region sucked away much of the water before it reached the acequias of Agua Fría. This cut farm productivity and led to legal disputes that still haven't been fully resolved, Mee said.

And now a small tower will pay homage to Agua Fría's long and varied history. "We're not just the stepchild of the city," Mee said.

The town's residents deserve to take pride in their community's history, he added.

The torreón will serve as a reminder that Agua Fría has an identity worth preserving.