Montezuma County residents have long had a love affair with buildings and structures important to their history. In Cortez the 1899 stone Wilson block, the 1908 Montezuma Valley Bank, the 1909 Calkins School and 1909 Lamb Building (home of the Cortez Cultural Center), and now the McElmo Flume, all have their dedicated preservation advocates.
But scattered around the county, like pieces from a favorite quilt, are buildings from another time, from another town that was once the biggest in Montezuma County and served the largest lumber company in the state: the 1920s wood frame homes from McPhee, whose mill and town site now rest with the fish at the bottom of McPhee Reservoir. Despite the fact that the McPhee mill was predicted to last only about 20 years and the structures were built with planned obsolescence in mind, many of these houses are still alive and well after more than 80 years. The modest homes wont be found on the main streets of town, so youll have to look harder for them.
Anthony J. Tony Sagrillo, born in Montezuma County in 1892, wrote in his memoirs, My Life As I Remember It (Dolores Public Library), that he and others in a carpenter bull gang were put to work in October 1924 building a school at McPhee, and then houses for as he put it the Mexican town area. Known as shotgun houses, Sagrillo wrote: They were three room homes; kitchen, bedroom and front room. In a straight floor in a row, a back door and a window on each side of the front room and a window in the bedroom and two windows in the kitchen with a back door. It was 16 ft. square and the bedroom was 16 x 12 and the front room was 16 x 14 feet. After we got started on them, we built one a day, foundation and all, ready to move in six or seven men if the boss worked. Unlike housing built for the Anglo employees, these bare wood homes had outdoor privies and no running water. At least two of these houses, now remodeled, were moved to the town of Dolores.
The majority of the Anglo employee houses contained five rooms, wrote Lisa Mausolf in McPhee, Colorado: A 20th Century Lumber Company Town in The River of Sorrows. They had electricity and running water; some had indoor plumbing. The houses were simple rectangles capped by a broad gable, with front and rear porches and painted siding, her history continued. Most of todays preserved McPhee houses are recognizable by the broad gables with a central front window below the roof. These Anglo homes make up the majority, still providing shelter for Montezumas families and as far away as Eastland, Utah.
In addition to constructing new employee housing, about 15 to 20 houses were moved to McPhee in the 1920s from El Vado, N.M., a related lumber town in decline. Longtime Cortez resident John Gomez, who passed away April 6, 2011, was born and worked at McPhee. He said the El Vado houses were moved there via railroad a Herculean task at best. In a 1994 talk recorded by Montezuma County historian June Head, John Gomez also noted the similar watery fates of the two lumber towns: old El Vado, N.M., is now the site of El Vado Lake State Park, and McPhee Reservoir provides for irrigation and recreational uses.
In 1948 when the McPhee sawmill was destroyed by fire, the lumber company threw in the towel and eventually sold off the property. Then began the exodus of all the useful equipment, including the houses. Old Montezuma Valley Journal photos show one house being jacked up and moved by Hicks Trucking Co. of Farmington, N.M. Closer to home, Philip Kenyon remembers how he and his brother Wayne helped their dad, W.K. Kenyon, move several houses from McPhee. W.K. was the owner of Kenyon Motor Co., then at 310 E. Main in Cortez, where the building still stands. In Kenyons inventory of heavy equipment, garage and implements, he saw an opportunity and put his teenage boys to work, too. For about $200 each, they started moving McPhees houses.
Philip Kenyon said, We would go to McPhee early morning, and crawl under the designated house, which was infested with spiders and their webs, as well as many other insects. They placed jacks and heavy beams in several locations, raised the house, then broke a path in the foundation and pulled the house out. They then attached the dollies to their truck and drove away, being careful, Kenyon said, to avoid ditches with this long rig and occasionally had to call on our Cletrac (a pulling tractor used in farming) to get the load back on the road.
Other hazards included telephone and electric lines hanging overhead. Philip and Wayne were to ride atop the house, grab the wires and ease them over the rooftop in rhythm with the rigs movement down the road. Roads at that time left a lot to be desired, he said. At one time Wayne was swept backward by a line and pulled off the end of the house. An attached porch saved the day and saved Wayne from injury.
Besides the accompanying photographs, there are many other McPhee houses in the area. If you have one, or know someone who does, please let the historical society know by contacting the author.
Cortez will once again celebrate Historic Preservation Day on Saturday, May 21, with free walking tours and brochures of historic First and Ash Streets. Hourly tours are offered from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. Please call the Cortez Cultural Center at 565-1151 to reserve a spot.
Joyce Lawrence is recording secretary of the Montezuma County Historical Society and can be reached for questions, additions or corrections at 882-2636 or at [email protected]