Citations (Library Newsletter) September 2001


Preserving the History of New Mexico Agriculture and Rural Life 1820-1945


by Tim McKimmie, Associate Professor, Branson Reference,


The history of agriculture in New Mexico involves river and range.  Historically, many horticultural crops were grown here.  As settlers established towns around the Rio Grande Valley, the fertile soil, abundant sunshine and good water made it possible to grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.  Today, when one thinks of agriculture in New Mexico, chile and cattle are likely to come to mind as well as alfalfa, cotton, pecans, onions and grain crops.  Ranching has also figured prominently in our history, and more recently there has been a great expansion of the dairy industry in New Mexico.


The romantic tradition of acequias permeates the literature of rural life in New Mexico. These small irrigation ditches were often the center of rural communities.  Even small rivulets were channeled so that water could be used for crops.  The work of cleaning the ditches, leveling the fields and apportioning the water was shared, and became a central focus of rural life in northern New Mexico.  Beginning in the early 1900s, dam construction permitted irrigated agriculture on a grand scale, and by 1930 more than 500,000 acres were irrigated.  The Rio Grande, Pecos and San Juan rivers are the primary waters from which surface irrigation is used.  Today the growing population of the state exerts increasing demands on scarce water resources. 


The literature of agriculture and rural life in New Mexico ranges from stories reminiscing about days gone by, ranching and rodeos, acequias and struggles between the poor and land barons, to changes wrought by railroads and dam building, and the effects of disasters such as the dust bowl.  Materials include books, government documents, extension publications, newspapers and farming journals.  These materials are an important part of the history of New Mexico.  Our culture and agriculture are intricately intertwined.  Many of these materials are rare and deteriorating, and are in need of preservation.


In July, 2000, a Library project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities began to identify and preserve the literature of agriculture and rural life in New Mexico.  Phase I, the identification of important historical materials, has been completed.  A list of titles identified may be found on the Library web page at  The project encompasses the years 1820-1945 despite the fact that a great deal of New Mexico history was written after 1950.  Older materials, however, are in more need of preservation.


Many of the monographs reviewed in this project will deal with rural life in the west.  My Life on the Frontier by Miguel Antonio Otero (1935), Buckboard Days by Sophie Poe (1936) and No Life for a Lady by Agnes Morley Cleaveland (1941) are examples of this type of literature.  Periodicals dealing with New Mexico history and rural life include New Mexico Magazine, New Mexico Historical Review and El Palacio.  Periodicals such as New Mexico Stockman as well as publications of the New Mexico Wool Growers Association encompass the literature of the livestock industry.  Phase II of the project, currently underway, involves microfilming approximately 550 book and magazine

titles.  Microfilm is currently considered the best method of preservation.  Once filmed, these materials will be cataloged and made available to researchers or libraries through interlibrary loan or purchase.  Completion of the project is scheduled for July 2002.