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Farmington


By Claudia Smith



Farmington is located sixty-one miles southeast of the point where New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah meet, known as the Four Corners region. Long before the first Anglo-American settler arrived in the region, the San Juan Valley was occupied by groups of hunters and seed gatherers. Paleo-Indian sites, although rare in the Four Corners area, indicate short-term encampments as early as 3000 BC.[1]  The first permanent shelters in the area were pit houses erected around 350 AD by the Anasazi. The apogee of the Anasazi culture extended from 1050 to 1300 and concentrated in the Four Corners area where Chaco Canyon and Aztec Ruins in New Mexico and Colorado\'s Mesa Verde National Historic Parks and Monuments are located.

Following the Anasazi occupation, Athabaskan-speakers, ancestors of the present-day Dine or Navajo, inhabited the Four Corners region. Archeological excavations northwest of Farmington have unearthed shallow forked stick hogans dating to the initial arrival or Dinetah phase of migration (AD 1500 to 1700).[2]  

Spanish explorers mounted mineral expeditions in the Four Corners region in the 1760\'s. Fray de Posada and Don Juan Maria de Rivera traveled up the San Juan River into the La Plata Mountains of Colorado in search of gold and silver, where they encountered nomadic Apache, Piute, Ute, and Navajo Indians. Anglo-American mineral exploration followed in the 1850\'s, pushing down from the Colorado Mountains into the San Juan region by the early 1860\'s.

In 1868, the 3.5 million-acre Navajo Reservation was established, covering half of San Juan County\'s 5,560-square-mile area and extending west and southwest of Farmington\'s present city limits into Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. In 1874, a portion of northern San Juan County was offered as reservation land to the Jicarilla Apaches who refused the offer. As a result, on July 4, 1876, the United States government opened the area for settlement.

Early Settlement 1879-1905
Anglo-American settlement, moving south from Colorado\'s mines and ranches, first located on the Farmington Peninsula formed by the Animas and San Juan rivers where Billy Boran established a home site in 1875. This town site was later abandoned. In 1879, A. F. Stump, F. M. Pierce, A. F. Miller, and William Markely established homesites on higher ground in the area called "Totah,” Navajo meaning "three waters” as the Juan, La Plata and Animas rivers converge to the northwest and southwest of Farmington\'s town center.

Agriculture and livestock were the principal livelihoods for most settlers who constructed four irrigation ditches between 1876 and 1892. The Wright Leggett and North Farmington ditches, now underground, run to the south and north of the district with portions still visible from East Main Street. William Locke planted the first orchard in 1879, and by 1891, approximately 23,000 trees had been planted, with the number increasing to 50,000 by the next year. The first county fair was held on Main Street, September 20, 1880. Just ten years later, the San Juan Times newspaper described an agricultural bounty: "The corn grows ten-feet tall, loaded with thirteen ears to the stalk, a pumpkin with a girth of six-feet, peaches ten-inches in circumference, and tons of fruit without a single worm."[3]

In 1879, F. M. Pierce envisioned a township of considerable importance, platting his twenty-five-acre ranch into 25 by 100-foot and 50 by 200-foot commercial and residential lots.[4]
Commercial development centered on the one and two-hundred-blocks of East Main Street with approximate plat boundaries at Cedar Street on the north, Pinon Street on the south, Court Street on the east, and Lorena Street on the west. Cross streets do not meet as they intersect the first three blocks of East Main. Local tradition holds that when A. F. and Julia Miller divorced, Julia retained their property on the north side of East Main Street, while A.F. kept the south side lots. Julia vowed her property would never meet his and the street grid remains jogged to this day. In 1895, the San Juan Times heralded Farmington as,"One of the Garden Spots of the World.” The town incorporated in 1901, and by 1905, Farmington\'s commercial development pattern along Main Street was established.

A mixture of wooden and adobe false-front buildings shared common walls defining East Main Street\'s edge from Wall Avenue west to Orchard Avenue. The single story buildings with covered boardwalks shared trade with two-story Business Block brick stores. In 1901 the Hyde Exploration Company located its offices for the Chaco Canyon excavation in a two-story brick building on East Main Street. Hyde\'s expansion included a bank, dry goods store, grocery, and fruit evaporation plant making it the area’s largest employer at the turn of the century. On the south side of Main Street, the second floor of the 1903 City Hall housed the telephone company, with the fire department and jail at the rear. In 1902, William Hunter donated a park at Orchard Avenue and East Main Street with a one hundred-foot well at its center. Hunter Park became a center for civic and social functions with parades starting or ending there.

Main Street trade supported three general merchandise stores, the First National Bank, a post office, a newspaper, one drug store, two saloons, and ten specialty stores, all with electric lights. Professionals included two lawyers, one physician, one dentist, and two insurance sales offices. In addition, the 1903-1904 business directory lists the new Allen Grand Hotel located north of Main Street on Allen Avenue with a livery on West Main. Local sawmills and brick manufacturing dating from 1888 provided building materials. By 1900, Farmington\'s population of 548 was the largest in the San Juan Valley. Speculators, advertising eighty acres in town lots, "just two blocks from the principal business street" [5] counted on continued growth as the long awaited arrival of railroad service neared.

Railroad Commercial 1905-1923
Farmington remained isolated, with train service and supplies located north in Durango, Colorado, a full day by stage and two by dray. On September 19, 1905, the long awaited Denver and Rio Grande Railroad arrived making its 49.5-mile trip from Durango to the San Juan County Seat in Aztec and terminating in Farmington. Called the "Red Apple Flyer", the wide gauge train ran six days a week through 1923, transporting fruit and hay to an expanded market via Durango.

Farmington quickly emerged as the county trade center. By 1911, a substantial two-story Business Block rose around Hunter Park with the Italianate Farmington Drug, Neo-Classical San Juan Bank, and the First National Bank. The 1911 Hunter Mercantile that wrapped around the bank was constructed by Elmer Franklin Taylor, a Mormon brick maker and stone mason who strongly influenced area architecture. Today these buildings form the heart of the District. Mormon farm settlements had been established fifteen miles northwest of Farmington, in 1883 at Fruitland and 1899, at Kirkland. Lime kilns operated in the valley in 1915 to the 1940’s. Concrete formed walls, lintels and sills and block made on site appeared in smaller one-story retail construction.

Fires in 1910 and 1914, in the one-hundred and two-hundred blocks of East Main destroyed many of the buildings including the Hyde Exploration offices. Notably the 1908 Farmington Billiards and the 1911 Colonial Hotel survived both blazes. Merchants replaced the earlier wooden structures with more substantial masonry buildings and contiguous commercial storefronts expanded westward on Main Street. In 1915, the Ford Motor Company showroom opened its Mission Revival style building at 122 East Main and Allen\'s livery became a garage by 1920, as autos competed with Navajo wagons along Main Street.

Population in San Juan County reached 8,504, which included an estimated 2,500 Navajos in 1910. Navajo families camped out of wagons on Broadway to trade in Farmington, now the largest town in the county with a population of 785. Downtown served as a banking center with three banks and numerous specialty and service stores, including laundries, furniture stores, and drug stores along with land sales offices, engineer offices, and realtors. By 1911, Farmington supported an opera house, two restaurants, and two pool halls; in total more than twice the number of business listings then in nearby Aztec, the county seat.

The railroad served to reinforce the county\'s strong ties to Colorado, as many of Farmington residents had lived in Durango. Transportation and markets, since the homesteading era, were reached from Durango. In 1907, a campaign for annexation to Colorado gathered 600 signatures in Aztec and Farmington. While the annexation was never approved, ties to Colorado remained strong and transportation linkage to population centers in New Mexico remained weak. In 1910, a postal road was completed south to Gallup that reduced the travel time to Albuquerque from sixty to eleven-hours. Plans for connecting wide gauge rail service to the Southern Pacific line through Gallup and on south were never realized and the Farmington Branch to Durango was converted in 1923 to narrow gauge to conform with the system in Durango.

Gas and Oil Development 1923-1956

At first the area\'s relative isolation presented a barrier to oil and gas exploration in the San Juan Basin. Prospector E. L. Goodridge had discovered oil seeps as early as 1879 in the area. Early residents inadvertently hit natural gas while digging water wells. Seeps became commonplace and were ignited for entertainment. There was as yet no national commercial market for natural gas, and the oil industry was still in its infancy.

Commercial production did not begin in earnest until the 1920’s. In 1921 the Aztec Oil Syndicate struck gas and began primitive distribution to Aztec. The West Texas Refiners Company inadvertently discovered the largest natural gas well in America at the time while searching for oil. The Farmington Times Hustler reported that, “The gas blew tools weighing nearly ten tons right out of the hole when it came in; the roar of the gas could be heard for ten miles." [6] Without larger markets the discovery of natural gas remained an unwanted by-product in the search for oil.

L. E. Teague, a Farmington engineer under contract to drill for the Midwest Refining Company of Texas, struck oil twenty miles west of Farmington, and began operating the first commercial oil well in New Mexico in 1923. A flurry of oil exploration followed leading to the sale of oil leases on the Navajo Reservation that same year. Area wells soon boasted the world\'s largest reserves, pumping seventy million gallons per hour. Major oil and gas discoveries continued throughout the 1920’s. In 1925, Continental Oil laid pipeline to its new refinery in Farmington. By 1927, Texas businessmen organized the Southern Union Gas Company with pipelines to Farmington extending to Albuquerque and Santa Fe in 1930. There were five oil refineries in the region: Conoco at Farmington, Basin at Aztec, and Hare, Aerex and Cross at Bloomfield. Economic setbacks occurred during the Great Depression and the areas transportation barriers limited energy resource development. The oil industry remained speculative as local businessmen invested in oil leases, betting on a future market. Farmington\'s economy continued to rely on agricultural production through the 1940’s, and the district was little changed.

Population slowly grew from 1,350 in 1930, to 2,162 in 1940, while the commercial district gradually expanded along Main Street. In 1933, U.S. Highway 550 was constructed into Durango. Chain stores arrived in 1929, when Piggly Wiggly Grocery and J. C. Penny’s  were built, followed by the five-and-dime stores F.S. Rascos, and Sprouse Reitz in the 1940’s. The 1924 Avery Hotel on West Main Street advertised its new and improved, modern forty rooms with fourteen private baths throughout the 1930’s. The 1923 Allen Movie Theater was replaced with a modern cinema in 1942.

The years following WWII would set the stage for new oil and gas extraction throughout the Southwest. The United States moved into an era of unparalleled industrial expansion coupled with a population shift west. Veterans entering the work force transported their young families west in their new automobiles to suburbia. Between 1945 and 1960, the number of people living west of the Mississippi River rose from thirty-two million to forty-five million.[7] Developing energy resources became a national priority tied to defense initiatives and the expansion of military complexes in the West. Military demand for energy was quickly outstripped by new demand for domestic heating fuels and automobile consumption. As California\'s population tripled the modern suburban lifestyle demanded new energy resources. The estimated three trillion cubic feet of natural gas in reserve[8] in the Four Corners region was primed to meet the demand.

In the mid-1940’s, improvements to Route 66 and the impetus to link the San Juan Basin by highways to Albuquerque was driven by interest in the state\'s oil and gas reserves. When 185 miles of highway connecting Farmington to Albuquerque opened on November 29, 1946, it didn\'t bring tourists, but gas and oil industry scouts who filtered into the county with renewed interest in the area\'s resources. As a result, an energy boom hit between 1949-1956.

In 1946 Farmington city limits covered only 630 acres; by 1950, it expanded to 2,240-acres as the city stretched north encompassing the new forty-one house subdivision built by El Paso Natural Gas Company for workers at their San Juan River plant. Population burst from 3,637 in 1950 to the local estimate of 35,000 in 1953, as oil and gas workers flooded into Farmington. The town was ill prepared for the influx. Lois Bryant recalls when her family arrived in 1956:

Trailers were moved into orchards and makeshift camps rimmed the city. New shops jammed tightly together, hugging the only pavement in town along Main Street from Miller to Behrend Avenue. Oil drilling and exploration companies desperately needed offices and living quarters for their engineers and riggers. The demand was met by reviving the use of the earlier Business Block typology. Two-story modern office buildings extended the main-street development pattern into the three-and-four-hundred-blocks of West Main Street, reinvigorating the use of second floors as rooming houses.
 

The 1950’s James Building that fills half of the four-hundred-block of Main Street is typical of the development. The second floor offices for Sunray and Mid-Continental Oil companies from Texas were hastily divided into makeshift boarding houses. The second floor rooms above Foutz Indian Room were so cramped that some were only the width of a bed. Established businesses converted their upper floors as well. Totah Theater provided office space for San Juan Drilling Company and the Texas Company located above the bar at Harry\'s Place, where riggers and drillers gathered to find work and socialize.

Despite all the activity, oil and gas exploration remained in its nascent stage. In 1952, San Juan County petroleum production was less than 0.2% of the state’s total production. The situation for San Juan County farmers was little changed, as agriculture remained New Mexico\'s primary industry. The blacksmith on Broadway still serviced Navajo wagons and the feed store on East Main Street expanded its feed storage down Commercial Avenue. The Allen\'s had added the Totah Theater in 1949, as new business grew into the two-and three-hundred-blocks of West Main Street. In 1946, Allen Avenue extended south supplying access as business expanded to Broadway where small Utilitarian Commercial store fronts sold industrial and construction supplies.

Navajo trade had long been a source of income, however, merchants rarely catered to Navajo clientele. Tourist interest in "Indian Country" was not considered an economic resource. Trading posts remained on the Navajo Reservation and trade in traditional Navajo arts was rare on Main Street. A 1949 advertisement for the E. P. Woods Indian Room at 113 East Main describes the attitude of the handful of curio shops existing since the 1920’s. Woods describes his business of the "past 23 years (as) grown from a hobby to a sideline business."[10]

A new economic shift for the region was reported in the 1953 New Mexico Business report:

 

[13] San Juan County, New Mexico. Report prepared for the New Mexico Department of Development by San Juan County Redevelopment Area Organization. San Juan County, New Mexico overall economic development Plan, 1962.

[14] Gomez, Arthur Raymond. "The Fabulous Four Corners": Neocolonialism and Subregional development in the Hinterland West, 1945-1970." Thesis (Ph. D.) University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, 1989, p. 115.

[15] Gomez, Arthur Raymond. "The Fabulous Four Corners": Neocolonialism and Subregional development in the Hinterland West, 1945-1970." Thesis (Ph. D.) University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, 1989.

 

Latitude: 3643
Longitude: 10813