Sunday, February 09, 2014


Weather: Less than an inch of snow Tuesday morning, gone Friday; last snow 2/04/2014.

What’s still green: Juniper and other evergreens, prickly pear; leaves on German iris, yuccas, garlic, hollyhocks, winecup mallow, Saint John’s wort, vinca, coral bells, cheat grass; some rose stems green.

What’s red: Cholla, coral beardtongue leaves, some rose stems.

What’s grey or blue: Four-winged saltbush, snow-in-summer, pinks, golden hairy aster leaves.

What’s yellow or brown: Arborvitae.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geraniums, aptenia.

Animal sightings: Small birds.

Weekly update: The most important element in modern lave stone walls is masonry skill. It is much more difficult to fit rocks together with minimal mortar than to float them in cement.

I assume the masons have moved here from somewhere in México, perhaps as part of the general demand for skilled services in Santa Fé that lasted until the housing bust.

When I was working in Santa Fé for a small building subcontractor, I was told the biggest challenge for builders who worked for the high-end market was getting enough work to keep their skilled crews together. Once there was no work, men returned to México. The loss of skill was more serious than the loss of financing.

I was told a nucleus of men, perhaps brothers or cousins, would work together. They were the ones who could do the best plastering or other finishing work that characterized the Santa Fé style.

Here it looks like a small group of men, perhaps all from the same town or area, moved north. They all have similar skills, but they do not all build the same walls.

As near as I can tell, there was no masonry tradition earlier. Angelico Chavez only mentions two masons in his Origins of New Mexico Families. Both came from Mexico City with the reconquest.

One, Antonio de Moyo, came in 1693 when he was 20 years old. He was dead by 1715, too soon to have passed all his skills on to his two sons. One died in 1715 in Taos. The other had two sons.

The other mason was José Jarmillo Negrete. He was 38 when he came north from Mexico City in 1693. His oldest son, Roque, was living in Santa Cruz in 1711. His wife bore 14 children. Five sons were still alive in 1767. They proliferated. The daughter of one descendant married Kit Carson in Taos in 1843.

There may have been others. Chavez was interested in establishing the presence of immigrant ancestors. Most of his sources were church or government records. Scribes may have been more interested in establishing the legitimacy of the migrants, than in documenting the skills needed in a community. Or, that may be what was of greatest interest to Chavez.

The only construction work he records is rebuilding the chapel in Santa Fé. He was probably was using payroll ledgers that named a master builder, two master carpenters and two carpenters. He also identifies two laborers, two painters and four others involved in the reconstruction efforts.

Andrés Montoya supplied the vigas and other lumber. Sebastián de Vargas provided the iron spikes and nails. One was probably a merchant. The other may have been a blacksmith. Blacksmiths were far more important that masons, for they maintained the weapons. Chavez mentions nine by name.

The skills needed to build walls may have disappeared in the Española valley, but not the appreciation for good stone work. It may have been passed on or fed by trips to México or by the general pride that leads one to discover the arts of ones ancestors.

Lava stone walls with extruded mortar only seem to be built in the local village and in Santa Cruz. I don’t see them in the larger cities, though I’ll admit I don’t cruise the streets of Santa Fé.

More important than the walls are the arches people commission. These require the greatest masonry skill. They come in all types, indicating whoever is or has been a stone worker here aspires to the greatest levels of achievement.

Photographs: Photographs taken in the area in the past several years.

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