Fields We Dreamed

            It’s all about serendipity, luck, and pluck, this story of how an underfunded university in a very poor state made a small fortune off the school farm. It’s the 1920s in New Mexico. Albuquerque had maybe sixteen thousand people. Her flagship university’s campus consisted of a small clutch of pseudo-adobe buildings huddled on the hill east of town at the end of the trolley line. The institution enrolled around one thousand students (“The University of New Mexico: A Historical Narrative,“ William Dodge). Despite the University of New Mexico’s diminutive footprint, modest resources, and sparse student body, it proposed to buy a big chunk of empty plain in the mid-‘20s (UNM Archives, Facility Planning, Accession #028, Box#87). The purchase appeared questionable. Anything resembling a town lay miles to the west. Jackrabbits outnumbered the people on the east mesa. No matter—the school purchased the land because it was empty, remote and, therefore, cheap. UNM planned that their students would grow what they ate.

New Mexico already had a history of schools with attached farms, an outgrowth of the “a sound mind in a sound body” educational beliefs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Both Indian schools and the church-sponsored boarding schools that took the place of public education in much of rural New Mexico had embraced the weed while you learn philosophy long before UNM did. The schools touted how their pupils were acquiring practical skills as well as book learning. This philosophy always played well with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and church missionary societies. Their administrators also loved reducing the high cost of importing food to the high desert. Never discount free labor.

When the Depression hit shortly after UNM went into the farm business, the purchase appeared prescient. In these worst of times, the farm would provide carrots for all and a rutabaga in every pot. New Mexico’s post-secondary students might ride out the economic storm surviving on East Mesa pinto beans.

Thirty-five years later, the university’s garden purchase seemed even more prescient. By then, the city had extended up the east mesa, surrounding UNM’s jackrabbit habitat. (“Shaping a Greater Albuquerque,” Kammer). An interstate highway would soon run immediately to the south. UNM’s idealistic plan for self-help turned into a cash cow, an example of good intentions leading to rich rewards although the east mesa farm went the way of most utopias. The university sold it to developers. (Archives, Box #87) Winrock Mall became the jewel in the crown because the university leased rather than sold the one hundred sixty acres under it. Winthrop Rockefeller agreed to pay a fixed sum plus 1/3 of the mall gross per month, with renewable options, for up to ninety-nine years. (Ibid) The farm had delivered a bumper crop of lettuce.

It is a great story except—as far as I can determine, the entire origin narrative is apocryphal. When I sought to locate evidence about the farm plan, there didn’t seem to be any. There’s no doubt about the investment. UNM bought land on the East Mesa in the 1920s, probably several different parcels of it. They had amassed many acres, at least one full section, immediately east of Louisiana Boulevard. According to Tom Popejoy, the post-World War II president of the university, the university had paid $1,400. for the quarter section (160 acres) on which Winrock sits. “And there were months when we had to scramble to pay the mortgage,” he explained to an Albuquerque Journal Reporter at the time that the Winrock lease became headline news in the mid-‘50s. (Archives, Box #87) Other reports from that time period mention a $9,000. parcel in addition to the Winrock plot. (Ibid) Popejoy, previously the university comptroller and right-hand man for 1920s President Zimmermann, undoubtedly knew to the penny and inch what dollars had been expended for what square feet and why (Dodge).

Regent George Brooks began the land buying campaign by backing what eventually became the Monte Vista subdivision. He later encouraged the university buy what was called “worthless grazing land” east of Louisiana, the alleged farm. That purchase made a lot of sense, but not as agriculture. In 1925, the city annexed all the land east from Nob Hill to the foothills. Annexation would eventually bring sewers, streets, and city water. It is not coincident that UNM bought the east mesa tract at about the same time. The university, far from being a community supported agriculture entrepreneur a little ahead of its time, was instead fairly practiced real estate speculator. Some of the Brooks’ acquisition turned into the Snow Heights subdivision thirty years later. Edward Snow paid $220,000. for one hundred sixty acres, up from the initial $8.75 an acre. Dale Bellamah paid $440,000. to acquire the adjacent tract for his Princess Jeanne development. By the time Winthrop Rockefeller came along, the university was astutely parleying their portfolio. When Edward Snow proposed buying the rest of the UNM property for $200. more an acre than he had previously paid, the university turned him down in favor in Rockefeller. They had grasped the wisdom of the long-term, triple-net lease.

The farm? There never was one. I doubt anybody seriously expected fields of anything to grow there. The tract’s soil, if you can call it that, was sandy gravel contained little organic matter. There’s no water either, except the run-off from summer storms which tends to rip out roadways rather than irrigate anything. The whole farm thing is a great story but—the real story was all about money. It usually is.

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3 thoughts on “Fields We Dreamed”

  1. To play a bit of a devil’s advocate here, if a place (not just Winrock) does not have a history of producing food, how do we, or can we, use history to promote growing food or other non-traditional uses in the present or future ?

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    1. Actually, the east mesa produces food as the Puebloans and the coyotes well knew. Remember those jackrabbits? There was also small to large game that came down the arroyos from the Manzanos and Sandias. Bears still follow that route when desperate in dry springs but we don’t much eat them anymore. The mesas were traditionally meat hunting areas for the Indians that cultivated crops in the valley around the Rio Grande. I’m not sure how one promotes hunting in an urban area where it’s illegal to shot a gun though. I trap the non-native collared doves that are driving out the native mourning doves but I think that may be illegal too. And yes, I eat them. They’re delicious.

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