History is something we all have but none of us own. That becomes clear the first time you set foot in the Old Cuchillo Bar & Store and find yourself surrounded by the ghosts of the past, and walk across the floors that have felt the footsteps of time.
The dusty memories of a hundred past rodeos and fiestas, and thousands of private celebrations and relationships, hang from the walls like dust-covered frames. Indian raiders and bean farmers, traders and politicians, hunters and philanderers have all played a part in the simple buildings of the bar and store. Over the years, they have served many purposes, from trading post and mercantile to post office and stagecoach station. Being a venue of commerce and activity meant that it was a hub for the entire area, serving as a saloon, boarding house, hotel and meeting hall.
The history of Cuchillo goes back even further, to when it was a favorite Apache hunting ground. The village gets its name from Cuchillo Negro, or Black Knife, a Warm Springs Apache chief who roamed the area prior to 1850. His way of life was forever changed by the invasion when miners came to the area, bringing with them freight wagons in trains, packed with supplies. Many of these old mining artifacts, like an old balance scale, carbide miner’s lamps, picks and shovels can be seen in the museum to this day. Freight wagons hauled materials non-stop from the railhead in Engle to the mining towns of Chloride and Winston.
In 1886, Cuchillo was made a way-station and stop-over point for the stage lines owned by the Armstrong Brothers of Chloride. The Bar became a popular destinations for cowboys and miners seeking entertainment as evidenced by the well-worn leather-top card table that played host to innumerable card games.
The history of the times is written in the facades of the very buildings themselves. Over the years, many expansions were added to the two-foot thick adobe walls, with doors and windows opened or blocked up as needs changed. The original building from around 1850 featured rough boards and hand-hewn vigas covered with thick layers of adobe for insulation. Later, Victorian styling was incorporated with cornices over the windows and doors. Tin roofing provided far better protection from the elements, and was added to the roof years later. The building was adapted into a post office in 1883, which brought the addition of homemade shelves and boxes for sorting and distributing mail.
The house that adjoins the bar and store also saw many changes over the years. It was originally designed as a hotel or a boarding house to provide shelter and meals for weary travelers. It shared in many of the remodeling efforts affected upon the other buildings, including the Victorian styling enhancements added to the thick adobe walls and doors, which all lead to the common walkway. Mrs. Bill Sullivan, a former proprietor of the house, said that the old two-story barn still standing behind the house was built around 1880 to provide protection against marauding Apaches. The makeshift fortress also included a high adobe wall surrounding the courtyard. However, the wall is long gone thanks to a legend surrounding another, earlier owned named Ed Fest.
Mr. Fest is said to have run the boarding house long before Mrs. Bill Sullivan, back in the territorial days of Cuchillo, when travelers still had to protect themselves from attack by bands of Apaches. Highly regarded for his honesty, Mr. Fest was often charged with the safekeeping of valuables by travelers worried about the Apache threat. Of course, many of these people never returned for their items, and poor Mr. Fest passed away before sharing the secret of his hiding place. Treasure hunters were not shy about searching every inch of the compound, and may have dismantled the wall in the process. However, if anybody ever found the treasure, it remains a secret to this day!
Memories grow less specific with the passing of the years, and the same is true of the Old Cuchillo Bar and Store. There are scores of stories and memories surrounding the buildings, but dates are often missing or only vaguely remembered. With the help of Mr. and Mrs. Jack Mitchell, and Mrs. Thelma Wynne, the past can be traced backward quite a ways. Before the current ownership by the Bond family, and before the Mitchells and Wynnes, the Hayes and Torres families operated the buildings from 1975. They obtained it from the Underwoods and Downs, who had bought it in 1969. Prior to that, Joe Romero acquired the bar and store in 1950 from Bill Sullivan, who had bought it from a gentleman named Jerry Apodaca in 1946. Before that, it was owned by the James Brothers and Calhouns since 1921. After that, the records become less reliable.
A tapestry of memories and notes of historical reference combine to provide us a feel for the first fifty years or so of the Old Cuchillo Bar and Restaurant. Between the years of 1902 and 1913, Mr. Bob Martin operated the Black Range Stage Line and a mercantile out of the buildings. This was the same stage line that had been originally established by the Armstrong Brothers in 1886. Although it’s not clear if the Armstrong were involved when Mr. Martin bought the operation, the freight business was still going strong. Mrs. Marcella Grandjean Portwood of Las Cruces recalls that Mr. Emile Grandjean worked for Mr. Ed Fest, the honest man who was responsible for the legend of the lost treasure. According to a ledger dated 1889, Mr. Fest ran a successful business with more than a hundred charge accounts, so it is safe to assume he owned it for a least a few years prior to that.
The strands of time unravel even more before that. Over the years, St. Joseph Catholic Church in Cuchillo has been washed away by floods and rebuilt several times, the last being 1906, so many records have been lost. Much of what remains is an oral history, including the family history of Mr. Pete Padilla of Truth or Consequences. He says his great-grandmother was born in Cuchillo in 1854, and that a settlement with a mercantile or trading post was already there at that time. In addition, Isidro and Jesus Torres say that their grandfather Tefiro, one of the first county commissioners, said there was a settlement at Cuchillo around the turn of the century at which Tefiro did his trading for supplies. There are many more personal, anecdotal accounts that add to the rich history of the area, volunteered by many well-wishers and visitors to the Old Cuchillo Bar and Store. We want to thank each and every one of them for sharing their memories!
Time has a way of changing in Cuchillo – if not completely stopped, it has slowed to a pace that is respectful of the past and cherished by the present residents. Although the village has several empty buildings, they are full of spirits and history, and many date back to the earliest pioneer days. Some of the people living there today are descendants of the original pioneers, still living in the family homes. This includes Mr. and Mrs. Polidro Trujillo, and the Tafoya brothers who live on the property pioneered by their grandfather. Mrs. Aggie Sanchez still lives in the home that her husband’s grandfather built around 1850. She and Felix operated a local Mexican-style café that enjoyed wide popularity for many years. Also, Mr. and Mrs. Jesus Apodaca still run their family farm in the Cuchillo Valley, content in their lifestyle. The church still hosts services periodically, including the customary Fiesta De San Jose. Although there are a handful of newcomers in the area, Cuchillo still holds the same charms it did for those earliest settlers – a protected valley, rich in wildlife and scenery, far removed from the hectic pace of the modern world. Over a hundred and fifty years after it was originally settled, Cuchillo still welcomes visitors with its subtle charms.