Santa Fe History, Living and Thriving
El Rancho de las Golondrinas, 334 Los Pinos Rd, Santa Fe 505-471-2261
Just south of the city of Santa Fe, visitors can find a beautiful and unique place that seems almost unchanged by the winds of time. At the same location for over 300 years, El Rancho de las Golondrinas, the “Ranch of the Swallows,” is one of the most historic ranch properties in the entire southwest. An official rest stop on historic El Camino Real, which led from Mexico City through the desert of Chihuahua to the provincial capital of Old Santa Fe, Golondrinas welcomed and comforted many a weary traveler taken with the charms and challenges of the New World. In 1710, the massive ranch was subsequently acquired by Miguel Vega y Coca, and as his daughters intermarried with La Familia Baca, the property was passed down through the years to their descendants.
In its present-day incarnation, El Rancho de las Golondrinas came into being as a vision of the Curtin-Paloheimo family, who acquired the property in the early 1930s. Their dream of bringing the history of New Mexico alive to the descendants of the people who created it led to the renovation of existing historic buildings, the construction of historically accurate structures on old foundations, and the transfer of related buildings from other New Mexican sites. On encountering Golondrinas today, visitors will find an 18th century placita house complete with defensive tower, a 19th century home with all of its outbuildings, a morada, a molasses mill, a threshing ground, several primitive water mills, a blacksmith shop, a wheelwright shop, and a winery and vineyard, all combined to create an intriguing and authentic depiction of the many elements essential to a frontier life in early New Mexico.
At its heart, the mission of Golondrinas is to create a respectful understanding of the language, culture, traditional arts and proud history of Spanish Colonial, Mexican and Territorial New Mexico. In short, la herencia, heritage! Particular emphasis is placed on its use as an educational facility, and teachers and students are welcomed throughout the year for tours, workshops, seminars and unique learning experiences. The many events held at the ranch provide visitors with an unrivaled sense of Santa Fe’s past, along with satisfying the western dreams we all seem to have at one time or another.
This week, the Authentic Guide is delighted to feature an interview with one of Santa Fe’s truly knowledgeable and dedicated museum professionals, John Berkenfield, Executive Director of El Rancho de Las Golondrinas.
How did you find your way to Las Golondrinas, and what keeps you there?
I came here for the first time in 1984. I had spent my whole life vacationing in exotic places, since I worked in the international offices of IBM and was able to combine business trips with pleasure. Based in Paris, I was responsible for the public face of IBM abroad, with responsibility for how the company appeared in 167 different countries. I knew the U.S. on the coasts, but didn’t know anything about the SW. We took a trip to visit my nephew, who was a park ranger at the Grand Canyon, and we hiked down to the bottom of the canyon and camped. He said if you like this, you have to go to Santa Fe, so we came out and just fell in love with it. We came in April 1984, after leaving the cold of the east and we walked onto the Plaza where there were kids on skateboards in light jackets and mountains that still had snow. I said to myself, am I hooked, and from that point on I just plotted how I could get out here permanently. At the time, my last child was finishing college, and IBM offered me a retirement package that I could not refuse. I knew that as of June 1989, we would be free to pursue our Santa Fe dream. But I am a person who has to work! I have to have some purpose, and I love it when people depend on me. Since Mrs. Paloheimo had Colorado roots, the ad that Las Golondrinas placed for a Director of Development appeared in the Aspen Bugle, as well as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the L.A. Times. A friend living in Aspen saw the ad and sent it to me. I’m a lifelong art collector with an advertising and promotional background, and this sounded perfect to me, so I applied and got a call back from Rex Arrowsmith, a noted Indian art dealer who was on the search committee. I came out for an interview, and I wasn’t on the property more than 100 yards before I was hooked. It was February, and yet I came home with a sunburn! Probably 120 people had applied for the job, but I was fortunate in that I didn’t need benefits (which Las Golondrinas could not provide at the time but has rectified now) or the higher salary that the other 119 other people apparently required.
I had 10 years to get to know Mrs. Paloheimo, and her views still have enormous weight on how we do things at Las Golondrinas. She always said, “Never make it so expensive that poor people can’t afford to come.” and that still motivates us. We have tried to think on a par with the local museum system, but, with Mrs. Paloheimo’s words of advice in mind, we offer free admission to kids under 13, which makes it easier for whole families to visit.
Las Golondrinas is perfect for me, because I love places where I don’t really understand what is going on, places where the face is not the same as the interior. There are still depths and complexity that I find fabulously interesting.
IBM was like a giant ship. If you equated my job there to that of a helmsman, when the captain said “turn left,” I would take the wheel and after several years, the ship would finally be headed off to the left. I could plant lots of seeds, but they didn’t grow for 3 years or so. At Las Golondrinas, the boat turns immediately to the left at the helm’s action, and the results are immediately known. When an ad runs, we see attendance jump the very next weekend. Lowering entrance fees gives an instant response. It’s a changing palette every day, and I love that. I’m never bored, and I get to meet an awful lot of nice people.
We’re an event-oriented institution, and I like those extravaganzas. When I first arrived, we had only 3 events per year, now we have 11 annually. We were only open 16 days/year when I came, now we have 7 months to show our stuff, thanks to our tenured staff and dedicated volunteers. The combination of short-term gratification and program-driven events, the ability to make change and see that change quickly have a profound impact on the health and vibrancy of the organization – I like that.
What are some of your favorite annual events at Las Golondrinas?
Asking that is like asking me to choose my favorite child! The latest event generally tends to be my favorite. I enjoy the traditional events, helping to make the event meet the demands of the mission statement, which is basically “Don’t turn Las Golondrinas into a Disneyland.” Even the wine festival has to fit. The wine event is memorable, because grape-growing was one of the earliest agricultural crops brought to New Mexico by the Europeans. Harvest fest I love because we make our own wine, and that time of year is richly steeped in traditions. I love the Renaissance Faire because I love to see the happy children. But if I had to choose one, I really do love Viva Mexico, because I like Mexico and the brightness and the color and the vibrancy of their arts and culture, and it shows so well up here.
What events would you develop at Las Golondrinas if you had unlimited funds?
If money was not limited, I would not put it into more programs, because I don’t feel we are limited in events, we are limited only by our imagination. What I would like to see which we don’t have now is a “Casa de los Ricos.” We are very good at interpreting how poor people lived in the 1700’s and 1800s, but I’d love to have a way to show how wealthy people lived in the 1800s. Of course, at today’s prices, it would be very easy to spend half a mil to build the kind of impressive house that would demonstrate how the wealthier people lived.
In terms of infrastructure, I’d also like to have a better stage for performances! I would also love to pull all the animals into a pasture that is more accessible to our visitors. Of course, we would need to add trees for shade for the animals and the visitors!
Is there a particular talent on exhibit at Golondrinas that you wish you possessed? Blacksmith, weaver, farmer? Or do you have a secret talent of which we are unaware? (We already know that you are the consummate Renaissance man!)
I don’t have any talent whatsoever! My talent is capitalzing on the work of others. I worked for a Swiss guy who told me “You have a unique ability to make things happen.” (Mr. B, you should know that your talent certainly serves El Rancho de las Golondrinas very well!) I so admire the skill of people who make things out of wood, the bulto makers, the furniture-makers, and if I could wave the wand, I’d like to have wood-working skills.
What books would you recommend to those who wish to learn more about New Mexico history?
Any of the books written by Marc Simmons! If your context is about learning NM history, I consider Marc to be the state’s historian laureate. When I was hired, he sent me a box of his books (signed copies!), which I treausure. Of late, a single book I would recommend is Hampton Sides’ Blood and Thunder, which paints the territorial era of the Southwest with a wide brush – it’s very readable, almost like fiction. Lots of the fiction writers also make our history come vividly alive, Willa Cather, Rudolfo Anaya, and Tony Hillerman. I enjoyed Pam Christie’s Dead Lizards Dance, about the Anza era. I enthusiastically recommend Nasario Garcia’s books about the folkways of NM, superstitions and brujas, all portrayed in such an engaging way – he’s a wonderful writer, short and to the point, just captivating.
If you could go back in time, what era of New Mexico history would you choose to experience?
That is easy for me, it would be the time of the explorers. I would have loved to come up with Coronado in 1540 or with Onate in 1598, to have had the adventure of coming up and seeing this place for the first time. I also wouldn’t mind being here in the early settlement era, the Anza-Peralta era.
Is there a historical New Mexico figure whom you wish you had met?
I’m drawn to the artists, not the villains, though it would have been fun to have a whiskey with a New Mexico villain! Meeting Maria Martinez would have been wonderful, and I did meet Allan Houser, and some of the Native potters at the ends of their lives. The painters from the 1920’s and 1930’s were colorful characters, goofy and extremely talented. But the Native American leaders most fascinate me, even those identified with other states. Geronimo was a figure whom I enormously admire, the Plains chieftains like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, I would have loved to known Manuelito. I can’t imagine how horrendous their lives were following the arrival of the white man, when their existence was shattered in the blink of an eye. As leaders, those men had challenges that were absolutely extraordinary, and I would have liked to be a fly on the wall in their pow-wows.
Do you have a spot on the Golondrinas property that you find especially inspiring?
When I first came to Las Golondrinas, I lived on the ranch, since we had bought a house that wasn’t quite finished. I was alone, since my wife had not moved out here yet. There are some houses outside the historic zone on a hill overlooking the ranch, and I lived up there in Torreon House. I used to walk after work at night, and I would walk down all alone to the mill pond area in back of the big mill and along the paths that go around in back, which now run up to the property that the Santa Fe Botanical Garden leases. That area has wonderful water, and the bird life is fabulous. It was really nice to go down around 7pm with a margarita and sit on a rock overlooking the mill pond watching the fish and the long-legged birds with their long bills. It’s still my favorite place.
On the actual historic zone of the ranch, my favorite spot is the Sierra Village I think it’s the loveliest little spot on the ranch. Our historic zone is 200 acres, and we have 400 more contiguous acres, but people don’t get to go see that very often. The watery parts, the marsh and the ponds are among the loveliest parts of the ranch.
The New Mexico state question: Red or green, and where?
Whichever is hottest, I’m for hot! I don’t have favorite restaurant, but I love to go to Maria’s. One of the advantages of a small town is that you know lots of people, so you may know the owner or the chef. I never used to think that Santa Fe was a culinary mecca, but now I think there are incredibly good places to eat, and depending on your mood, you can certainly find what you are looking for.
Ready to head south from your comfy Santa Fe hotel for a trip to Las Golondrinas? Easy to find, and so worth a visit! Thank you, Mr. Berkenfield, and we’ll see you this summer!