Click for OffbeatTravel home
Photo by Neala

Tales of Taos

If it's true that every building has stories to tell, the town of Taos must have some of the most interesting. This small charming quirky town cherishes its varied, and often spicy history.

There are three cultures living in Taos. Most visitors see the refuge of artists, and other free spirits who wash dishes, fix plumbing, do carpentry and wait tables. Few make a living solely through their art, music or theater.

There is, of course, the people of the Taos pueblo and much of the land is their ancestral home.

And, just to leaven the mix, a sizable population of folks of Spanish heritage who have been in Taos for generations. Conservative, family-oriented they teach in the schools, work in the hotels and restaurants, and come to watch their kids play Little League on a Saturday afternoon in Kit Carson park.

There are also the hippies who live in communes off in the mountains but they tend to keep to themselves.

It would be lovely to think all these groups have lived in harmony, but in fact, they've clashed mightily over the years and now live in parallel cultures. Pick the Taos you want to experience.

The Buildings, the People, and the Stories

The artist part of the life of Taos started serendipitously in 1898 when artists Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips suffered a broken wagon wheel 20 miles north of town. Legend has it that when Blumy trudged into Taos he saw the blue sky, the mountains and the Taos Pueblo and fell in love. Phillips almost immediately became a resident. It took Blumenschein a few years but he eventually founded the Taos Society of Artists, and gradually attracted more and more of the country's questing creatives.

Mabel Dodge Luhan: the heiress
Photo by Neala It was Mabel Dodge who more than anyone brought art and more than a small bit of scandal as well to Taos. Mabel Ganson Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan was a heiress from a Buffalo family. She was looking for love and found in it in Taos in 1918 when she met Tony Luhan, a Taos Pueblo Indian. Mabel actually started out in Santa Fe in 1917 to join her third husband, Maurice Sterne but after moving to Taos they divorced and Mabel stayed on building a house blending Pueblo, Spanish Colonial, and Tuscan styles. She met Tony Luhan who appears to have been married at the time. Not to be deterred, Mabel married Luhan and set about inviting D.H.Lawrence, Georgia O'Keeffe, Ansel Adams, and more to her large eclectic home. Almost everyone who was anyone eventually showed up in Taos, and in the Luhan house. The house was often home to feuds, affairs, and yet remained a flash point of creativity The locals weren't quite as enamored with Mabel and felt that she was playing at "going native" and even that she slipped Tony's wife some money to disappear.

The house went through numerous transformation and reinventions but the Mabel Dodge Luhan House is now a B&B and historic landmark. It's at 240 Morada Lane.

Arthur Manby: the headless
Taos also had its greedy, grasping, he-got-what-was-coming-to-him (unsolved) murder. Arthur Manby acquired title to much of the property of Taos by less than honorable measures. Then, in 1926 (or 1929 depending on the source) he was found beheaded in his home. If folks knew who did the deed, they weren't talking. Some people maintain it wasn't even Manby at all. Others that he actually died of natural causes. Hard to imagine, what with the head sitting there in another room. Today the Manby house is now the Taos Center for the Arts -- a museum and artist gallery space at 133 Passeo del Norte.

Doc Martin: the doctor
One of the most popular places in Taos is the Historic Taos Inn. Dr. Thomas Paul (Doc) Martin, came to Taos in the 1890s and bought the largest of several adobe houses which at the time surrounded a small plaza. The plaza is now the Inn's lobby, complete with community well in the center. Doc himself was a popular man, well-regarded for his concern for people of Taos and seems to be one of the few prominent Taosenos who was untouched by the whiff of scandal.

His wife Helen Martin was an artist (of course) and sister-in-law to artist Bert Phillips, one of the founding fathers of the art community. Gradually the Martins entered the hospitality business, buying the other buildings around the plaza which they rented to writers and artists.

When Doc died, Helen bought the last remaining building enclosed the plaza and formally opened the Hotel Martin in 1936. Later owners changed the name to the Taos Inn but this charming collection of buildings, named to the State Register of Historic Places, is still the hub of social and artistic life in Taos. Stop by to listen to the music and have a drink in the Adobe Bar, enjoy a meal in Doc Martin's Restaurant, wander through history. It's at 125 Paseo del Norte.

Nicolai Fechin: the Russian
Photo by Neala Although most artists who found their way to Taos were from the United States, Nicolai Fechin was a Russian artist who arrived in 1927 with his wife Alexandra and daughter Eya by way of New York in hopes the climate would be beneficial for his tuberculosis. This was no hardship for him since by then he had visited and fallen in love with Taos.

Eya remembers that they initially lived with Mabel Luhan but Mabel and Alexandra quarreled and the family moved out. Fechin then bought an adobe home and completely redid it to reflect his individual style. The combination of adobe bones and Russian wood carvings has made the house, now a museum open to the public, one of the most unusual and beautiful homes in Taos.

His artwork also decorates the Fechin Inn next door on the grounds of the museum. It's a lovely place to stay, warm and woody with prints by Fechin gracing the walls. Prints of two of his drawings hang on my living room wall. The faces of the old man and Eya as young woman are haunting.

Fechin's marriage ended in 1933 and Fechin and Eya left, although Alexandra continued to live on the property until she died in1976. Eya eventually moved back and lived in the building that had been the studio until she died. The Fechin House & Museum is at 227 Paseo del Pueblo Norte

Photo by NealaLedoux Street
Charming Ledoux Street is just one area chocked with galleries, but it also has the gallery of one of New Mexico's famous and loved artists -- R. C. Gorman. A Navajo painter who also sculpted, Gorman's gallery is the best place to pick up one of his stylistically unique posters and prints. Sadly, Gorman died in 2005 but until his death he would regularly visit the gallery to sign posters. He's one of my favorite artists and I came away with a signed poster that now graces another wall of my living room. Also on Ledoux Street is the Blumenschein House (222 Ledoux Street) and the Harwood Museum (238 Ledoux Street).

Kit Carson
Another player in the Taos drama is Kit Carson. He was a trapper, and guide as well as an Indian agent and an Army officer. His first two wives were from the Arapahoe and Cheyenne tribes. Then, he married the 14-year-old daughter of a prominent Taos family and in 1843 bought an adobe house. The house at 113 Kit Carson Road is now a museum with guided tours. Although Carson died in 1868 in Colorado his body was brought back to Taos, and his grave is in the park that bears his name -- the Kit Carson Park.

The controversy is over the way he should be remembered. Was he a friend to the Indians, or a man who was instrumental in the deaths of thousands of Navajo. Or, a human being trying to do his best in difficult times? Carson strongly support the efforts of the U S government to annex the territory of the southwest, and the government wanted to move the Navajo off their tribal land and to a reservation. The Navajo refused, and in 1863 Carson began a war against the Navajo destroying their crops, orchards and livestock. The Navajo had their own enemies, other than the US government. Several Indian tribes joined the fray and eventually, in 1864, the Navajo were defeated and began what the Navajo call the Long Walk, almost 300 miles from Arizona to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Many died along the way, and many wondered if they would have been better off continuing to fight.

However, up until that point, from 1854 until 1861, Carson served as an Indian Agent, a mediator between the different tribes and the U S government, largely because he was felt to be fair and sympathetic to the native population and was an accomplished linguist, speaking several of the different Indian languages. In fact, there is some evidence that he did plead the case of the Navajo in 1863. But everything is relative, and it's probably fair to say that much of the native American population didn't see him as an ally.

Carson was a member of the Masons and the lodge of which he was a member saved and restored the Kit Carson House and opened it to the public. It's at 113 Kit Carson Road.

Taos Pueblo
Photo by Neala The other faces and buildings of Taos go back much further. I'm standing on the banks of the tiny river that bisects the Taos Pueblo. To my right a group of men are mending a wall. They shovel mud on top of the adobe bricks as they have done for 1000 years. A four story adobe building rises with the backdrop of the mountains, one of two main structures of the pueblo.

The water of the river is used for drinking and cooking and signs remind visitors not to foul the water. There is no electricity or running water. A newer pueblo has been built nearby with modern conveniences but this is no ghost town or quaint museum. People still live here, where their ancestors lived, and the way their ancestors lived.

The best maintained building is San Geronimo Church built in 1850. It's a mere youngster in terms of age, but the tiny cemetery (on the site of the original church built in 1619), is filled with graves and headstones going back no more than 20 years. The pueblo chooses to bury the newly dead on top of their ancestors, the crosses harvested and saved as sacred. It seems unusual, perhaps, but very practical. There are no acres of cemetery. Everyone is still together in death as they were in life.

In a sense Taos is a stew pot of different groups sometimes with a history of war between them. The pamphlet supplied by the Taos Pueblo reads in part: "The details of our traditional values are guarded as sacred and are not divulged. Understand that the past oppressions upon our culture have required us to keep the details unspoken." Yet having visited I found that the people of the pueblo are warm and welcoming to those who come with an open mind and heart. Visitors are also welcomed at many feasts and events throughout the year.

Martinez Hacienda
Photo by Neala No description of Taos would be complete without the Spanish heritage. And the best place to experience Spanish Taos is in Hacienda de los Martinez built around 1804, one of the few Great Houses remaining from the late Spanish Colonial period. Antonio Severino Martin (later changed to Martinez) came to Taos and built the hacienda. The family prospered with trade with Mexico and even what was then America over the Santa Fe Trail.

The Hacienda is built in two sections, each around its own courtyard or placita. The building has been maintained the way it would have been used by the Martinez family and visitors are encouraged to wander through the rooms. On my visit I discovered a group of dedicated quilters in one of the rooms. They meet there regularly to create stunning quilts. This is actually quite appropriate since one room of the house is the weaving room with looms. One of the businesses of the family was to raise sheep for woolen goods. There's also a blacksmith shop, kitchen, grande sala for parties. It is now part of Taos Historic Museums.

And More

There's plenty of other things to do in Taos. The Millicent Rogers Museum showcases the eclectic collections of heiress Millicent Rogers. Visit the incredibly photogenic San Francisco de Asis Church. Have your camera ready, you'll be snapping photos. The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge crosses the river -- 650 feet below. Look down and see the tiny people in their tiny boats. It's quite a sight. Visit the art galleries in town. Have some chili spiced fudge in Rocky Mountain Chocolate in the Plaza. Or enjoy my favorite -- a fantastic caramel with a dot of chocolate and pinon nuts.

In addition to Doc Martin's Restaurant and the Adobe Bar, try Orlandos for its delicious New Mexican food Orlando's New Mexican Cafe at 1114 Don Juan Valdez Lane, but bring cash, Orlando's does not accept credit cards. Michael's Kitchen at 304 Paseo Del Pueblo Norte is another favorite, especially for delicious breakfasts served all day. For more information on Taos visit Taos Chamber of Commerce.

Taos has been a magnet for wanderers -- where people have come for the last 150 years to heal from broken hearts and find themselves, while others come to lose themselves, and others come to reinvent themselves. It doesn't matter what you were in a former life. In Taos, you are whoever you want to be.


© 2006