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Turning a Page

Librarian Helen Lundwall's golden years yield her second book,
a history of local copper mining.

by Donna Clayton Walter

 

 

At an age when most people would be content to sit in a rocking chair and read, 86-year-old Helen Lundwall has just published her second book, Copper Mining in Santa Rita, New Mexico: 1801-1838. Published by Sunstone Press, the book is part of the New Mexico Centennial History Series, its release timed to coincide with the state's 100th anniversary this year. That seems perfect for this Silver City author who didn't really plan to be one.

tw
Author Helen Lundwall in her home office with her new book.
(Photo by Donna Clayton Walter)

"I was just in the right place at the right time," Lundwall says with a sweet grandmotherly smile. Well, that and having a lifelong passion for history, a head for research and an engaging writing style.

Born in Texas but raised in Silver City and educated at New Mexico State Teachers College (now WNMU), Lundwall became director of the town's public library after returning to Silver City following her husband's Air Force career. It was at the library where she first began the switch from shelving and checking out books to writing them.

"When I was a librarian, two young women came in with questions about a man, H.B. Ailman," she begins. Ailman was a very successful mining pioneer in Silver City; his home — the famed Ailman House — now houses the Silver city Museum. Ailman also is a character in the movie There Will Be Blood.

"One of the women was also a librarian," Lundwall recalls. "I showed them what we had on him and they said that their aunt had an original handwritten manuscript and I said, 'Oh, I'd love to see that!' Well, when the daughter came through Silver City, she brought it with her and let me take it home to look over. It wasn't just stories about the area. It was so accurate, historical stuff, and that always appeals to me."

Offering to help with finding the manuscript a publisher, Lundwall wound up editing and annotating the book, Pioneering in Territorial New Mexico: The Memoirs of H.B. Ailman (University of New Mexico Press, 1983).

 

Getting her first published work under her belt whetted her appetite to do more research and writing. She and her husband (now deceased) had made a passionate hobby of exploring local history on weekends wherever they were during his long career in the Air Force. When he retired in 1963, the couple moved back to Silver City and threw themselves into researching the history of the area.

"I was especially drawn to Santa Rita, our oldest place. It is the first settlement," Lundwall says. She began working with Terrence Humble (see story in this issue), her research partner "and so much more," she says. "He translated documents, wrote the epilogue, got illustrations. He got pictures made and proofread the manuscript three times."

Poring over "military reports and records that a fort would keep" was a fascinating process, Lundwall says. "When I got into the microfilm, I got so excited over what we discovered," she says, clasping her hands together like an excited child.

Far from dry, Lundwall's engaging narrative brings to life details of the area's mining evolution, including the often bloody dealings with the native Apaches, the savvy cultivation of their "good will" by retired Spanish Army Lieutenant Colonel José Manuel Carrasco — who curried favor with the Native Americans by providing clothes and other necessities — and a colorful host of other characters, from interlopers to entrepreneurs. Some became wealthy beyond their dreams and some ended a life of hard toil never realizing their dreamed-of riches.

"There's nothing quite like finding bits and pieces and putting the story together," Lundwall says.

In weaving her story, Lundwall relates details of the way the land was wrested back and forth, including descriptions of the Apache tactics. "They would steal the soldiers' horses and leave them stranded," Lundwall recounts excitedly. The work also is brought to life with illustrations, a wonderful old hand-drawn map that shows the Santa Rita mine claim, and several black-and-white photographs from Humble's collection and historical archives. One photo shows the locally well-known Kneeling Nun, the familiar rock formation much more intact than in the present day. Another picture shows a trio of famous bells, forged almost entirely of Santa Rita copper, inscribed with an illegible legend in Latin and the date, 1808.

 

Her work completed, Lundwall first submitted her manuscript to the C.L. Sonnichsen Book Awards, a writing competition of the University of Texas at El Paso.

"They said it was just too long, but I didn't want to cut it," she says, "so I decided to shop around for publishers." She rewrote the book for the University of New Mexico Press — publishers of the Ailman book — "and they very nicely rejected it," Lundwall says with a smile. But the reader of the manuscript sent her several pages of suggestions. "So I rewrote it again!"

From there the book was sent to Sunstone Press and came to the attention of the New Mexico Centennial group, finally seeing the light of publication. Lundwall says she is pleased with the outcome.

"It's quite satisfying to get this real, true history of the area out there, available to people," she says.

The true historian in her coming out, and perhaps the research librarian, too, Lundwall adds a sobering note of balance.

"Remember, this (story) is only from the Spanish side," Lundwall says with a smile and upraised finger, much as a history teacher might bring home a point. "I have no doubt the Indians would have a different take on these events."

And though her research utilized Spanish Army documents, the local Apaches never were far from her mind. In fact, they appear in the book's very first line — "The Apaches weave like a crimson thread through the story of Santa Rita del Cobre, as the mine was known" — as well as the last.

Lundwall lights up as she mentions this.

"Oh, I'm glad we have this in there, and it's the last word, too!" she says, opening the book to the end of her narrative. She reads slowly, her voice rising and falling to make her final point: "The story of the beginning years of Santa Rita del Cobre is a tribute to the courage and determination of the Spaniards, Mexicans and Americans who held what they had gained despite formidable odds, and to the Apaches who were equally determined to win the struggle for survival."

Closing the book and placing it gently on her lap, Lundwall pauses, then adds, "It's really just a fascinating story. I was so lucky to get to tell it."

 

Copper Mining in Santa Rita, New Mexico: 1801-1838 is available at the Silver City Museum, 312 W. Broadway; O'Keefe's Bookshop, 102 W. Broadway; and online from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


Silver City freelance writer Donna Clayton Lawder also wrote this issue's feature about musician Dane Dexter.

 

 

Political Notes

New Mexico politicians in the news.

What family is the biggest political dynasty in New Mexico? According to "The Fix" column in the Washington Post, it's the Lujáns. With the help of readers, the column recently ranked the top political dynasties in all 50 states, including Arizona's Udalls, Georgia's Russells and of course the Kennedys of Massachusetts. Of New Mexico's leading political family, the Post writers commented, "The Lujáns include current Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D) and former state health secretary Michelle Luján Grisham (D), who is about to join him in Congress. Ben Ray's father, Ben, was speaker of the state House, and Michelle's grandfather, Eugene, was chief justice of the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, a distant Republican relative, Manuel Luján, served as a longtime congressman and later as US secretary of the interior, and his father of the same name was mayor of Santa Fe."

 

Could former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson be this year's Ralph Nader, spoiling Mitt Romney's chance at the White House much as many feel Nader's third-party effort cost Al Gore in 2000? This time, of course, pundits think a third-party "spoiler" might hurt the GOP, which Johnson abandoned after a brief presidential run to campaign as the Libertarian Party's nominee. Although still in low single digits in the polls, Johnson is on every state ballot except Michigan and Oklahoma.

A recent New York Times story noted, "With polls showing the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney to be tight, Mr. Johnson's once-fellow Republicans are no longer laughing. Around the country, Republican operatives have been making moves to keep Mr. Johnson from becoming their version of Ralph Nader."

According to the Times, a Romney aide "ran what was effectively a surveillance operation into Mr. Johnson's efforts over the summer to qualify for the ballot at the Iowa State Fair, providing witnesses to testify in a lawsuit to block him that ultimately fizzled." In Michigan, GOP state officials successfully blocked Johnson from the ballot when his otherwise proper paperwork was filed three minutes late. And in Pennsylvania, Republicans hired a private detective to investigate Johnson's ballot drive. The Times reported the detective appeared at the homes of paid canvassers and, in some cases, flashed an FBI badge (he was a retired agent) while asking to review the petitions they gathered at $1 a signature. The Pennsylvania challenge to Johnson's ballot status was shot down in court last month.

 

 

Who and what's been making news from New Mexico this past month, as measured by mentions in Google News (news.google.com). Trends noted are vs. last month's total hits; * indicates new to the list. Number in parenthesis indicates last month's Top 10 rank. One last gasp for political junkies before Election Day. Just to put things in perspective, though, we also counted skydiver Felix Baumgartner, who plummeted 24 miles from the edge of space to land near Roswell. Now that's making news.

    1. (-) Skydiver Felix Baumgartner + Roswell — 68,900 hits *
    2. (4) New Mexico Senate race — 22,200 hits (▲)
    3. (1) Ex-Gov. Gary Johnson + president — 18,330 hits (▲)
    4. (5) Gov. Susana Martinez — 7,720 hits (▲)
    5. (6) New Mexico drought — 4,450 hits (▲)
    6. (-) Heather Wilson — 3,420 hits (▲)
    7. (-) Martin Heinrich — 2,970 hits (▲)
    8. (8) Ex-Gov. Bill Richardson — 2,100 hits (▲)
    9. (2) New Mexico wolves — 1,810 hits (▼)
    10. (-) New Mexico + "battleground state" — 1,650 hits (up)



 




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