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Visiting Lucy's Pasture donkey-rescue ranch near Deming.

Cultivating Cranberry Press
Kingston's ex-bank is now a haven for printing the old-fashioned way

The Case of Lieutenant John Lafferty
Trekking to an ancestor's Apache battleground

Mimbres Memories
At the Mimbres Culture Heritage Center, potters and murder

Waiting for the Light
The ageless appeal of luminarias

Flight of the Snow Goose
These snowbirds don't need an RV for their annual migration

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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   December 2009

Mimbres Memories

At the Mimbres Culture Heritage Center, you can learn about the ancient peoples who made that beautiful pottery — and how a later resident named Gooch got away with murder.

By Jim Kelly

Some folks hereabouts call it the Mimbres Culture Heritage Center. Some call it the Mattocks Ruin, after the family who once owned the property; some the Gooch House. But a lot of folks, surprisingly enough, don't call it anything at all, because they have never heard of it.

Mimbres Cultural Heritage Center
The Gooch House on the Mimbres Culture Heritage Site reflects the territorial adobe style of building common among homes of Anglo settlers to the area. (Silver City Museum)

It's not even out of the way, sitting as it does just a stone's throw off the east side of Highway 35, just past the Mimbres Caf, in the Mimbres Valley. All that's visible from the highway is a bit of the roof of the big old house that stands as the most striking landmark on one of the most interesting monuments to local history Grant County has to offer.

While most Grant County landmarks to local history are more or less fixed in time, usually sometime in the 19th century, the Mimbres site of the old buildings and the adjacent Native American village ruins has a documented human presence dating all the way back to around the year 250. In fact, the first structures have been documented at around the year 500. Evidence of continuous occupation is apparent right up until about 1150, including a period of about 150 years when the people of what is commonly referred to as the "Classic Mimbres Period" produced most of that famous pottery.

What most folks don't realize is that the pottery we see in the Western New Mexico University Museum, the Silver City Museum and a few other local repositories, is every bit as coveted and treasured in many of America's hallowed halls of antiquity as it is locally.

In his 1983 book The Mimbres People: Ancient Pueblo Painters of the American Southwest, Dr. Steven LeBlanc, head of the Mimbres Foundation at Harvard University's prestigious Peabody Museum, discusses Grant County's Mimbres Valley and its earliest inhabitants in great detail. Many other scholars in equally prominent institutions have shared LeBlanc's interest in our local history.

The Native American sites of the Mimbres Valley have been known to archeologists since at least 1912, and were first studied in some detail by a small group of Beloit College's Logan Museum scholars in 1929.

Let's take a pause for historical perspective, and keep in mind we're talking about a place 30 minutes by car from downtown Silver City, with a documented history dating back at least 1,750 years, and a great number of local residents don't even know it's here, let alone open to the public.

While the Native Americans who occupied the Mimbres site in the 11th century were making all that beautiful pottery, other world cultures were also developing. The T'ang dynasty is being documented in China. Ethelred is King of England and is fighting off Vikings in what is now the United Kingdom. The cities of Vienna and Marrakesh are just getting started. The Battle of Hastings is taking place. The Knights Templar are first recognized by the Pope, and Omar Khayyam, the Persian poet and astronomer, is doing all his stuff.

And here in the Mimbres Valley, a culture was developing that we can still visit today.

The property, including the Classic Mimbres village ruin, now belongs to the Silver City Museum Society, and local schools and a few other small tour groups occasionally visit the place.

Generally, of the greatest interest to visitors is the village site itself. Even though it has been extensively excavated by both scholars and commercial pothunters, its story remains a fascinating narrative.

To the untrained eye, the village site now looks pretty much like any other field in any other part of the Mimbres Valley. There are a few small mounds here and there, a couple of depressions in the earth that aren't even perceptible unless viewed from a particular angle, and some bushes that don't appear to have any significance.

Site manager Marilyn Markel interprets the terrain and tells the visitor what lies beneath the surface. Because the site has been so disturbed by archeological excavation and looters looking for the precious pots and bowls, it also has had to be rehabilitated by backfilling the craters and trenches left by earlier explorers. Still, signs of the old village remain, if you know where to look.

Markel, a New Mexico native whose archeology degree is from the University of New Mexico, weaves the tale of the Mimbres culture as she points out where the Great Kiva was, where the room blocks began and ended and where the flagstone plaza once stood. She also points out where other sites are in the area: the Galaz site, about six miles to the south, the McAnally site on a mesa just across the river.

Then she bends over and picks up a small piece of pottery. She encourages visitors to take a good hard look at the ground beneath their feet. What first appeared as dirt, twigs and just miscellaneous pebbles and stones takes on a new face as Markel talks. Here and there small pieces of pottery can sometimes be found. Some of the pieces are roughly coiled fragments of earlier Mimbres culture pieces, red or dull brown in color. Some are the classic black-and-white patterns found in museums. They're still there, those 11th century potters. Their work endures.

Today, just as in decades past, university scholars come to the Mimbres to explore the past. In the summer of 2009, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV) conducted a field school at a site near the Mattocks Ruin. Dr. Barbara Roth brought a group of undergraduate and graduate students for a summer-long dig. Students from schools in New York, Pennsylvania and Arizona joined in excavating several pithouse locations.

According to Roth, some of the sites in the area are right in the middle of developed areas, and one in particular is situated in a housing development right outside Silver City.

Along with the Silver City Museum Society, the Grant County Archeological Society, the Trail of the Mountain Spirits Byway Commission and the Mimbres Foundation are developing the Mattocks property as a cultural interpretive site. Plans are afoot to establish an interpretive trail through the village site, pointing out interesting topography and Mimbres Cultural elements. The plan is to devote the site to educational programs for schools and other interested groups.

Along with the development of the Mattocks Ruin, the groups plan to refurbish the old ranch buildings on the property, each of which has a history filled with both fame and infamy all its own. Aside from the several utility buildings, two old adobe houses form the primary settings for the most infamous tales of the Mimbres homestead. The older and smaller of the two sits back behind the larger and more recently constructed ranch house and stands as testament to the dangers of territorial New Mexico.

The original 160-acre homestead was patented by a Dr. Granville Wood in 1882, and the adobe he constructed housed both his medical practice and his living quarters. Along one of the walls, gun ports provided for the family's defenses against Apache raiding parties that still frequented the area in the late 19th century.

In late December 1883, famous archeologist Adolph Bandelier visited Wood and commented favorably on the condition of the Indian village ruin on the property next to the house.

In 1887, Wood traded the property to Robert Floyd, a health seeker, in exchange for Floyd's Texas ranch. The health Floyd was seeking didn't come his way, however, and he died soon after in 1889.

His widow Kate assumed ownership of the property and, through a series of unusual events, soon was reunited with an old boyfriend. They had parted some years earlier over a lovers quarrel, but now Kate was ready to marry Mimbres Valley rancher Benjamin Gooch.

This fortuitous union seemed to bring all kinds of success to Gooch, who was often referred to in the Silver City newspapers of the day as a "prosperous rancher." He grew vegetables and fruit and raised cattle, and at the turn of the 20th century he built the big stately ranch house that now stands most prominently on the property. He also opened a grocery store and meat market in Silver City.

Things were going well for Gooch — until Oct. 13, 1902. That's the day he shot and killed J.D. Ross.

The saga of Benjamin Gooch is a tale both sad and funny, and has caused many a Grant County neighbor to scratch his head in wonder over the years.

After Gooch moved his family into that fine house in Silver City, he continued to raise vegetables, fruit and cattle in Mimbres to supply his store in town, but in addition, he leased out part of the property to J.D. Ross. The two men got along fine for a bit, but soon got to arguing over the maintenance of the irrigation ditches on the place.

In October 1902, Gooch paid a visit to Ross at the ranch. Their ongoing argument escalated into a fatal confrontation when, according to Gooch's statement, Ross came at him with a pitchfork. Gooch drew his .38 and fired five times, hitting Ross with three of the shots, once each in the arm, chest and back.

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