Category: Veltri’s Vault

Raton’s Winter Wonderland

By Pat Veltri

For several decades, from 1971 to 2010, Ratonians were the recipients of a delightful homemade Christmas card, in the form of an animated display featuring Santa and his reindeer traveling across the sky over a small town with snow-covered homes and businesses, – a virtual winter wonderland. Described by its sender, Virgil Buscarini, as a “Christmas card in action”, the wonderland montage, with moving figures and vehicles, was set into action with a combination of pulleys, nylon string, and rotisserie motors. Buscarini’s idea for his unique display was initially sparked by a beautiful Christmas card that he received from friends back in the late 1960s, while living in Pico Rivera, California. “It had Santa Claus going through the sky and some cars and people. I thought it would be real nice to make that in animation, and that’s how I got started,” he says.



Virgil Buscarini in front of the building that houses the Winter Wonderland display. The window sign was painted by the late Henry Trueba, a Raton artist.

Armed with mechanical ingenuity and a creative imagination, Buscarini used scrap plywood, old tricycle wheels, and other found materials to begin turning his idea into reality. He started out on a small scale in 1966, “The first year I built two houses and I had Santa Claus going around the two houses.” Dissatisfied with the way it turned out, he tore it down and began again. He redid the houses, added businesses, and created the pulley system for the moving parts of the display. He entered Pico Rivera’s Christmas Lighting Contest and earned second place honors in the novelty division. In subsequent years, as the display grew bigger and better, he won several first place awards in the novelty division.
Sadly, Buscarini’s wife Shirley passed away in 1969. He made plans to leave California, with his two children, and relocate to Raton, where he was born and raised. Before heading for his native home, he gave away the wonderland display, realizing that it would be too unwieldy to transport.

Winter Wonderland window painting by Gail (Mullings) Cimino

Winter Wonderland window painting by Gail (Mullings) Cimino

Once established in Raton, Buscarini found a job breaking thoroughbred horses at the CS Ranch. One particular day, while working at the ranch, he discussed Christmas with his friend and co-worker Ernie Baca and mentioned his California Christmas display. Baca suggested that he revive the display in Raton. In 1971, inspired by his friend’s prompting, he began, from scratch, to recreate his initial display. He constructed a few houses and a church and set it up in the front yard of his home on Maxwell Avenue. He didn’t use nails or screws to assemble his houses, but instead wired them together. The houses and other buildings were covered with cotton batting to simulate snow. “We had to cover it up at night because the dampness caused the cotton to turn yellow. So I couldn’t get it too big. I covered it up with canvas and I made kind of a little lean-to for the next year so I could put in some cars and a few little things and a train. People just started coming to look at it, and it grew and grew and grew,” Buscarini recalls.
Coincidentally, Buscarini had also remarried in 1971. His second wife, Virginia, loved setting up the display as much as he did, and proved to be an enthusiastic helpmate. All of the skaters, skiers and other figures in the display sport colorfully crocheted hats and clothing that showcase her needlecraft skills.

 Virgil and Virginia Buscarini, with the Winter Wonderland display

Virgil and Virginia Buscarini, with the Winter Wonderland display

Eventually Buscarini began adding businesses to the panorama. City Market and Kenn’s Pharmacy were the first followed by other commercial enterprises and community buildings such as the Shuler Theater, Radio Station KRTN, International Bank, the El Raton Theater, Ace Hardware, and the Raton Depot, to name a few. Soon the display took on the look of “Raton America”. At some point in the life of the display, backdrops were painted by Marv Newton’s high school art classes.

To accommodate the growing exhibit, Buscarini sought a place to house it. His brother-in-law, Louie Castellini, obliged by offering him the use of the Raton Camera Corner. In future years the Winter Wonderland was given center stage at several other places, including Anthony’s Department Store, the Medicine Shoppe, the Gambles building, Hester’s Yamaha, Cimino Brothers Ford, and lastly, the DiLisio building.

Buscarini’s guest books, requesting the signatures of visitors, indicate that thousands have viewed the display over the years, including guests from almost every state in the United States, as well as several foreign countries.

Church, Raton Depot, and train

Church, Raton Depot, and train

From the outset there were few expenses related to the exhibit since Buscarini recycled materials that he had on hand. His policy has always been to make the display available to the public free of charge and without the need for donation requests. “I don’t like donations at all. I don’t like to charge anybody. It’s just from the heart,” he adamantly says. His daughter, Sophie Atwater, adds, “The whole thing has been a gift of love and homemade from scratch stuff, nothing was really purchased. It was all made with the best of intentions and all the love that anybody could have.”

Despite some adversity in their lives the Buscarinis managed to have the display up and running every Christmas season for thirty-nine years. Virgil, retired from Kaiser Steel, has experienced some heart health issues and Virginia, a former Colfax county commissioner and probate judge, is wheelchair-bound after suffering a stroke. “They’ve gone through some misfortunes,” Atwater says, “but they still keep going. They’ve kind of had to slow down a bit on things that they can do, but they just keep doing it. When the display is up, it really does require somebody that knows how to operate it properly because of the pulleys and motors.”

The El Raton Theater

The El Raton Theater

In 2010 Buscarini set up the display in the DiLisio building for what he thought was the last time, and when it was taken down, it was stashed in a family member’s barn, where it resided for the past seven years.

But Buscarini didn’t anticipate the tenacity of Raton business woman, Trish Romero, who persuaded him to bring the display out of storage during the 2017 Christmas season. Romero had ample opportunity to use her powers of persuasion on Buscarini during the times he escorted his wife to Romero’s place of work for weekly hair appointments. “I was just constantly saying I missed Winter Wonderland and I wish he would do Winter Wonderland,” she says. When all was said and done, Buscarini agreed, if Romero would find a building to house the display and enough manpower to put it together.

Raton Fire Department and the Shuler Theater

Raton Fire Department and the Shuler Theater

The building and the manpower arrived via Raton Main Street, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the rebuilding and revitalization of Raton’s downtown area. Romero, who is a member, enlisted the assistance of the executive director Brenda Ferri to secure a building. According to Ferri, Raton Main Street already had a building in possession – the former site of the Raton Museum – that it had been using for art classes. “We knew we needed a space for the Winter Wonderland so I went to our city manager, Scott Berry, and talked to a few of our commissioners and asked permission to set it up in there. They all thought it was a wonderful idea so Raton Main Street would really like to thank our city partners – our city manager and our city commission – for supporting us in this endeavor and allowing us to bring this to Raton,” she states.

 Radio Station KRTN

Radio Station KRTN

With Buscarini’s tutelage, Ferri, Romero and other Main Street board members and volunteers, including Jessica Barfield, Devon Barton, Eric Chavez, Katie Feldman, Mike Ferry, Arthur Fulkerson, Sandy Lucero, Diana Sanchez, and Jonni Valdez-Silva, had the display ready for opening on November 25, which coincided with the lighting of Raton’s Christmas tree and the City of Bethlehem. At that time Buscarini officially turned over his Winter Wonderland to Raton Main Street. The exhibit will remain in the building located at 216 South First Street indefinitely and in the future Raton Main Street will be responsible for its maintenance and operation. Buscarini has encouraged Main Street members to enlarge the exhibit and add their own personal touches to it.

The Shuler Theater and the El Raton Theater

The Shuler Theater and the El Raton Theater

People enjoy getting homemade Christmas cards because they reflect the love and care that was put into making them. Judging by the feedback that he has received Buscarini’s homemade “Christmas card in action” has been a consistent source of enjoyment. “Everybody loves it,” he says, and “everyone that sees it says they’d like to see it again. It’s made a lot of people happy, a lot of children. It gives me a good feeling in the heart.”

Ferri notes that it is special for Raton Main Street to have the exhibit. “We are so excited,” she says, “because most of us on Main Street grew up here in Raton so we all remember it as children and it’s just a living legacy and we wanted to be part of it.”



Romero recalls that when the display was set up in Buscarini’s yard that she and her brothers would stand by his fence and look at the display. She states, “It’s very sentimental. It’s like everybody’s childhood. It’s magical. It makes you feel like a kid again. We’re very thankful to Virgil and the Buscarini family for leaving this ‘everybody’s childhood’ for years to come, for peoples’ children and grandchildren.”

Atwater sums it up, “The Christmas card must have really been special that Dad saw all those years ago to make it really come to life and for so many people to enjoy it like they have.”

The Winter Wonderland, 216 South First Street, will be open to the public through December 30th on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

 Left to right: Raton Main Street members, Jessica Barfield, Diana Sanchez (President), Brenda Ferri (Executive Director) and Trish Romero; seated Virgil and Virginia Buscarini

Left to right: Raton Main Street members, Jessica Barfield, Diana Sanchez (President), Brenda Ferri (Executive Director) and Trish Romero; seated Virgil and Virginia Buscarini

Nina Strong, Harvey Girl

By Pat Veltri


Sad and lonely, deserted and abandoned, and mostly empty it has stood alongside the railroad tracks in Las Vegas, New Mexico for decades –  a reversion to when train travel opened up tourism in the Southwest.  The La Castaneda Hotel, situated along the former Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway, is about to receive a makeover. Plans are underway to restore the former Harvey House to the grandeur of the days that Ratonian Nina Strong remembers while working there as one of the famed Harvey Girls.

La Castaneda, South Side, (2016 )

La Castaneda, South Side, (2016 )


Nina Strong, Harvey Girl, in her crisp, white uniform (La Castaneda is in the background.)

Nina Strong, Harvey Girl, in her crisp, white uniform (La Castaneda is in the background.)

When Strong graduated from Roy High School in 1941 she had “sort of a plan” to go to college. However, it was the end of the Great Depression, there were four girls in the family, and money was tight. If she was going to attend college, she would have to work to pay her way. Her high school principal, who encouraged higher education for the students in his charge, became the catalyst for Strong’s enrollment in college.  Soon after graduation, in the summer of 1941, he escorted Strong and her friend Josie Siedel to Las Vegas to tour the campus of Highlands University.  Afterwards he treated them to lunch at La Castaneda. He knew the manager of La Castaneda, and with his recommendation, Strong and her friend were interviewed.  That very day the two girls were hired as waitresses.





North Wing of La Castaneda (2016) PHOTO 4 In 1941 the north wing served as a dormitory for the youngest employees, including Nina Strong and her roommate Josie Seidel.

North Wing of La Castaneda (2016) In 1941 the north wing served as a dormitory for the youngest employees, including Nina Strong and her roommate Josie Seidel.


Strong accepted the job with the terms of thirty dollars per month pay plus room and board. “That was pretty good,” she says, “it was the end of the Depression and there wasn’t any money”. She went back to Roy, bought a footlocker, packed her belongings and moved into La Castaneda the next day.  The bottom floor of the north wing of the hotel was set aside as a dormitory for the younger waitresses.





As a full time student working at La Castaneda, Strong’s schedule was grueling. She was assigned to work the 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. shift. After her shift was over, she usually slept for a few hours, and then walked to classes at Highlands. She grabbed a few more winks after school before starting the cycle all over again. Strong worked five to six and a half days per week, with Thursday evenings off to allow her to catch up on sleep.


La Castaneda was part of the Harvey House chain of restaurants and hotels located along railroads in the southwestern United States. For a period of years from the late 1800s to the 1940s, travel by train was the most common mode of transportation.  The genesis of the Harvey House chain began with Fred Harvey, an English immigrant. While working as a freight agent for the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, Harvey noticed the often crude facilities at railroad stops. He proposed the idea of establishing a system-wide string of hotels with restaurants to the Burlington railroad, but his longtime employer refused his offer. Subsequently the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway agreed to a partnership with him, and he opened his first restaurant-hotel in Florence, Kansas in 1878.  Strong says, “He made a deal with the railroad that passengers traveling by train across the west would have proper food and a place to stay. They built all these hotels, about 150 to 200 miles apart, from St. Louis to California.”


Excellence in accommodations and food preparation quickly became synonymous with the Harvey name.  Harvey expected his staff to keep up his high standards. Potential staff members had to come with a recommendation. Strong recalls, “No one was just hired that went in and asked for a job. You had to be introduced, you had to have a good reputation before you were able to go to work there and if there was ever anything derogatory about you, you didn’t stay.”


Strong received on the job training, mostly from another more experienced waitress, Kay Bradford. “It really was a very efficient type of organization.  The organization part of it was that we did our job the way we were taught and we knew what we had to do, we did it, and it was just fine.  If you didn’t, you went somewhere else, probably on home.  They were very strict on how you did; you became practically invisible once you got on the floor and became a server,” she explains. In addition to her serving duties, Strong did quite a bit of side work such as making coffee and folding napkins.


Nina Strong's friend and roommate, Josie Seidel

Nina Strong’s friend and roommate, Josie Seidel

The Harvey Girls at La Castaneda wore white uniforms, as did all staff members, with the exception of the hostess, who was attired in black. The uniform was akin to a nurse’s and included a white blouse with cuffs, white skirt, and white shoes and hose. The finishing touch was a black folded ribbon tie. Strong remembers, “The uniform was the starkest, whitest thing you’ve ever seen in your life! It was as stiff as could be. You could stand the skirt up.”  The staff’s uniforms were washed and starched by the hotel’s laundry. “You had to be pretty neat all of the time,” states Strong. Waitresses “got the once over” before they went on the floor.


According to author Richard Meltzer (Fred Harvey Houses of the Southwest), La Castaneda “was named for Pedro de Castaneda de Nagera, the chief chronicler of Francisco Coronado’s expedition to the southwest from 1540 to 1542.”  Meltzer noted that La Castaneda was designed by California architects, “using for the first time in New Mexico, Mission Revival style architecture”. Strong describes La Castaneda, built in 1898, as “beautiful with lots of fine furniture”. The dining room, where she spent a good deal of her time, had the capacity to seat 108 people, and the tables were set for gracious dining with linen, silver, crystal and china.


The outstanding quality of food served measured up to the genteel ambience created in the dining room. A network of local farmers and ranchers, and a Las Vegas dairy facility provided La Castaneda with meat, butter, milk, eggs and produce, assuring fresh food for customers’ gastronomic enjoyment on a daily basis. At some point La Castaneda also received fresh meat via Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe refrigerated rail cars.


Chef Victor, who ran a "tight ship" in La Castaneda's kitchen

Chef Victor, who ran a “tight ship” in La Castaneda’s kitchen.

Strong recalls that the portions of food served were more than ample. For example, there were four slices to a pie, instead of the usual six or eight. Chef Victor prepared most of the food, but there were also some assistant cooks. Strong remembers that Chef Victor expected the waitresses to place their orders according to his specifications, or run the risk of having their orders withheld.


Strong’s most memorable experience during her time as a Harvey Girl was serving the soldiers on troop trains during World War II.  La Castaneda became one of the major meal stops for the troops and was arranged to serve hundreds of men at one time. Any open space was used, in addition to the dining and lunch areas. “We would know ahead of time when the train would be there and we had everything set up. Our kitchen had all the food ready and we could get them in and out in thirty minutes,” says Strong.


Close up of Cupola, Facing East (2016)

Close up of Cupola, Facing East (2016)

Strong deems her service at La Castaneda, from June, 1941 to August, 1942, as a “very good experience”, a time that helped her develop self-discipline, people skills, and a good work ethic, while partially realizing her dream of going to college. Even though Strong’s stint as a Harvey Girl was short lived – she gave up her job to marry – she and all of the many other “Harvey Girls” have earned their place in history.  “We set a standard that hasn’t been met and it has followed us – we were the best,” she says.


The Fred Harvey chain sold in 1948.  After World War II travel by air and by automobile increased in popularity in the West. As passenger travel on trains declined, business in the Harvey restaurants also fell by the wayside. Strong notes, “Along the same line, it wasn’t long before there were other nice hotels, and motels or inns came in.”


Front View of La Castaneda, Facing East (2016)

Front View of La Castaneda, Facing East (2016)

Lesley Poling-Kempes, author of The Harvey Girls (Women Who Opened the West), wrote that the fate of the closed Harvey Houses “depended on the Santa Fe Railway, which owned them, and on the interest among local residents which either protected them as historic landmarks, or forgot about them and left them to decay beside the tracks.





As for La Castaneda – after closing in 1948, it was privately owned over several decades by at least two different individuals. In 2014 it was purchased by Allan Affeldt, a real estate and technology investor based in Winslow, Arizona, and his wife, Tina Mion. The 118 year-old architectural gem is currently undergoing a $3 million dollar facelift, and Nina Strong is delighted!

Nina Strong, former Harvey Girl, was featured in the book Harvey Houses of New Mexico and AAA New Mexico Magazine, (Sept./Oct. 2016 Issue).

Nina Strong, former Harvey Girl, was featured in the book Harvey Houses of New Mexico and AAA New Mexico Magazine, (Sept./Oct. 2016 Issue).



Raton’s Harvey House


Raton’s Harvey House, dubbed the Wallace Eating House, wasn’t in the same league as the impressive La Castaneda, but instead was just a typical dining facility by the tracks. The eating house, a small, red two-story frame structure located north of Raton’s Santa Fe depot, was built in 1882 and quickly became the social hub of the newly established community. During its short existence the eatery served railroad men, who had special meal rates at all Harvey Houses, as well as travelers, cowboys, and local businessmen.

Raton's Harvey House, circa 1894

                          Raton’s Harvey House, circa 1894

A couple of the most distinguished patrons of Raton’s eating house were Senator Stephen W. Dorsey and his wife Laura. Dorsey, a Republican senator from Arkansas, left the Senate and Arkansas, amidst his suspected involvement in the Star Route Mail Fraud plot, and came out west in hopes of becoming a cattle baron. To that end he built a thirty-five room stone mansion, forty miles southeast of Raton.  Possibly desiring to be part of some social activity, Dorsey and his wife purportedly made frequent trips to Raton where they found good food and accommodations at the Wallace Eating House.


Raton’s Harvey House had one important claim to fame – the very first Harvey Girls hired by the Harvey Company staffed the Raton location.  Apparently before Harvey Girls, the company hired servers who were predominantly black men.  This was an attempt to recreate the idea of train porters in starched white coats and black pants.


According to NM Harvey House Roll Call, Fred Harvey’s friend Tom Gable suggested that women replace the waiters.  In 1883 while the two men were visiting Raton, they witnessed one of the usual brawls that periodically occurred between the waiters and rowdy clientele. Gable’s theory was that unruly customers wouldn’t punch a woman, especially one of high moral standards. Harvey hired Gable to move to New Mexico to manage Raton’s Harvey House, and the first group of Harvey Girls soon followed.


Gable thought the girls should come from back East, instead of being hired locally, because eastern girls would be more likely to instill some graciousness in the establishment’s disorderly, gun-toting customers. Roll Call reports, “Wanting to make sure these women would be respected, Harvey designed uniforms that combined the look of nuns and nurses.”


Raton’s Harvey House closed in 1903 because it was no longer needed. New Harvey Houses had been built in Trinidad, Colorado and Las Vegas, New Mexico.


Sources: Fred Harvey Houses of the Southwest by Richard Melzer

The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West by Lesley Poling-Kempes

NM Harvey House Roll Call (Internet)

Photo of Raton’s Harvey House is courtesy of Arthur Johnson Memorial Library

Other vintage photos are courtesy of Nina Strong

Coal Camp Christmas Memories

  By Pat Veltri

Store displays up in October, Christmas lights and decorations up in mid November, Black Friday, excessive consumer spending to purchase gifts and decorations, commercials for toys and electronic gizmos, stress and financial pressure – are all part of the rituals surrounding Christmas these days.  Compared to modern standards Ratonians, Mickey Baker, George Yaksich, and Edward Zavala  were poor in material goods while growing up in their respective coal camps of Sugarite, Koehler, and Dawson, but they still remember their coal camp Christmases as some of the best of their lives.  It is with fond recollections that they think back to the days when the Christmases they experienced were simple, but happy and meaningful.


In the early days of mining, many miners and their families lived in coal camps or company towns. Coal camps were in essence communities owned by the coal companies. Company owned houses were rented to the miners. A coal camp usually had a company store, and many had schools, club houses, doctor’s offices, opera houses, and other amenities.


Mining drew immigrants from many nations – Yugoslavia, Poland, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Scotland, Mexico – to name a few, and the coal camps became a melting pot of ethnic groups,  each group bringing their own unique cultural flavor to the mix of Christmas celebrations.


Mickey Baker : Potica, Tinsel Icicles, and a Sled


Mickey Baker, retired businessman and past mayor of Raton, was born and raised in the coal camp of Sugarite, eight miles northeast of Raton, in what is now Sugarite State Park. Baker’s mother, Jenny, was Slovenian and every Christmas she baked potica and made fudge. “That’s about all the sweets we had,” he says. Potica (pah teet zah) is a traditional Slovenian sweet bread filled with nuts, honey, and sometimes raisins. Baker remembers his mother rolling the yeast-raised dough around the nutty filling to make long loaves and then twisting the loaves around in an s shape to fit in the baking pan.  She passed on her recipe and techniques for making potica to Baker’s wife, Jo, who continues the tradition of baking the Slovenian bread during the holiday season


Mickey Baker, with his dog Sam, holds a dish his mother, Jenny Baker, used to serve cranberry salad for Christmas and other holidays. Baker grew up in the coal camp of Sugarite.

Mickey Baker, with his dog Sam, holds a dish his mother, Jenny Baker, used to serve cranberry salad for Christmas and other holidays. Baker grew up in the coal camp of Sugarite.

To get a Christmas tree Baker’s family merely walked up the hill behind their house and cut one down. The tree went up one or two weeks before Christmas. His mother decorated the tree with lights and ornaments, many of them handmade, and then added the final touch of tinsel icicles. He recalls, “She would take the tinsel icicles and put them on the tree one by one. When Christmas was over, she took them off, one by one, and saved them for the next year. So you know how tight the money was.”



Baker and his two brothers, Ben Jr. and Buddy, each received one gift at Christmas, usually clothes or maybe a game they could all share. Even with the scarcity of gifts, Baker says when he was young his Christmases “were all good.” He says, “There was no abundance of presents under the tree. In fact, we never saw our presents under the tree until we got up on Christmas morning.”


One Christmas stands out in his mind because he and his brothers received a special gift – a much desired sled. “My dad had to work the night shift for some reason. When he got home around 11:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve, he said loud enough for us to hear, ‘Oh what happened to the tree? What happened here?’ We jumped up out of bed and ran into the living room to look under the tree and that’s when we saw the sled.” He continues, “In those days, around early fall we’d have a snow and it would snow enough to cover the fences, usually. That snow was there all winter long. So we rode on the sled all winter. We would cut trees to make an area that was a sledding path. We were poor, but we had everything we needed.”


Even though families celebrated Christmas in their own way, according to their ethnic traditions, the coal camp came together as a family for celebrations, such as the annual Christmas program put on by the camp’s school children.  The program was held in the camp’s club house. Baker remembers, “In the club house there was an auditorium, a regular gym floor with a stage at one end. The whole school from the first through the eighth grades would have a Christmas program. The whole camp was involved with that; people didn’t attend just because they had a son or daughter in the program. They went there because that was a big celebration.”


The program focused on the spiritual story of Christmas, along with the usual Christmas icons, such as Santa, elves and reindeer. Baker says, “I can’t remember anybody not having some kind of religion in those days.  Anyway they believed in God. I don’t think there were any that didn’t but maybe I was too young to understand.” After the program bags of candy from the St. Louis, Rocky Mountain and Pacific Coal Company were passed out to all of the kids.


George Yaksich: Barbequed Lamb and a BB Gun


Another retired Raton business man, George (Judo) Yaksich spent his youth in the Koehler coal camp, twenty-five miles southwest of Raton. Yaksich’s parents George and Pauline Yaksich emmigrated to the United States from Montenegro, Yugoslavia. Since Yaksich’s family were of the Eastern Orthodox faith, they celebrated Christmas on January 7th.  Yaksich recollects, “It was a tradition, when I was a little boy, that my family butchered a lamb on the fifth day of January.  On the sixth day of January they barbequed this lamb over an open fire on a mountainside.  The way the lamb was put on the spit, that we turned by hand, dates way back to the days of the Tartars (a group of Central Asian people, including Mongols and Turks), not only in Montenegro, Serbia, Yugoslavia and Croatia, but also in Greece and parts of Turkey. The way it’s put on the spit to barbeque required no metal bolts or nuts or wires; it was all in the way it was placed on the spit. On January 6th it was the duty of the young kids to sit down and turn this spit by hand.”

George "Judo" Yaksich with a photo depicting the Christmas lamb roasting on a spit, a tradition that was carried on in his family from the early days in Koehler to recent times. Yaksich lived in the Koehler Coal Camp when he was a youngster.

George “Judo” Yaksich with a photo depicting the Christmas lamb roasting on a spit, a tradition that was carried on in his family from the early days in Koehler to recent times. Yaksich lived in the Koehler Coal Camp when he was a youngster.


While the kids were turning the meat old timers sat around the fire and told stories of Christmas in the old country. Sometimes the old timers would sing songs that described the battles that the people in the Balkans and Greece had against the Turkish empire. “Whenever they would do that,” Yaksich says, “it would bring my mother to tears because she witnessed some of this as a child during the Turkish Empire.”


On January 7th, the head of the lamb was taken off and put on a plate in the middle of the table, with an orange placed in its mouth. Yaksich explains the culmination of the festivities: “My parents would select a man, known as a poleznik, who would be our guest of honor all day. The poleznik, usually of Slavic descent, would come to our house early in the morning, announce himself and fire a hand gun.  We would welcome him into our home . And he would kiss each one of us three times, saying in Serbo-Croation Mir Boziji (God’s Peace on Earth!), Hristos se Rodi (Christ is Born!) and Viestina se Rodi (Indeed He is Born!). Everyone would kiss three times and say these words. He would sit at the table and take the first bite of the lamb. We’d have a special knife which he used to cut into the orange and place a coin or paper money. He would be our guest of honor all day long at our home and would welcome other guests that would come by. There were no Christmas decorations, there was no exchange of gifts. It was just a get-together of family and friends to celebrate the birth of Christ.”


 In addition to the lamb, other traditional foods served on that day included sarma (cabbage rolls), potatoes, and ham. According to Yaksich, other families in Koehler who observed Christmas on January 7th were the Dabovich family, the Krivokapich family, the Vuicich family and the Simovich family.


 It wasn’t customary for Yaksich’s family to exchange gifts so he didn’t receive his first Christmas present until the age of seven. The gift, a BB gun, came from a dearly loved school principal, Loren Malcolm.  “I got my first Christmas present and it was a BB gun and I cherished that BB gun until I finally wore it out completely,” he says. His older brother Paul warned him not to shoot at the windows in the houses and the school, and to demonstrate Paul shot a window, so his younger brother could see how a BB made a little hole in it. “Both of us got in trouble with mom, but I never shot another window,” he laughs.


Once all of the school classes were combined in one building, the Koehler School also put on a Christmas program. As in Sugarite, all of the parents and all of the families would show up for that program. Yaksich recalls that the moms wore their best Sunday dresses and the dads dressed in black suits with a white shirt and a tie. “They did that out of respect to their students and their teachers,” he says.


Together the miners’ union and the St. Louis, Rocky Mountain and Pacific Company provided a small sack of candy and an apple or an orange for each kid in the camp. The company also allowed the kids to cut down Christmas trees for each classroom in the school. The trees were decorated with strings of popcorn and red, white, and blue paper chains.


Edward Zavala: A Pedal Plane and a Christmas Tree


Edward Zavala, who moved to Raton in 2002, from Los Angeles, California, lived in the Dawson Coal Camp, thirty-six miles southwest of Raton, during his younger days.


Former Dawson Coal Camp resident Edward Zavala with a Christmas card he received from another former Dawsonite, Marcel Rivera, who wrote in the card: "I'm thinking of Dawson at Christmas. We had nothing. We had no toys, not too much to eat, but we were all happy. And now we have everything, including everything we want to eat, but we're not as happy as we used to be."

Former Dawson Coal Camp resident Edward Zavala with a Christmas card he received from another former Dawsonite, Marcel Rivera, who wrote in the card: “I’m thinking of Dawson at Christmas. We had nothing. We had no toys, not too much to eat, but we were all happy. And now we have everything, including everything we want to eat, but we’re not as happy as we used to be.”

Zavala’s family always had a Christmas tree. “When I was younger my dad would climb the hills and cut down a tree. As I grew up, when I was maybe thirteen or fourteen, my friends and I would get the Christmas tree, bring it down to the house, and my sisters would decorate it. Some of the ornaments were made by my sisters – paper chains and different ornaments that they would cut out. Not too many lights because we couldn’t afford them. Nothing too fancy.”  Zavala’s dad, Jesus, raised chickens and rabbits. So for their Christmas dinner the Zavalas would usually have one or the other. He remembers that most years his mother, Rose, would make tamales for Christmas.


Zavala, who comes from a family of twelve, received very few presents. “We were poor,” he says, “just to have the dinner was sufficient. We never had anything so we didn’t know what we were missing.” On one particular Christmas, in a thoughtful gesture, one of his brothers decided to part with his marbles so Zavala would have a gift. “My brother, Raoul, had some really nice marbles so he wrapped them up in a match box.  He wrapped them up and gave them to me and said, ‘Here, from Santa Claus’. I thought, ‘they sure look like yours!’ “


The best present Zavala received was a pedal plane. “I could sit in it and pedal it and it had a propeller and it had a tail fin. I was probably eight or nine when I got it,” he remembers. “I parked it out there on our porch where everybody could see it. I was proud of it.”


As in the other camps the school Christmas program was also a staple of Dawson’s holiday festivities. “Even when we were real young, we had little plays. At one time I was a pudding. I think it was the third grade. The teacher put a bag on us, and we would say ‘We are pudding so good and sweet; we are pudding you’d like to eat.’ Those were happy times.” As they left school for Christmas vacation, Zavala and all the kids in Dawson camp received a bag of candy.


Zavala recalls that while attending Dawson High School, a Christmas party for the high school students was held at the town’s gymnasium. “We would decorate the gym with a tree and we’d have a dance. Each boy had a little booklet and we’d all go and sign different partners to dance. That was fun. Then we’d get around the Christmas tree and sing Christmas carols.” There was also a community dance on Christmas Eve, complete with a small orchestra. Zavala says some people would leave the dance to attend Midnight Mass and then head back to the dance once Mass was over.


By all accounts the three former coal camp kids treasure the Christmas memories of their youth. Christmas was lived out, according to their observations, not in the context of materialism, but in the Christian celebration of the birth of the Savior of the world.

Veteran Salute: John F. “Johnny” Bacca, U.S. Navy, World War II

  By Pat Veltri


A young man is on his knees, sobbing hysterically, screaming for his mother. The time is World War II, the place is somewhere in the Pacific on the aircraft carrier USS Essex.  World War II veteran, John F. “Johnny” Bacca of Raton is telling the story. Bacca was nineteen at the time, and his young friend Norman was only seventeen.  At the youthful age of sixteen, Norman lied about his age and enlisted in the Navy.  In one particular instance, while their ship was preparing to do battle, and both men were heading for their battle stations, Norman lost control. “I didn’t know what to do with him,” Bacca says, “but I got down with him. He started crying and I slapped him across the face four or five time to get him out of it. He said, ‘What did you do that for?’ I said, ‘I’m scared too, but we’re alive, and until something happens, we’re still alive.’ He said, ‘How come you don’t worry about it?’ I said, ‘I think about things back home that I like, maybe some of my girl friends. I don’t think about being killed. I want you to think the same way.’ He got out of it and right after the war was over with I was the best man at his wedding. That was kind of a moment I cherish.”


While Bacca forced himself to think positively, preparing himself mentally for facing danger and possibly death, other young shipmates, like his friend Norman, probably away from home for the first time, were not as psychologically ready to deal with the hellishness of war.


This photo was taken after Johnny Bacca completed basic training at San Diego Naval Base.

This photo was taken after Johnny Bacca completed basic training at San Diego Naval Base.

In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor Bacca was more than ready to do his part for the war effort. His future wife’s brother, Billy Buhr, who was Raton’s first World War II casualty, had died at Pearl Harbor. Bacca wanted to be “in the war and in the Navy” so he volunteered for service when he was eighteen. However, he was rejected because of his eyesight. In June, 1943, he was drafted in the United States Navy. With the stipulation that he wear eyeglasses, Bacca was able to complete basic training at San Diego Naval Base.  He was assigned overseas duty on the USS Essex, where he stayed for the duration of his service.


The USS Essex was built for the United States Navy by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company during World War II.  The Essex was the fourth U.S. Navy ship to carry the name. Commissioned in December, 1942, it was the first of a class of aircraft carriers of which thirty-two were authorized. According to Bacca the complement (full number needed to man the ship) of the Essex was 3000, including 2400 regular Navy men and 600 pilots and officers.  He recalls that the flight deck was 865 feet long, and that there were from 90 to 100 planes on the ship, including Avengers (torpedo bombers), Wildcats (fighter planes), and other dive bombers. A Marine air group with Corsair fighter aircraft was also on board.  At any given time, some of the planes would be topside, gassed and ready to go, while others were housed underneath the flight deck.


The aircraft carrier, USS Essex

The aircraft carrier, USS Essex

Bacca’s battle station was initially in the powder room (a place where ammunition is stored), and later below the hangar deck. While the ship was under fire, he was responsible for furnishing the powder for the 85 pound projectiles fired from several five inch anti-aircraft guns. He says, “My battle station was in the powder room for a whole year and the stressful thing about that is if we were torpedoed or bombed, and there was any fire near the powder room you were automatically dead because you didn’t get out. They flooded it to save the ship.”


Essex kamikaze5According to Bacca the Essex came under fire from Japanese air attacks about 69 times, with thirteen of those kamikaze attacks. Kamikazes were suicide attacks by young Japanese aviators, ages fifteen or younger, against allied naval vessels in the closing stages of the Pacific campaign.  They were not expert pilots, which accounted for their many misses. There was only one kamikaze hit on the Essex. On November 25, 1943, a suicide bomber hit the port edge of the Essex’s flight deck, landing among planes gassed for takeoff, causing extensive damage, and killing seventeen.  Bacca remembers, “The gun mount that the kamikaze hit on the flight deck was manned at that time by Afro-Americans and they were segregated yet. One of the guys was a good friend of mine; I used to exercise with him. He saved five white guys out of the tire shop that was underneath the flight deck that was on fire. He got them out, but he died from burns three days later. He got a medal for it, posthumously.”  Bacca says there was a forty foot hole in the flight deck from the hit. It was quickly patched up, and the flight deck was ready to launch a plane in 45 minutes.


The Essex participated in several campaigns in the Pacific Theater of Operations, including Rabaul, Tarawa, Palau Islands, Iwo Jima, Kyushu, Okinawa, and Formosa.  The ship took part in the Battle for Leyte Gulf and the offensive on Manila and the northern Philippine Islands. Bacca’s wartime medals show that he earned twelve battle stars participating in these military operations. He is especially proud of the Presidential Unit Citation that the Essex earned for all of the time it was in battle zones. At one of the ship’s last battles at Kyushu, the Essex conducted a significant search for survivors. “We saved a lot of guys that were in the water that got hit on a ship in front of us. They happened to be on the flight deck of this ship and a kamikaze hit them and they were all in the water drowning. We threw all our life preservers, our life jackets and everything we had to save them,” Bacca explains.


While there was a lull in action the ship’s crew took the opportunity to have a little fun. They played indoor games such as basketball and volleyball on the hangar deck, and there were boxing matches every Friday. Another form of entertainment was King Neptune’s Realm, an initiation rite of sorts, to commemorate a sailor’s first crossing of the equator.  Bacca says, “We had one day where we celebrated crossing the equator. Everybody had a lot of fun. If you were going across for the first time you might get your hair cut off, or have to wear your clothes inside out or get whipped with a hose – something embarrassing.  You weren’t actually a regular ‘salt’ (experienced sailor) until you crossed the equator. We had to go through the ceremony.”


Bacca was born in Starkville, Colorado in 1924 and moved to Raton with his parents and siblings in 1931. In 1936 Bacca’s father opened a bakery on Cook Avenue.  Bacca worked in his father’s bakery from the age of twelve up until the time he was drafted into the Navy, so he was pretty good at molding bread. When he was first assigned to his ship, there was a call for volunteers in the baking or cooking departments. “I volunteered,” Bacca says “because I was a baker. I knew how to bake. I had been working with my dad all the time.” Bacca and the head baker had a “bake off”, with Bacca coming out on top. Consequently, the head baker, who was from Boston, wouldn’t accept Bacca on his crew.


Discharge papers for John F. Bacca

Discharge papers for John F. Bacca

Instead Bacca became a cook striker, or apprentice, and stayed on in the galley during his three year stint in the Navy. When he mustered out of the service, he had achieved the rank of Cook Second Class, which is equivalent to the status of chef in civilian terms. “I learned a lot about quality cooking and quantity cooking; I helped to prepare 2400 meals, three times a day,” Bacca says. He worked eight to ten hour shifts, which were staggered, meaning he worked five days one week, three days the next week, etc.  “If we were going into battle,” Bacca recalls, “we served an early breakfast that was something substantial; most of the time it was steak and eggs.” It took a three man crew to prepare hotcakes – 2400 sailors, three per sailor – which amounted to 7200 hotcakes!


Christmas Day dinner menu for crew, December 25, 1944

Christmas Day dinner menu for crew, December 25, 1944




Bacca says the meals that were served to his shipmates were tasty and nutritionally balanced, but he recalls one incident towards the end of the war, as they were preparing for the last drive for the Philippines and Formosa, when the cooking crew was forced to deal with inferior food staples for a period of several months.  “Whoever bought all of our supplies bought stuff that wasn’t any good. We had to throw a lot of it away, and I don’t think that was fair for guys that were risking their lives going into battle, Bacca states.” By the time the ship reached Formosa the flour was full of weevils and the canned goods were popping open.  The crew had to make do with dried food, such as beans, and whatever was in the freezer.


While Bacca feels it was a privilege to serve in World War II, he considers the experience traumatic. “I would not want to ever go through it again,” he says. “It was three years out of my life at a young age, yet it had to be done at the time.”


Johnny Bacca, U.S. Navy, USS Essex

Johnny Bacca, U.S. Navy, USS Essex

Bacca’s personal stance about war is that he opposes it. “I’m against any war that we’re in, unless it had to be, but as far as trying to settle something between other countries, I don’t go for that. If you’re going to go to war, go to win it, not to be just a police officer.”


Bacca was separated from the Navy in July, 1946. In 1947 he married Mabel Buhr and opened Johnny’s Bakery.  They owned and operated the bakery, a coffee shop, and a catering service for forty years, while raising a family of five children. They retired in 1987. One of Bacca’s most enjoyable retirement activities has been attending the Essex reunions that are held periodically in different locations throughout the United States.  Even though he has been retired for while, Bacca continues to bake bread for his own use.


John F."Johnny" Bacca, World War II Veteran

John F.”Johnny” Bacca, World War II Veteran






Photos, memorabilia are courtesy of Johnny Bacca.

Keep It or Sell It?  “The Last Trail” Debate

  By Pat Veltri


It was dubbed “Our Indian” by some of Columbian Elementary School’s students. For over six decades school children passed by it on a daily basis, custodians removed it occasionally and set it on the floor while painting the wall behind it, sometimes a curious student would stop and take a look and wonder about it, but mostly it went unnoticed – just a pretty picture hanging on the wall.  “The Last Trail”, a painting by Taos artist Bert Phillips, was as much a part of the school as the books, chalkboards, pencils, rulers, classrooms, and the teachers and students themselves. It hung prominently in the entryway, blending quietly and unobtrusively into the landscape of the school, from 1920 until the early 1970s when Marv Newton moved to town to teach art at Raton High School.


Marv Newton, professional artist and retired educator, discovered the Bert Phillips painting at Columbian Elementary School in the early 1970s. (Photo by Jim Veltri)

Marv Newton, professional artist and retired educator, discovered the Bert Phillips painting at Columbian Elementary School in the early 1970s. (Photo by Jim Veltri)

Newton, these days a professional artist and retired educator, doesn’t recall the exact circumstances that brought him to Columbian School one particular day soon after he moved to Raton. “When I first walked in the door I looked up and saw the painting there”, Newton recalls. “It was hanging right in front of the hallway of Columbian School and I recognized right away that it was a Taos painter. I kind of looked at it for a few minutes, but it didn’t really register to me at the time that it was a valuable painting.”  In the early 1970s, according to Newton, an ad in New Mexico Magazine offered potential purchasers a “set” of paintings, one by each of the ten original Taos artists, for the price of $110,000. Time and increased worth upped the price to $100,000 or more for one painting. Newton says, “So right at that point – I just happened to notice it – as time went on and the Taos paintings became more and more valuable, I started thinking there should be some way to get that painting off the wall.”


While visiting art galleries in Santa Fe, Newton took note of the latest pricing of comparable oil paintings by Bert Phillips.  With this information at hand, he approached the Raton Superintendent of Schools, Russell Knudson, about Columbian’s painting. Newton says, “I saw what the paintings had been selling for so I talked to him and told him the painting was really valuable; we need to take care of it.” However, Knudson was indifferent. “He didn’t really register that it was of value,” states Newton.


Eventually with Newton’s persistence, Knudson’s interest was piqued. Some time later, while the two of them were attending a meeting in Santa Fe Knudson expressed a desire to visit a gallery to look at some paintings of the famous Taos artists. Newton suggested that they visit the Fenn Gallery. Forest Fenn, the gallery owner, was known for promoting the Taos artists. While the gallery did not have any of Phillips’s paintings on hand, Knudson was able to peruse the works of other Taos artists to get an idea of what “The Last Trail” might be worth. When he saw a $60,000 price tag on one of the paintings, and that the painting was sold, “he kind of lit up”. “As soon as we got back to Raton he took it off the wall and put it in a safe,” says Newton.



Keep It or Sell It?


The ownership of the valued art by the school system was announced to the public, via The Raton Range, in November, 1981.  In a March, 1982 Range article Superintendent Knudson stated that the painting had been appraised by Forrest Fenn, a Santa Fe art expert, who judged its worth to be $95,000.  It was the appraiser’s opinion that the painting would increase in value by $10,000 if it was cleaned.


The publicity in the newspaper exposing the painting’s value – aesthetic and financial –  sparked a barrage of opinions from the public about what should be done with it.  Should it be sold, with the proceeds to go toward financial support of artistic endeavors in the school system? Or should it be kept for present and future generations of students to view and appreciate?


The Range abounded with letters to the editor as well as editorials by several members of the paper’s staff. The Raton School Board and Superintendent Knudson fielded phone calls and listened to citizens expressing their views at monthly board meetings. Undoubtedly, the painting was the talk of the town over a period of several months from 1981 through 1983.


One noteworthy example of a letter to the editor came from Raton artist, Steve Bertola, who had made a study of The Taos Society of Artists. He wrote in part, “The aesthetic value of such a work outweighs its monetary value immensely. The impression this painting can have on young artists as well as developed artists is invaluable.” He went on to say, “…His (Phillips’) paintings are scattered throughout the world, why not savor one piece of his work in Raton?” Bertola suggested in his letter that “the painting could be processed into limited edition prints”, thereby deriving a good source of income for the school system.


Another letter to the editor, from former Raton city manager Robert Gurule, was short and to the point. He wrote, “To those who advocate selling Bert G. Phillips’ ‘The Last Trail’: Sure am glad you don’t have possession of Leonardo DaVinci’s ‘The Last Supper’”.


In early 1982 the story of the painting reached the pages of American West Magazine. There was also an article in The Albuquerque Journal (1981), “Schools Painting Possible Worth $100,000” and another, “The Painting That Divided a City”, in the Albuquerque Journal Magazine (1982).  Even former New Mexico governor, Bill Richardson, offered a suggestion. A Congressional candidate at the time, Richardson proposed that Raton “begin to think in terms of establishing an art center – one where the town’s artistic treasures can, in the years to come, be safely preserved and publicly displayed.”


In August, 1982, The Range conducted an informal telephone survey of 200 Raton residents on the question of whether or not to sell “The Last Trail”. The survey clearly indicated that most Ratonians wanted the school system to keep the painting. Forty-one percent of those surveyed were in favor of keeping the painting while eighteen per cent favored selling. Thirty-four per cent were not familiar with the issue and seven per cent had no opinion.


The following responses to the painting issue were culled from letters to the editor, newspaper editorials, and the telephone survey:


      Keep It

  • It adds richness and distinction to Raton and its people.

  • It continues to be a gift and to sell it would be a violation of the benefactor’s wish.

  • It belongs to present and future generations.

  • It is a significant painting.

  • Works of art and things of beauty are of cultural importance.

  • It is an opportunity to teach the children in Raton that there are more important things than money.


      Sell It

  • Security arrangements and insurance premiums for any viewing set-up would be costly.

  • Proceeds from the sale might possibly be used to set up a trust fund that could be a perpetual source of income for art scholarships and other art-related activities.

  • Keeping the painting in a vault removes its aesthetic value.


The Major Players

Jim Segotta (left); Paul Kastler (right); and Diana Best (seated) were three of the former Raton School Board members from the 1980s who faced the tough decision of whether to keep or sell the painting. "The Last Trail"

Jim Segotta (left); Paul Kastler (right); and Diana Best (seated) were three of the former Raton School Board members from the 1980s who faced the tough decision of whether to keep or sell the painting, “The Last Trail.” (Photo by Jim Veltri) 

Once the painting was removed from the Columbian building and placed in a bank vault its fate lay in the hands of the Raton School Board. The board members, major players in the debate over what to do with the painting, had a tough decision to make. Dwayne Bacon, Diana Best, Ed Fidel, Paul Kastler, and Jim Segotta, vacillated in their attempts to decide how to vote, contemplating their own personal feelings as well as those of their constituents.


The Board’s Decision


On October 6, 1982 The Range reported that after months of controversy and debate over the possible sale of the painting, the board, on a motion by Paul Kastler, voted by a 3-2 margin to keep, insure, and display the painting. In the final tally, Kastler, Bacon and Best voted to keep it, while Fidel and Segotta opted for selling it.


Several months later board president Jim Segotta told The Range that two local businesses, Craftsman Glass and ARF Products, Inc., were assisting the school system in getting the painting ready for view by the public. Craftsman Glass manufactured a theft-proof, bullet-proof encasing for the painting, while Jim Veltri, an employee of ARF Products, outfitted the case with an electronic alarm device. The total cost of the precautionary measures was estimated at $1400.00. An annual rate of $500.00 was projected for insurance protection.


The site chosen by the board for public display of the painting was the lobby of the Raton High School gymnasium.


Original Purchase of the Painting

North Side School was constructed in 1900; it was named Columbian Elementary School in 1906. Initially "The Last Trail" hung in this school, from 1920 to 1939.

North Side School was constructed in 1900; it was named Columbian Elementary School in 1906. Initially “The Last Trail” hung in this school, from 1920 to 1939. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Robertson)

Florence Oliver, principal of Columbian Elementary School in the early part of the twentieth century, was the mastermind behind the acquisition of the Bert Phillips painting. A brief article in The Raton Reporter, February 6, 1920, reported that she “conceived the idea of using some of the money from the Fete Day exercises to purchase pictures for the school building.”  Fete Day was an event similar to a bazaar or festival, organized for raising money.  One of the features of Columbian’s Fete Day was a series of entertaining acts and performances by the students.


According to some local folks, students attending Columbian in 1919 and 1920 donated their own pennies, nickels, and dimes to buy the painting, but these reports have not been verified.  As stated in The Reporter article, the profits from Fete Day, as well as the financial generosity of the Columbian teachers and other patrons, contributed to the $200.00 purchase price.

The original Columbian School was demolished in the late 1930s. This building was constructed in 1939, on the same site. The painting hung in the entryway of the school building ( permanently closed in 2015) from 1944 until 1981, when it was removed by Superintendent Russell Knudson.

The original Columbian School was demolished in the late 1930s. This building was constructed in 1939, on the same site. The painting hung in the entryway of the school building (permanently closed in 2015) from 1944 until 1981, when it was removed by Superintendent Russell Knudson.

In a June, 1920 thank you not to Mrs. F. H. Oliver, Bert Phillips wrote, “…I am delighted to learn of the pleasure and pride taken in the picture, especially on the part of the children.”


About the Painting


American artist Bert Geer Phillips (1868-1956) is known for his paintings of Native Americans. “The Last Trail’, circa 1920, was painted in oil on canvas. It is mounted in its original frame, size 25×30 inches.


"The Last Trail", an original oil painting by Bert Geer Phillips, is owned by the Raton Public Schools.

“The Last Trail”, an original oil painting by Bert Geer Phillips, is owned by the Raton Public Schools. (Photo of painting by Jim Veltri)

The artist included the following description of his painting in a thank you letter to Florence Oliver, principal of Columbian School: “The picture shows an Indian Chief who has been riding his pony along one of their hunting trails until he came to the skull of a cow left by a party of immigrants who have gone into the country ahead to locate homesteads where the chief’s tribe have hunted for many generations and which for hundreds of years they have considered their rightful possession; imagine the many battles they have fought to retain it from their enemies; the many happy associations; and the fact that their very existence depends on the game which it contains. Then you do not wonder that the Indian Chief ponders on what duty lies before him – no other country remains for his people; one by one the trails, the hunting grounds have been given up to the ‘Pale Face’ settlers and here on the last trail still owned by his people is the evidence that the last surrender or the last fight must take place soon. For him and some of his braves possibly awaits the last trail of all.”



Why all the fuss?


According to an appraisal report completed in 2006 for Bill Walz, former superintendent of Raton Public Schools, the worth of the painting has more than doubled since the original appraisal. Why is “The Last Trail” so valuable? Why is it so important?

The artist's signature in the lower left part of the painting

The artist’s signature in the lower left part of the painting  (Photo by Jim Veltri)

It is of considerable significance that the artist was Bert Phillips, one of the founders of the widely acclaimed Taos Art Colony. This professional artists’ association was formed in 1915 by a group of academically-trained painters who had come to Taos from various points in the eastern and midwestern states. Known as the “Taos Six” the founding members included Joseph Sharp, E. Irving Couse, Oscar Berninghaus, W. Herbert Dunton, Ernest Blumenshchein, and Bert Phillips.


The Taos Colony was the first professional group of painters devoted to recording and interpreting the people of New Mexico and throughout the Southwest, and bringing this imagery to the attention of a national art audience.


According to Newton, once the notoriety of the Taos artists was established, their body of works became more valuable. He explains, “Art of course is a good investment. Generally speaking art has a tendency to go up in price and the further that you get away from the period of time that the artist lived and the longer since the artist has passed away, then the price in general tends to go up.”


Keep It or Sell It? Part Two


The debate over whether to keep or sell the painting resumed briefly in 2006, on a much smaller scale than the 1980s controversy.


In the early 2000s, during Linda Hale’s tenure as superintendent, Raton High School was undergoing extensive remodeling. For safekeeping Hale had the painting removed from the lobby of the gymnasium and placed in the vault at the Raton Public Schools’ administration building.


Bill Walz followed Hale as the chief administrator of the school system. In 2006 Walz contacted Carolyn Seigel, owner of 20th Century West Art Appraisal in Santa Fe, to evaluate the worth of the painting for the school district. Her opinion of fair market value of the painting was a quarter of a million dollars.


A September 15th article in The Range quoted Walz as saying he would “personally like to see the painting sold” with the proviso that the money generated from its sale to be used to benefit the school system’s fine arts program. Part of his concern with keeping the painting was whether or not the school district could afford the cost of insuring it, especially if it was to be displayed to the public.


At their September meeting the Raton School Board gave Walz the go ahead to start the process to get state approval to advertise the painting for bids. Although Walz and the board, which included members Art Armijo, Stephanie Jansen, P.J. Mileta, Ray Tafoya, and Dan Ward seemed to be leaning towards selling the painting, board president Mileta noted that public input would be important in the board’s final decision.


In December the board voted 4-1, with Jensen the lone “nay” vote, to remove “The Last Trail” from the district’s property disposal list, reversing its initial intentions to sell the painting. The Range reported on December 15, 2006 that “based on community feedback opposing the sale of the painting, the board opted to remove it from the property disposal list.”


Status of the Painting in 2016


The painting, “The Last Trail” by Bert Phillips, currently resides in a vault in the administration building of the Raton Public Schools.


What if?


Is it possible that some future school board might once again debate whether or not to sell the painting? Several of the former board members who were mired in the controversy of the 1980s strongly advise the Raton Public Schools to keep the significant artwork, and if possible to display it. They, along with Marv Newton, finder of the treasure, offer the following comments:


Diana Best – I don’t think being in the vault is the answer. I think it should be re-hung somewhere, maybe at the elementary school because it was elementary kids who bought it.  If kids are inquisitive enough and ask about it, they could learn about art, about the artist. We have something to be proud of there. Kids going to school now should be aware of where it came from and how they got it.


Paul Kastler – It should be put in some place where it could be viewed by the students and possibly by the public; that’s why that certain area (gymnasium lobby) was chosen, rather than a sale. The sale would be a one time sale for a school board that may be desperate for money. But that would be a mistake in my view, and it would be a breach of, I think, the trust that although not written, was created when the painting was first given to the school. It was to be available. It’s a beautiful painting and maybe some children with some artistic temperament would gain something by it if they were to learn of its history and why it came to Raton. It should not be hidden in a vault; it should not be sold. That’s my view.


Jim Segotta – To me put the painting someplace where everyone can enjoy it. If they could come up with some place safe to put it and keep it, probably in a bank or a museum, and that way the whole community could see it. It’s a beautiful painting.


Marv Newton – Like any painting it needs to be seen. My thought would be that maybe it could be shared with the Raton Museum or something like that on a lending basis. I think the Raton Museum probably has some security features that would cover it. If not, if the school system couldn’t raise the money, the museum could  probably look to the private sector to insure the  painting, making sure it was secure in there.


Post Script


Bert Phillips’ painting “The Last Trail”, purchased in 1920, initially hung in the first Columbian School building. The “old” building, erected in 1900, was razed in 1939 to make way for a “new” Columbian School that was constructed by the Works Process Administration. The painting, stored in the basement of the new building for several years, was brought out of storage in 1944 by Marge Leason, another principal at Columbian. Thereafter, the painting was continuously displayed in Columbian’s entryway until it was sighted by Marv Newton in the early 1970s. Although Newton felt it was necessary to alert Superintendent Russell Knudson about it, he was surprised at the attention spawned by his discovery of the valuable painting. Reflecting back he says, “People heard about it in all kinds of places.  I think it was good that we brought it to the attention of everyone before something happened to it. It could have been stolen very easily from the elementary school and nobody would know anything about it. Who knows what could have happened to it?


NOTE: The photo of the  original Columbian School is courtesy of Nancy Robertson.

All other photos are by Jim Veltri.



 In Fond Memory of Harriett (Hattie) Sloan

August 28, 1919 – February 12, 2016

By Pat Veltri


Picture it. War-torn England. 1943. Allied troops were preparing for the invasion of Europe, temporarily causing a lull in the combat zone. Four turbo-charged engines roaring in the English skies signaled the distinctive hum of a B-17 Flying Fortress.  The massive bomber, minus the gunners who would ordinarily be manning the turrets, buzzed the 30th General Hospital before landing sedately on a small airstrip in the Midlands of England.  A young Army nurse, attached to the 30th General, was escorted aboard. The Flying Fortress was Hattie Sloan’s “ride” to a dance in nearby Nottingham.


While Hattie Sloan was home on leave, before going overseas, her father arranged for her to have her photograph taken in uniform. She did not see the photo until after the war was over. (Photo is courtesy of Cathy Naylor.)

While Hattie Sloan was home on leave, before going overseas, her father arranged for her to have her photograph taken in uniform. She did not see the photo until after the war was over. (Photo is courtesy of Cathy Naylor.)

First Lieutenant Harriett (Stech) Sloan was a wartime nurse, a heroine in olive drab fatigues, who ministered to soldiers, prisoners of war, and at times civilians, during World War II. As part of her service in the European Theater, Sloan confronted danger, dealt face-to-face with the sick, the wounded and the dead, and endured long periods of inactivity and boredom. Intervals of rest and relaxation and other light-hearted moments, like Sloan’s memorable “ride” to a dance, counterbalanced the hellishness of war.


Sloan, a native of northern Indiana, attended Milwaukee Downer, an all women’s college in Wisconsin after graduating from high school. Initially, she took core courses, with a goal of possibly becoming a teacher, but by her second year she had switched to nursing and took all of the courses for the nursing program. During the spring of her second year of college at Milwaukee Downer, Sloan was accepted into the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing in Baltimore, Maryland. Twenty-year old Sloan was part of a group of sixty-five women who started nursing classes in the fall of 1939. “We were trained to be bedside nurses,” she explained.  “The very first thing that we learned was how to change a bed with the patient in it.  We learned about medicine, surgery, pediatrics, and other nursing procedures, much the same as nurses do today.”


Sloan had just started her third year of nursing school when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. “By spring Johns Hopkins had assembled two hospital units to go into the war,” she said. “Those two units were sent to the South Pacific. Of course, after Pearl Harbor, the war in the Pacific was more immediate than the war in Europe.”


Americans were aware of the war in Europe before Pearl Harbor. “We knew the war in Europe was getting much worse, “Sloan said. There had been the blitz in England by the Germans, who were rapidly marching across Europe.  We knew that ultimately the United States was going to go into the European war.  Some of the Americans had already signed up for it but then it was evident that we were going to have to have a lot of military, so they had a draft for the young men.”


In the summer of 1942, Sloan and her fellow third year classmates assumed more responsibility with their on the job training because many of the regular nurses and doctors had gone with the Johns Hopkins’ team to the South Pacific. The Red Cross from Washington, D.C., came to Baltimore to recruit the student nurses for active duty in the Army Nurse Corps.  Toward the end of that summer, after many serious discussions, Sloan and seven of her classmates made the decision to enlist in the Army. There was a bill before Congress to draft nurses.  She said, “We felt obligated to go in, or they were going to draft us, so we signed up for the Army Nurse Corps to be together.”


Sloan finished nursing school in October, 1942, and was inducted into the Army on November 1, 1942, at the drugstore across the street from Johns Hopkins Hospital.  She and her classmates were assigned to Fort Belvoir, Virginia.


From early November until spring, Sloan and the other seven nurses worked on the wards.  She recalled, “I was assigned to the medical ward where ultimately I got the measles, along with a good many soldiers.”


She went on to say, “One day my roommate Peggy Brooks saw a note on the bulletin board in the mess hall asking for people to go overseas.  She signed us all up! That was in April of 1943. The first thing we knew we were being sent home on leave.  I lived the farthest away and I only had a weekend leave.  When I arrived back a t Fort Belvoir that Sunday night, I had to pack my gear to leave very early in the morning.”


That was the beginning. “From Fort Belvoir we went to Pine Camp, New York, where they weren’t even expecting us,” she said. “We found this was so typical of the Army.  There were now thirty-five of us.  We then went to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, which was the staging area to go overseas.  When we first got on that train from Fort Belvoir we didn’t know where we were going.  In fact, whenever we moved, they never told us where we were going. We had the blinds down and we’d peek out to see where we were. They were very careful about troop trains.”


At Camp Kilmer the nurses waited for a ship to take them overseas.  “We soon got on the Queen Elizabeth which had been converted to a troop ship for 5000 people,” Sloan said. “We were going to England, which took five days.  It was an interesting experience. We had bunk beds, twelve people to a stateroom and it was fairly rough so some people got sick. There were very few nurses on the ship. It was mostly male soldiers who all wanted to talk to us and date us.  All nurses were female at that time.”


Bombs had destroyed many of the harbors in southern England, so the Queen Elizabeth docked in Scotland. The nurses were transported by train from Scotland to the Midlands of England, near Nottingham. The hospital was a brick building between Mansfield and Sutton-in-Ashfield. “Here we joined the 30th General Hospital because they needed nurses,” Sloan recalled. “We then took care of casualties, as well as many illnesses. Every night we could hear the bombers overhead. They would go really far for those days, clear to Romania to bomb the oil fields. Sometimes the bombers were shot down and that’s how the airmen became prisoners of war in Germany.”


In April 1944, Sloan’s unit was sent to Llandudno in North Wales for training.  Sloan said, “We were billeted in private homes and we loved it.  It was on the North Sea.  The Army had set up mess halls and offices and our classes were in a Welsh church.”


While the allied forces were preparing to invade Europe, the nurses received instruction in gas decontamination, sanitation, aircraft identification, security, and map reading. Sloan remembered, “They also made us hike with hefty backpacks, making us hike as many as twenty miles. It about killed us and we complained bitterly! They were training us because they didn’t know what we were going to run into when we got to the continent.”


On June 6, 1944 – D-Day – the allied invasion of Normandy took place.  Shortly thereafter, Sloan’s unit was moved near Bristol, England to a place called Pinckney Farm. “We were in tents and it rained and rained,” Sloan said. “We would hike and exercise but we didn’t have a hospital. We were just waiting and we did a lot of nonsense stuff to keep busy. World War II was often called ‘this waiting war’”.


Six or seven weeks after D-Day the allied forces still had not taken the land for the hospital. “When they made the invasion at Normandy, many, many people were killed, but they couldn’t push through the German lines,” Sloan said. “I don’t believe people realize how many weeks it took to take Normandy. Our hospital was intended to be a big hospital, 1000 beds in tents. They knew on the map where they were going to put it but they hadn’t taken the land.”


On July 21, 1944, Sloan’s unit was transported across the English Channel on a British ship. She remembered, “The English Channel was awfully rough. That night they had hammocks on the ship and we all had a lot of fun trying to get in those darn hammocks. There were no separate rooms; it was one big area. Some of the people were so sick because it was so rough. We went up on deck and the mist and rain made everyone feel better.”


Sloan continued, “We had this big pack on our backs. We went down a rope ladder off the ship and got into a landing craft because there were no harbors. We had to stand up in this thing. It was a craft that the front went down and we walked off of it into water up to our knees. The shore was on the Normandy coast and it was called Utah Beach.”


The unit was first taken to a convalescent hospital, and then transported by truck to a cow pasture, bombs and all! The Allies had still not taken Normandy. However, according to Sloan, “The big day was when they had the St. Lo breakthrough. We knew that something was happening. It started with small planes and the planes got bigger and bigger and they were bombing in the distance. They were pushing through St. Lo.”


After the St. Lo push through, the hospital was eventually set up in a farmer’s field. It accommodated 1000 patients and also included nurse’s stations, operating rooms, and quarters for all personnel to live in. It was an inclusive tent city, complete with a C-47 airstrip for the hospital.


Sloan remembered, “The first night we were open we received a 1000 patients. I remember there were Americans, Germans and Moroccans. The Moroccans wanted to kill the Germans so they had to put guards on the wards.” Sloan’s unit was in Normandy until the middle of November 1944.


They spent from the middle of November until two days before Christmas in Paris, where they were all detached to different hospitals. The war was moving on and eventually the 30th General was sent to Belgium to be near the Battle of the Bulge. There they took over a Belgian hospital north of Antwerp. For several months buzz bombs and V-2s were launched from Holland, only a few miles away. These bombs were intended to destroy the harbor at Antwerp but often fell all around the hospital and nearby villages. It was a bitterly cold winter with injured soldiers being shipped back from the front, many with frostbite.


Sloan reflected: “One of the saddest parts of the war for me was at this time. Being the nearest hospital, many Belgians from nearby villages were brought in to us. I still think of the little children who were playing near where the bombs landed, on cobblestone streets, and some did not survive.”


“The war was over in April 1945. We were gradually less busy and some of us were even sent on leave to the Riviera. Our turn to come home came in October when we came back to New York on the ship Argentina. All of our group chose to be dismissed from the Army Nurse Corps. We picked up our lives where we left off two and a half years earlier.”


Sloan and her colleagues in the Army Nurse Corps, with their skill, compassion, and dedication undoubtedly contributed to a decrease in the mortality rate among the military forces in World War II.




  By Pat Veltri


Along with its abundance of flora and fauna, and its varied opportunities for outdoor recreation, Sugarite Canyon State Park, eight miles northeast of Raton, features a historic early twentieth century coal mining camp. Many visible remains of the once thriving coal camp can still be seen in the park, including the rock foundations scattered along the hilly terrain, the mule barn constructed of native sandstone, and the camp post office that has been renovated and put into use as the park’s Visitor Center.


Sugarite Coal Camp (Courtesy of Joe Bertola Family)

Sugarite Coal Camp (Courtesy of Joe Bertola Family)

Prior to the start of the coal mining camp in 1909, Sugarite Canyon was active with cattle ranches. Coal mining operations were initially developed by the Chicorica Coal Company but in 1912 management of the coal mining operations in Sugarite were taken over by the St. Louis, Rocky Mountain and Pacific Company.  Sugarite Coal Camp, in its beautiful setting along Chicorica Creek, became well known for its production of high quality domestic coal.  When the camp first opened, it consisted of scattered tents, but within a short period of time the construction of a full-fledged company town began.  Sandstone and coke block houses were built on slopes and terraces along the canyon sides, along with a mercantile store, school, post office, and club house.


Sugarite Miners (Courtesy of Arthur Johnson Memorial Library)

Sugarite Miners (Courtesy of Arthur Johnson Memorial Library)

The population of the camp fluctuated between 400 and 1000 during its years of operation.  Sugarite coal miners were immigrants from Croatia, Ireland, France, England, Spain, Italy, Scotland, Japan, and northern Mexico.


The Sugarite Coal Camp closed in 1941, due to labor issues and the decreased need for domestic coal.  By 1942 the company removed or sold most of the residences and the majority of the populace moved to Raton.


Ratonian Mary (Cunja) King was born in the coal camp of Yankee, but moved to Sugarite with her family when she was a toddler.  Her family lived there until the camp closed, which coincidentally was the same year that she graduated from high school. When the camp was closing, King’s parents were one of the first families to be asked to leave, due to their opposing political views with company officials.  Her father’s job was terminated and the family was essentially turned out of their home.


King’s Slovenian parents, Anton and Antonia Cunja, and their two children Marcella, age eight, and Mario, age two, immigrated to the United States from their home in Ospo, a tiny village nestled under the Austrian Alps. They arrived in New York in June, 1921 under the sponsorship of an American cousin, Tony Novak.  The voyage on a merchant ship lasted a month.  Two months after their arrival, a daughter Velma, was born.


King’s father, a peasant farmer, had fought with the Austrian Army in World War I.  After spending four years as a Russian prisoner in Siberia, he was released, but conditions at home were so terrible, he could barely eke out a living.  He longed for freedom from oppression and a better life for his family, and the United States was accepting immigrants.


Soon after their arrival in the United States, the Cunja Family settled in the coal mining camp of Yankee. The family lived in a dwelling that was more like a shack than a real house, and their water supply came from an outside common well.  King’s mother took in washing from camp bachelors to supplement the family income.  King and her sister Elizabeth were born while the family lived in Yankee.  In 1926, the Cunjas moved to the nearby coal camp of Sugarite, and two years later their last daughter, Emma, was born.


Sugarite Tipple (Courtesy of Arthur Johnson Memorial Library)

Sugarite Tipple (Courtesy of Arthur Johnson Memorial Library)

King shares these Sugarite Coal Camp memories:


Do you remember the house that you lived in? How comfortable was the house?


We lived in a four room house and it had a long porch on the front and a smaller porch in the back.  As you went in the back door there was a little room that was used as a wash room.  There was a kitchen, a dining room and one bedroom that my folks slept in and the six children slept in the other bedroom.  It was like sleeping in a deep freeze in the winter. When my dad got up in the morning, he lit that round bellied stove, called a monkey stove, and he turned the phonograph on to wake us up.  So we’d all crawl out and get around that stove and warm up.  We had outside water, but later my dad fixed it so that the water was in the house.  We cooked on a majestic coal stove that had a water tank on the side, and that’s how we heated our water for cooking, washing clothes and bathing.  We had outside toilets, and for toilet tissue we used pages from Montgomery Wards and Sears catalogs; that was kind of stiff paper so you had to kind of crumple it, but we thought nothing of it because everybody was in the same boat.  Our weekly bath on Saturday was in a big round No. 3 wash tub.


What kind of clothes did you wear?


We wore a lot of hand-me-down clothes, and my mom did some sewing. She liked to crochet so our towels and dish towels always had crocheted edgings. We bought shoes from the catalog.


What kind of chores did you do?


We had to hang out the wash on the clothes line to dry, we had to scrub the outhouse with hot, soapy water that had lye in it, we washed and dried the dishes, and we did  some sweeping and mopping and things like that, mostly household chores.


Did your family attend church regularly?


We just had a missionary priest out there – Father Nicholas Schaal.  My parents were devout Catholics.  They observed Lent, so as a Lenten sacrifice my dad wouldn’t eat any dairy products, cream or butter or anything.  If we dropped a piece of bread, we had to kiss it before we threw it away because bread was connected to the Eucharist. Father Schaal came once a month.  I don’t remember him saying Mass, but he gave the Catholic kids lessons for First Communion and Confirmation.  We all came in as a group; there were maybe two dozen of us, of all ages, at a time.


What do you remember about the club house?


The club house was run by a cousin of ours, Carmella Novak, who was married to Andy Marcella.  They had a daughter Alice, so we’d play with her.


Every Sunday we got a nickel from our folks.  We’d go up to the Club House and we had to decide whether to buy an ice cream cone or five ‘penny candies’. Then we’d watch the baseball games, the competition with the other camps that came and played.


We had a lot of fun at the dances at the Club House. Instead of hiring baby sitters, all the kids were there. People brought their babies in big baskets and laid them on one or two chairs. The babies slept all night to the music of the band.


Sugarite Baseball Team (Courtesy of Joe Bertola Family)

Sugarite Baseball Team (Courtesy of Joe Bertola Family)

What did you do for fun? What were your favorite games?


We had a coal shed out in our yard and we played ‘Store’; we had our Pet Milk cans, and other different cans and we played ‘Store’. Other games that everybody played were basketball, baseball, Hide and Seek, Run Sheep Run, Kick the Can, Mumblety-Peg, and marbles.  We played Hide and Seek outside almost every night.  We played little games like puzzles and checkers at home, to keep us entertained. We had picnics up in Sugarite Canyon, and we went ice skating at Lake Maloya.


How were illnesses and injuries handled?


Our folks didn’t like for us to get hurt; we usually got scolded because they didn’t have the money to pay for the doctor.  When we had a cold or something, we went down to see Dr. (Richard) Fuller. He was the company doctor. He had a huge bottle of green cough syrup and a huge bottle of red cough syrup; one was for adults and one was for children, so we got a small bottle of cough syrup.  For cuts we got white adhesive tape, but he’d wrap it around a tongue depressor, just a little bit of tape with some gauze. I don’t remember getting medications; we didn’t even know what aspirin was.


Do you remember anyone in your family being sick?


We were less well off than a lot of the miners’ families because my dad sustained several injuries during his years of working in the mine.  He had a broken leg, a broken collarbone, and a varicose leg ulcer that never healed.  The worst was a near death accident when a cave-in covered him up to his neck in coal.  He came extremely close to being paralyzed and he spent nine months in the company hospital in Gardiner, with a broken back.  He just missed being paralyzed but I don’t remember my folks saying they were compensated by the company. It was then that the SNPJ* Lodge paid him small benefits, which helped our family survive.  Thank God he had all the family enrolled in SNPJ before the accident.  After his recovery, he was allowed to work only a half day when the mine worked a full day, and sometimes the mine only worked one or two days a week. So his check for one week was $2.50.


*Slovensko Narodna Podporna Jednota (Slovene National Benefit Society) is a fraternal benefit society offering insurance and financial programs, and dedicated to preserving the Slovenian heritage and culture in the United States.



What do you remember about your schooling?


Classroom in the Sugarite School: Principal Loren Malcolm is shown in the back of the classroom, next to the chalkboard. (Courtesy of Joe Bertola Family)

Classroom in the Sugarite School:  Principal Loren Malcolm is shown in the back of the classroom, next to the chalkboard. (Courtesy of Joe Bertola Family)

We went from the first through the eighth grade.  Then we came on the bus to high school in Raton.  The principal was Loren Malcolm. She was such a dedicated teacher, and strict.  My favorite teacher was Lottie Washburn.  I don’t remember too much about the other teachers, but they were all good teachers, and they taught everything.  We had penmanship contests and spelling bees.  All of my life people have told me that I have a beautiful penmanship, because they drilled that cursive writing into us.  Once a week special teachers came to the camp.  Edith Botsford came out once a week to teach the girls sewing and embroidery.  Jessie French taught music.  We stood around the piano and if we didn’t hit the high note, she’d pull on our ears.  The boys were taught manual training.  In his woodworking class my brother made my youngest sister a little wooden duck that she pulled along with a string.


Sugarite School (Courtesy of Joe Bertola Family)

Sugarite School (Courtesy of Joe Bertola Family)

The girls played basketball outdoors.  I wasn’t good at sports, but Mrs. Malcolm made me play and I was a guard.  The Yankee girls would come and play against us and they were husky farm girls. They played with their high top work shoes, denim pants, and cotton shirts.  They threw that basketball from one end of the court to the other and we’d say ‘Yankee Pass’, like they say ‘Hail Mary’ in football.


How did your parents feel toward the company and the mine operators?


My parents, I don’t think, had bad feelings about anyone but they didn’t like some of the things that the company did.  My parents were Democrats and it was the time of (Franklin) Roosevelt. They liked Roosevelt and they had a big picture of him hanging on the wall.  Company officials visited and requested that my dad take the picture down, but he refused.  Around election time company officials came around with a sample ballot to tell my parents how to vote – for the Republican candidate.  My mother pretended she didn’t know better and started to mark the ballot as they requested, and they said, ‘No, wait until you go down to vote.’ When they left, my parents laughed to themselves. At election time they went to the polls and voted for Roosevelt.  My parents didn’t like to be told what to do, and that was from their experiences in the old country.  My dad wanted his freedom.


#4 Rocky Mountain Camp Schools Commencement Program (1939) (Courtesy of Joe Bertola Family)

Rocky Mountain Camp Schools Commencement Program (1939) (Courtesy of Joe Bertola Family)

How did your parents feel about being American citizens?


My parents were thrilled to become American citizens, but they never forgot their Slovenian heritage.  They taught us native songs, told us stories about the ‘old county’, and my dad gave us recipes he carried around in his head.


Rocky Mountain Camp Schools Commencement Program (1939) (Courtesy of Joe Bertola Family)

Rocky Mountain Camp Schools Commencement Program (1939) (Courtesy of Joe Bertola Family)


Do you think miners played an important role in American history?


When I think of all my parents suffered in their lifetime, I believe they were ‘Profiles in Courage’, as were so many miners. They came from many foreign countries with every ethnicity, and worked underground in unsafe conditions with not enough pay and not enough concern for their physical welfare.  Many lost their lives in mine explosions, serious accidents, and to black lung disease.  In my opinion all miners’ courage, dedication, and sacrifice helped the United States prosper. May God bless them!


Vintage photos are courtesy of the Joe Bertola family and Arthur Johnson Memorial Library.



A Photo Essay by Jim Veltri

Photo by Jim Veltri

(Photo by Jim Veltri)

Cables used to winch coal cars to the tipple

Cables used to winch coal cars to the tipple (Photo by Jime Veltri) 

Cable winch for coal cars (Photo by Jim Veltri)

Cable winch for coal cars (Photo by Jim Veltri) 

Cable winch for coal cars (Photo by Jime Veltri)

Cable winch for coal cars (Photo by Jime Veltri) 

(Photo credit: Jim Veltri)

(Photo credit: Jim Veltri) 

(Photo credit: Jim Veltri)

(Photo credit: Jim Veltri) 

Sugarite School (Photo by Jim Veltri)

Sugarite School (Photo by Jim Veltri) 

Sugarite Post Office (Sugarite State Park Visitors' Center) Phot credit: Jim Veltri

Sugarite Post Office (Sugarite State Park Visitors’ Center) Photo credit: Jim Veltri 

Mule Barn (Photo by Jim Veltri)

Mule Barn (Photo by Jim Veltri) 

Powder House (Photo credit: Jim Veltri)

Powder House (Photo credit: Jim Veltri) 

(Photo by Jim Veltri)

(Photo by Jim Veltri)



By Pat Veltri


“It will remain a sacred display without commercialism.”  That’s a recorded proviso in the archives of the Lions Club, a service organization that has partnered with the city of Raton for almost seventy years in the yearly setting up of the City of Bethlehem, a montage of the Nativity of Christ.


A series of twenty scenes cut from plywood, artistically rendered, complete with words of explanation and enhanced lighting, the City of Bethlehem display is permanently housed in the city-owned Climax Canyon at the outer periphery of Apache Avenue.

Entrance to City of Bethlehem

Entrance to City of Bethlehem


Turning the lights on in the City of Bethlehem occurs annually on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and coincides with the lighting of the town’s Christmas tree. The display, gratis to visitors, remains open until the first of January.


Spanning the decades of its existence, various public figures, including governors, television personalities, and senators, have pulled the switch to open the tableau, but mostly it’s been local people and Lions dignitaries. According to Jim Mullings, who has been a member of the Lions Club for thirty-five years, various individuals are nominated for the honor at the club’s regular meetings throughout the year. “It’s just a good idea someone has,” Mullings says, “sometimes to honor a person, someone who has been very helpful to us and so forth.” Raton’s Chief of Police, John Garcia, was the designee for the 2015 lighting ceremony.


City of Bethlehem Postcard, circa late 1970s or early 1980s, made from a slide by Bill Mobley

City of Bethlehem Postcard, circa late 1970s or early 1980s, made from a slide by Bill Mobley

The Lions Club was chartered in 1945 and within a short period of time a young Lion, Glen Karlin, brought the idea of a lighted display of the Nativity to his fellow club members.  Mullings, a local artist and retired educator, says, “Glen Karlin was a student at the University of New Mexico and he returned home one time through Madrid, New Mexico. Madrid had a unique outdoor lighting display depicting the birth of Christ. He brought the idea to the Lions Club and the first year they simply did a Nativity scene.”

Illustrations are by Jim Mullings for Mike Pappas' book RATON History Mystery and More

Illustration by Jim Mullings for Mike Pappas’ book RATON History Mystery and More


The following highlights of the history of the City of Bethlehem were culled from the archives of The Raton Daily Range:


  • 1947 On December 17, 1947 The Range reported that the Raton Lions Club was planning to erect a Christmas scene on the lawn of the courthouse.  The Range said, “The Christmas display, arranged by Woodrow (Woody) Ballard, will include a big Christmas tree and a Nativity scene.  Christmas carols will be played at the display over a public address system during the week of Christmas.”


  • 1948 The initial response from the public to the simple display was positive so the following year the club decided to expand the project.  Beginning in November of 1948 the club made plans for a drive to finance a Christmas display in Climax Canyon.  The Range stated, “The project has been underwritten and promoted by the Raton Lions Club. Any financial assistance from anyone will be greatly appreciated, officials of the club said.” By the end of November, $675, including a $50 pledge from the Kiwanis Club, was collected to build three scenes. The city improved the canyon road and considered the idea of a horseshoe drive in and out of the canyon. On December 6, 1948 lights were flicked on for the first time in the Lions Club sponsored City of Bethlehem display. A public address system played sacred music while the scenes were lighted.


  • 1949 In 1949 the club conducted another successful financial drive to pay for more scenes for the display. Invitations were sent to eighteen Lions Clubs in the area to participate in the turning-on ceremony.  Mayor C.L. Healey pulled the switch that lighted the canyon with nine Christmas scenes. Photographers Dan Sheehan of Raton and Fred Baker of The Denver Post recorded the event on film.


  • 1950 In 1950 Raton’s citizens once again opened their pocketbooks and generously donated money to the City of Bethlehem fund.  On December 12 The Range said, “It was announced by drive chairman Charles Toller that a total of $1143.27 had been raised for the lighting.” Woody Ballard was chosen Ratonian of the Month by The Range and praised by Range columnist, Jim Elliot, “for his work on the City of Bethlehem Christmas lighting scenes”. Fred Baker, a photographer for The Denver Post, pulled the switch for the third year of the display.


  • 1951 In the year 1951 the term “bigger and better” aptly described the Lions Club Christmas display.  Glenn Karlin was the general chairman for the fund drive, which was seeking $1000 to build additional scenes and displays. 

Attendance at opening night was twice as large as the previous year. An estimated 1815 people “oohed and aahed” at the 1951 City of Bethlehem lighting display. The Range gave daily accounts of cars and passengers visiting the display and noted the different states that were represented. The final tally for 1951 was nearly 30,000 people! The show was closed two days early because many of the scenes were destroyed by high winds.


  • 1952 In 1952 The Lions Club made the decision to relocate the City of Bethlehem to the old Raton Pass.  The move was decided upon in order to accommodate the increasing number of visitors as well as the expansion of the display itself.  Locations for the scenes were selected in early November.  For the fifth year of the display, another fund drive was held to defray the expense of moving the display and the expense of adding scenes and repainting some of the old scenes. 

Another first for 1952 was the addition of five Toyland scenes on top of Goat Hill. A new opening night record was set when approximately 2300 people viewed the lighting display. Mayor James Morrow; J.F. Buchanan, District Deputy Governor of Lions; Lions president Charles Toller; and other club officials took part in the opening ceremony. Traffic was heavy on the narrow road but no accidents were reported. 

Church scene in the City of Bethlehem

Church scene in the City of Bethlehem

  • 1953 Another fund drive in 1953 enabled the club to add four new scenes to the display, bringing the total to twenty. The City of Bethlehem was publicized in the December issue of New Mexico Magazine. Four pages of photographs by Daniel Sheehan of the House of Photography were featured.


  • 1954 The City of Bethlehem tableau was moved back to Climax Canyon, which is now its permanent home, in 1954. The Range noted that “no cash drive is being made this year, but that the club will welcome contributions.” Mayor Floyd Atchison lit the 1954 display and commended the club for “providing the community with such an outstanding holiday attraction.”


City of Bethlehem Postcard, circa late 1970s or early 1980s, made from a slide by Bill Mobley

City of Bethlehem Postcard, circa late 1970s or early 1980s, made from a slide by Bill Mobley

After more than thirty years of use, the air-brushed scenes designed and constructed by commercial artist Woody Ballard began to show signs of wear and tear.  In 1982 Mullings and his daughter Gail (Mullings) Cimino, took on the monumental task of replicating the Nativity artwork. Mullings says, “The original paintings were weather beaten and scratched and in sad shape.  The Lions Club decided to see if they could repaint them, but we had no one in mind. We held a fundraiser and we offered a $1000 to have someone paint the City of Bethlehem scenes. I personally didn’t want to tackle that; it seemed like an awesome job. My daughter Gail came home from her freshman year at the University of New Mexico, wanted a summer job and she put in an application.  As it turned out it was the only application that we got and being a member of the Lions Club I volunteered to go ahead and work with her.”


The Mullings father/daughter team painted at the former ARF Products Capulin plant building, which was vacant at the time. He continues, “We just stacked all the scenes in there and the Lions themselves would lay them down and trace them on the plywood and they’d cut the plywood with a saber saw in the right shape. Then we stood up the old one, looked at it and painted the new one. That was a full summer’s job.” The scenes were painted with acrylic paint. As the scenes were completed, they were sprayed with clear acrylic for protection from the elements.


Illustration by Jim Mullings for Mike Pappas' book RATON History Mystery and More. "Driving up Toyland"

Illustration by Jim Mullings for Mike Pappas’ book RATON History Mystery and More. “Driving up Toyland”

Mullings continues to use his artistic talents to refurbish Nativity scenes that are showing signs of deterioration, and has on occasion painted a few Toyland characters, including Sponge Bob Square Pants. Another club member, Arlin Swank, works with Mullings on the restoring of scenes. 


The Toyland characters that are displayed along both sides of Apache Avenue leading the way to the City of Bethlehem, have been creative contributions from the community, including individuals, school clubs, and businesses.  The back of each Toyland character is signed by the artist or artists.


Toyland characters have revolved over the years, but only one has been “retired” according to Mullings.  Complaints from citizens were made about “Darth Vader” being inappropriate for the Christmas season and it was withdrawn from the display. Mullings quips, “There are a number of characters that have gone away, like E.T. and Sponge Bob Square Pants. They’re too popular and they get new homes!”


The City of Bethlehem is housed in various outbuildings in Climax Canyon. When mid November rolls around the Lions and the city workers know the routine for a smooth assembly of the Christmas exhibit. Mullings explains, “The first thing is all the weeds and the growth that occurs on the Climax road has to be cleared. That’s usually done by a city road grader; then all the scenes are taken out and parceled out to the different areas that they need to go and the Lions themselves handle that as much as they can. Finally, the city crews are enlisted to do some of the heavy duty work and without them we’d be in a big mess.”


Jim Mullings, a member of the Raton Lions Club for 35 years, authored a brochure about the City of Bethlehem, which was published by the Raton Chamber of Commerce in the early 1980s.

Jim Mullings, a member of the Raton Lions Club for 35 years, authored a brochure about the City of Bethlehem, which was published by the Raton Chamber of Commerce in the early 1980s.

For many years the Lions Club members and interested citizens put up the display. In the early times there was a Lions Auxiliary, comprised of wives of the Lions, who provided lunch for the volunteers. Now that the organization has dwindled to fifteen members, the actual setting up is in the hands of the small group of Lions and the city employees. “It’s a struggle to put it up, and without young healthy bodies it cannot be done, which poses the question of recruiting for the Lions Club new members that can handle it. I’ve often wondered when we are going to be unable to do that anymore. That’s my biggest concern about the City of Bethlehem,” Mullings states.


Repairs and replacements are ongoing problems with the display, due to weather damage and at times vandalism. Another costly problem is replacement of bulbs in the floodlights. Support from the community, via fundraisers and monetary contributions from civic-minded individuals, businesses and organizations, enable the Lions to maintain the display. An added benefit is that electrical power used for the display is furnished free of charge by the Raton Public Service Company.


In a 1951 article in The Range Woody Ballard summarized the theme of the City of Bethlehem, “Let this place be a tribute to the Savior’s birth. Let the story be painted in the truest of form, and the story written in the simplest of words so even the smallest child could understand. Let the story be a respecter of all creeds, so that all religions could be a part of the worship of His own nativity.”


In 2015 the City of Bethlehem continues, without commercialism, to be a simple, gentle reminder of the true meaning of Christmas, reflecting the theme as stated by Woody Ballard. It has become one of Raton’s most cherished Christmas traditions. Mullings says, “It’s expected. I’ve talked to so many people that have made trips through the City of Bethlehem all through their childhood and adulthood and they continue to do that. Many people revere that opportunity to drive through.” 

Photos/Illustrations are courtesy of Jim Mullings, Ann Marie Rigdon, and Arthur Johnson Memorial Library.



By Pat Veltri


During a 1989 reunion of the 490th Bomb Group, in Reno, Nevada, Ratonian Albert (Al) Manfredi and his wife Tiny connected with several former crew members of the B-17 aircraft that he was assigned to during World War II.  “What was left of our bomb crew was sitting at this table,” recalls Manfredi.  “When we went in to where they were, this guy jumped up from the table, picked me up and swung me around; he scared the hell out of my wife.  He told her, ‘This man – I’m here because he saved my life.’ It was our radio operator.”


Boeing B-17 showing ball turret

Boeing B-17 showing ball turret

Manfredi’s war time job was that of a ball turret gunner on the “Silver Meteor”, a B-17 heavy bomber aircraft.  As part of a ten-man crew, Manfredi participated in thirty-five strategic high altitude bombing missions over Nazi occupied Europe.  


On one particular bomb run Manfredi’s quick thinking saved the lives of the radio operator and a substitute waist gunner. He describes the circumstances: “One of our waist gunners went on sick call that morning so they always gave us another one to fly with so we’d have a complete crew. We were about to go in on the bomb run to drop our bombs and the radio operator noticed that this waist gunner that they gave us was down on the floor trying to get up. He (waist gunner) went to move around and he unplugged his oxygen.  He didn’t realize that you couldn’t live up there (at high altitude) without oxygen. So the radio operator went back there to help him. You had a portable bottle of oxygen that you had to plug into the mask when you walked around. When he (radio operator) went back there (to the waist), he bent over to pick up this guy and plug him in, and his oxygen cable fell off so he was passing out too. There was a little window in the turret. I could look into the waist, so when I looked into the waist, they were both trying to get up.  I could turn my door in the ball turret to where I could get up into the waist. I got up into the waist, grabbed my own oxygen bottle and went back and plugged them in.”


Al Manfredi in dress uniform of the U.S. Army Air Force

Al Manfredi in dress uniform of the U.S. Army Air Force

Manfredi, a native of Morley, Colorado entered the military service at the youthful age of seventeen, soon after completing his sophomore year at Trinidad High School. The aftermath of the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor was the driving force behind his early enlistment. Manfredi, along with eight other enlistees, from the Colorado towns of Trinidad and Aguilar, were sent to Fort Logan, a military installation eight miles southwest of Denver, for physicals and several days of aptitude and intelligence assessments.  Although Manfredi signed up with the combat engineers, his testing results indicated he would be a good candidate for the Army Air Force. When given the option of remaining in the combat engineers or entering the Air Force, Manfredi, chose the Air Force because he felt that “it would be exciting to go up in the air”.


Manfredi, along with others, traveled from Fort Logan to Shepard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas for six weeks of basic training. Manfredi says, “We took our basic training there, and after we completed our basic training, we were sent to Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada. We went to school there and trained there.  They used to take us up flying to see if we could handle it. They showed us our .50 caliber machine guns that would be mounted in our turrets and we had to take them apart and put them back together again.”  Another part of the training was marksmanship.  Using a twelve gauge shot gun, trainees shot skeet and were required to hit twenty out of twenty-five clay pigeons to qualify for their wings. Manfredi recalls, “I think the first time I got four out of twenty-five.  My shoulder was black and blue. Finally, I hit twenty-one out of twenty-five so I qualified.”


Once he received his wings, Manfredi was sent to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida with a ten-man crew for more training that focused on getting pilots and crews comfortable with the B-17 Flying Fortress.  “We flew with the same crew the whole time,” he says, “so we trained in Florida, flying with the crew.”  Once this training was completed, Manfredi and his fellow crew members were sent to Newfoundland in “a brand new bomber”.  “We flew from Newfoundland to Ireland non-stop. We were in the air for about ten to twelve hours. We were there one day and from there we flew to the 490th bomb group that we were assigned to.”  The 490th flew missions over Nazi Germany, the Ardennes, Rhineland, and Northern France.


The 490th Bombardment Group (H), Eighth U. S. Army Air Force was a heavy bombardment unit stationed in Eye, a small town located in the northern end of Suffolk County, England, near the English Channel.  The unit mounted attacks against enemy industrial and military targets. “We bombed industrial targets like marshalling yards, tank factories, aircraft plants, railroad yards, stuff like that. We didn’t drop bombs on people, never did,” states Manfredi. The 490th was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for a hit on a ball bearing factory in Merseburg, Germany. “We completely wiped it out with precision bombing,” Manfredi says.


The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, a four-engine heavy bomber aircraft, capable of long distance travel, was primarily employed by the U.S. Army Air Force in the daylight strategic bombing campaign of World War II.  The B-17 was dubbed Flying Fortress because it was outfitted with machine guns from tip to tail. According to the Internet source  www.military factory.com, “the name ‘Flying Fortress’ is purported to have come from one of the reporters present during the unveiling of the machine at the Boeing plant, remarking as to how the aircraft looked like a 15-ton ‘flying fortress’.”  Manfredi says, “There were twelve bombers to each squadron, and there was always three squadrons in a bomb group. There was a lead squadron, but you couldn’t fly behind each other in the B-17s because of the prop wash; if you got behind the bomber in front of you, it tossed you around.”


Typically, B-17 Flying Fortresses flew in what was known as the “box formation”.  This formation allowed every gunner on board the aircraft to bring their guns to bear in any position needed.  Gunner positions included a top turret gunner, a tail gunner, a ball turret gunner, a nose gunner, and two waist gunners.  The flight engineer doubled as the top turret gunner while the bombardier and navigator in the nose section doubled as front (nose) gunners.


Manfredi, in his position as ball turret gunner, inhabited a Plexiglass sphere (turret) nestled in the belly of the B-17 that revolved a complete 360 degrees and was equipped with two .50 caliber machine guns, sights, and 1300 rounds of ammunition.  The space was limited so he sat hunched, in fetal position, tracking enemy aircraft below, wearing only a safety strap for protection against falling out of the aircraft, should something happen to the turret in flight.


Manfredi recalls, “We used to fly about 35,000 feet.  The Germans were very smart people; you have to give them credit.  They had the radar and they had their anti-aircraft guns.  They’d get your altitude and they’d set those anti-aircraft to burst at a certain altitude.  If they didn’t hit you with one, they’d set it to explode at your altitude. The head on that thing was cast iron, but when it exploded it sent pieces all over. They used to come through the side of the bombers and it sounded like you were in a tin building and somebody threw a handful of gravel against the walls.”


He continues, “They put me in the ball turret because I was a small man; it took a small man in there. You couldn’t wear a parachute in there, but I used to wear a harness. We used to have to wear oxygen masks; they didn’t have pressurized cabins then.  We put our oxygen masks on at 10,000 feet.” Because of the cramped quarters, Manfredi didn’t get into the turret until the bomber was over enemy territory.


Preparation for a bombing mission was lengthy.  Usually the crew was rousted at 1:00 in the morning, given a snack and coffee, and then briefed on the day’s target. Briefing was intense and crew members focused on their mission.


While the air crew was briefed, the ground crew was conducting systematic inspections of every aircraft and warming up the engines.


After the briefing the crew retrieved their guns, installed them in the turrets, and then suited up in thermal clothing.  Manfredi recalls, “You had to wear electrical heating suits because it was so cold up there. The electrical heating suit was like an electrical blanket on a bed.  I think the coldest mission that I can remember was 60 degrees below zero. You wore nylon gloves underneath your heated gloves in case you had to take your big gloves off to work on your guns. The guns are metal, if you didn’t have that (nylon glove), and you touched the gun, your hand would freeze to the gun. We had good training.”


Al Manfredi had this photo taken of him wearing a kilt while on a five day leave in Edinburgh, Scotland, after he and his crew completed 25 successful strategic bombing missions.

Al Manfredi had this photo taken of him wearing a kilt while on a five day leave in Edinburgh, Scotland, after he and his crew completed 25 successful strategic bombing missions.

According to Manfredi, an interval of rest and respite was earned by the crew following the completion of a fixed number of missions. “We used to fly five missions and then they’d give us a 48 hour pass and we used to go to London quite a bit. When we completed twenty-five missions, they gave us a five day r and r leave to go to a hotel and rehab center in southern England.” Instead, Manfredi and his buddy purchased train tickets to Edinburgh, Scotland.  “We went to Scotland for five days. A family took us in. They wanted no pay, but they used the ration cards that we were allotted to buy food. They treated us like kings.   We really enjoyed it up there.  I even have a picture they took of us in kilts; my buddy and I both got pictures. I’ve got it in my scrapbook. They treated us damn nice.  That’s a good memory.”


Manfredi mustered out of the Air Force on October 3, 1945 with the rank of staff sergeant and an impressive assortment of medals and citations for his bravery.  In civilian life he worked briefly in the steel mill in Pueblo, Colorado, but mostly worked as a truck driver in California, Colorado, and New Mexico.  


The combination of Manfredi’s small physical size and his immunity to heights and enclosed spaces placed him in the ball turret, one of the most hazardous crew positions in the heavy duty bomber.  Even though he faced the risk of death time after time, his courage was unwavering, and he didn’t dwell on the possibility that he might not come back from a mission. “You thought about the things that you had to do.  We all knew what could happen.  We trained for that (bomb run) and that’s what we had to do,” he reflects.


However, the loss of three of his fellow crew members during bombing missions was a distressing memory that troubled Manfredi long after his discharge from the Air Force.

“The first one killed in our crew was the bombardier.  One of those anti-aircraft shells burst and it took half his face because he was right up in the nose with the Plexiglas front.  When he got hit, he pressed the intercom button and he was screaming. I never forgot that. I used to wake up nights when I got out.  We lost three on our crew – the bombardier, the top turret gunner and one of the waist gunners.”


Albert (Al) Manfredi of Raton with illustration of the B-17 Flying Fortress

Albert (Al) Manfredi of Raton with illustration of the B-17 Flying Fortress

Manfredi, who turned ninety-one on November 25th, is the lone survivor of the Silver Meteor’s original ten-man crew. As he shared his war time memories, the pride in his voice showed through: “It was an experience for me and an honor. When my country needed me, I quit school and enlisted and served my country, and I’m proud of it.” He adds, “I’m also thankful that I’m here to talk about it.”


By Pat Veltri


  Hundreds of white iron crosses, marking the graves of men who died in the mines, fill the Dawson Cemetery. The crosses, most of them bearing death dates of 1913 and 1923, are the only tangible reminders of the coal camp town of Dawson, New Mexico.  The town was dismantled and sold for salvage in 1950 when the owner, Phelps-Dodge Corporation shut down the mines. Dawson miners and their families relocated to Raton, Cimarron, and other nearby towns.

Dawson Cemetery crosses (Photo by Jim Veltri)

Dawson Cemetery crosses (Photo by Jim Veltri)

The mining town of Dawson was founded in 1901 when rancher John Barkley Dawson sold his 24,000 acres of coal-rich land to Charles Eddy and a partnership known as the Dawson Fuel Company.


In 1906, the property was purchased by the Phelps-Dodge Corporation.  The corporation began to mine coal to sell to railroads and to use to smelt copper ore dug from their Arizona mines.  The corporation’s mine operations, located in the immediate vicinity of Dawson, included ten mines, identified by the numbers one to ten.


Dawson, New Mexico

Dawson, New Mexico

Dawson grew into a company town of about 9,000 people, and was one of the biggest towns in New Mexico in the 1920s. The majority of the miners were Italian, but most ethnic groups were represented in the town’s population.



In addition to constructing homes for the miners, the Phelps-Dodge Corporation built many other facilities, including a hospital, schools, a community swimming pool, an opera house, a golf course, two churches and a hotel. The merchandise in the Phelps-Dodge Mercantile Department Store equaled that of any big city department store.


Dawson suffered two major mining disasters.  On Oct. 22, 1913, 263 men were killed in an underground explosion at Mine No. 2.  Another tragic explosion on Feb. 8, 1923, in Mine No. 1, took the lives of 120 miners, many of them children of the men who died in 1913.

Emagene Saracino shares some reminders of the past, including her mother's sun bonnet. Her mother, Mary Buttram, wore the bonnet while gardening in Dawson.

Emagene Saracino shares some reminders of the past, including her mother’s sun bonnet. Her mother, Mary Buttram, wore the bonnet while gardening in Dawson

Ratonian Emagene (Buttram) Saracino was born in Dawson, attended Central School in downtown Dawson for her early schooling, and graduated from Dawson High School. Her parents, Luther and Mary Buttram, moved to Dawson in 1923, prior to the second explosion, from Granby, Missouri. Her father, who was the chief electrician for the Dawson mines, came to New Mexico for health reasons. Saracino was the fifth child in a family of six. Her siblings included brothers Jack and Charles, and her sisters, Barbara, Marian, and Mildred. The family moved to Raton in the late 1940s, a bit before the town’s closure.


Emagene Saracino's home in Dawson

Emagene Saracino’s home in Dawson

Saracino shares her memories of Dawson:


What section of Dawson did you live in? What do you remember about your home?

We lived downtown in a good-sized house with three bedrooms and an indoor bathroom. The house was heated with a big coal stove in the living room and there was also the kitchen stove. We had a beautiful yard and my folks always had a garden. My mother grew just about everything including beets, onions, lettuce, and sometimes cabbage.



Did you and your family attend church regularly?

Dawson had a Protestant Church and a Catholic Church. I went to the Protestant Church all the time that I lived in Dawson. We had no pastor, so several times a month a pastor would come from Raton and preach. Most of the young people attended Sunday school. Miss Hannah McGarvey kept the Sunday school together; no matter if there was only one person, she would be there.

Dawson Community Church

Dawson Community Church



What can you remember about your school days in Dawson?

Dawson High School

Dawson High School

Dawson always had good teachers, and a great basketball and football team along with an outstanding band. I played saxophone in the band all through my high school days.  We had a great band director, Herbert Bailey. He walked so straight. We just loved him!



What were the big celebrations in your family? What did you do to celebrate?

The Fourth of July. About four families would get together and go to Cimarron Canyon, and we’d have a lot of fun there. We went hiking and wading; we played baseball and shot fireworks, and our parents played with us.


Was there a company store in Dawson?

Phelps-Dodge Mercantile Department Store

Phelps-Dodge Mercantile Department Store

Yes, I worked in it when I was in high school. They had everything that you wanted, everything from ice to caskets. I worked in the grocery department. The last person hired in the grocery department was responsible for wrapping the bread. The bread was wrapped by hand, and then positioned in a machine that sealed the wrapping with wax.  Three loaves of bread sold for 25 cents.


What did you do for fun?

We had to make our own fun, which we did by going on hikes in the mountains. We didn’t plan ahead; it was just something we did at a moment’s notice. We would take our lunch and usually spend the entire day.


I loved to ride my bike and spent a lot of time doing that. Of course we went to all of the football and basketball games.


Did you and your friends have a regular hangout?

The place where most of us hung out was the Sweet Shop.  That was just a regular hangout for kids. The manager made us toe the mark; he wouldn’t have any nonsense at all. Cokes were 5 cents.


What leisure services did the town provide?

There was a nice swimming pool. Swimming was something I loved to do.  It was free to all who lived there. Girls would swim from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm and then the boys would swim from 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm. The water in the pool was not heated so it was very cold!


We had what was called the Opera House, but it was also the movie theater. We were fortunate in having the latest movies. On Thursday and Friday we had the same movie and then it changed to a different one on Sunday and Monday. It cost 13 cents to get in.


How were illnesses and injuries taken care of?

We had a very good hospital and dispensary, and very good doctors. We got all medicine, even aspirin, from the dispensary. Miners paid a small fee, which was taken from their paychecks every month, to cover medicine and medical services.


Street leading to Emagene Saracino's home in Dawson

Street leading to Emagene Saracino’s home in Dawson

Were there ever any problems among different ethnic groups?

Each nationality lived in a separate section of town, but we all went to school together. We were friends with each other. There were never any fights between nationalities. It seemed like we got along real well.


How does life today compare to your life in Dawson?

We were law abiding people; we never had any crime.  They had a jailhouse but I don’t know if anybody was ever in it. It just seemed like it was a good place to live, a good place for kids. Our parents trusted all of us to go anywhere we wanted around town because there wasn’t anyone or anything there to bother us.


Do you think your early life in the coal town of Dawson had any effect on your later life?

Well, I don’t know if it did or not.  I did learn that lots of times when you think that something is the worst, it’s usually the best. All of us (young people) were so anxious to get out of Dawson—why I don’t know—because it was such a nice town and such a beautiful place.  When I look back, I realize that Dawson was the best place that I ever lived.


What keeps the town alive in the hearts of former Dawsonites?

Every other year we have a Dawson reunion.  Once again people who lived in Dawson come together and renew the good times we had.  Nothing is there now except a few buildings and the cemetery, and you would never know that the sprawling town of Dawson once existed. All that is left is our memories!

Vintage photos are courtesy of Emagene Saracino.



Dawson Cemetery crosses (Photo by Jim Veltri)

Dawson Cemetery (Photo by Jim Veltri)

These three photos were taken by Jim Veltri. The Dawson Cemetery, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is the only significant landmark remaining of the coal town of Dawson, New Mexico.  The cemetery is filled with  white iron crosses marking the graves of the hundreds of miners who lost their lives in two tragic mining disasters in Dawson.  Other markers show the burial places of several residents of Dawson.


Dawson coal cart