Woman watches New Mexico grow from window of small-town store

Kate Nash | The New Mexican

PEÑASCO — When she first moved to this mountain enclave in 1946, Patty Sahd would look out the front window of her family’s store and see women in black shawls walking to church on dirt roads.

In later years, she saw families in wagons and then, gradually, the first motorized cars. Men in pickups came over gravel roads, and then women drove up in sedans.

Later still, after the roads were paved, Sahd saw the convoys of hippies and the occasional mobile home being pulled slowly all the way up to this high-altitude town.

Now 97, Sahd is among the New Mexicans who have lived almost as long as New Mexico has been a state. On Sunday, New Mexico begins its centennial year, marking in particular Jan. 6, 1912, as the day the 47th state joined the union.

Recently, Sahd and three other New Mexicans whose lives span most of the statehood period talked to The New Mexican and reflected on their small but significant slices of state history.

Born before women won the right to vote, Sahd has lived to see New Mexico elect Susana Martinez as its first female governor. Statehood-era families saw few cars on the narrow dirt roads of the time, but by now, people such as Sahd have witnessed the construction of four-lane freeways and public transit systems designed to reduce the ever-growing traffic on the those roads.

When Sahd was growing up in rural Santa Fe County south of Santa Fe, it was hard for children to get to school, and today it is easy to go to college. On any given day, less than half of New Mexico’s school-age youngsters would be in school. Today, in urban-oriented New Mexico, even higher education is all around — 17 public colleges and universities serve 80,000 students.

Sahd, a kindly grandma to five and mother to two boys, had the opportunity to watch from a small-town perspective as the state developed. Her town, Peñasco, which grew and changed after World War II, has settled into its place as a quiet Taos County community of about 2,000 people clustered in the rural area northeast of Española.

Girl from Santa Fe

Patty and Pete Sahd arrived in Peñasco in 1946, married and ready to buy a little store and earn a living.

For both, it was close to where they grew up; she south of Santa Fe and he in Cerrillos, after his family emigrated from Lebanon when he was a small boy.

The couple’s paths would cross ways in the teaching field; he worked in Golden and then Stanley, she in Cerrillos and then Stanley, where they fell in love.

Pete Sahd graduated from St. Michael’s High School in 1929. He went on to The University of New Mexico, where he played football and basketball and ran track.

While Patty taught grade school, Pete taught English and coached athletics. Among Pete Sahd’s students was Bruce King, who the couple would later see as he campaigned for governor in the north.

Later, the pair moved to Florida, where Pete Sahd served in the Navy.

After World War II ended, Sahd, who worked in radar, was ready for something else, something less secretive. Buying the Peñasco store seemed perfect.

After leaving Florida, they temporarily lived in Taos before the move to Peñasco. After 44 active years in the village, Pete Sahd died in 1990 at age 78.

During their travels, the Sahds drove an early ’40s Chevrolet coup, considered a luxury at the time.

But even with a nice vehicle, the trip was tough.

“The roads were terrible,” Patty Sahd said. “Not a little terrible — terrible terrible.”

With time, though, the main road through town started to get better. Slowly.

Before Sahd’s eyes, it went from a muddy strip to a paved state road, part of the roughly 4,000 miles in New Mexico that were asphalt at the time.

The paths to nearby Española and Taos also would improve, as the years went on and as the town grew.

Raising sons, keeping shop

The Sahds’ sons, Randy and Ted, were part of that growth.

Randy was born in nearby Taos; his brother had been born in Albuquerque.

Both went to the local public school, which was run by nuns.

Once the boys were juniors in high school, the Sahds sent them to the New Mexico Military Institute.

Later, Ted went on to the Air Force Academy, and Randy went to UNM, where he studied business. After graduation, he moved back to Peñasco.

After a long career in the military, including as a pilot and trainer, Ted retired and lives in Albuquerque. But he never stopped longing for the tiny town where he grew up.

In a recent interview, he readily recounted his times roaming miles from home without parental supervision.

“It was a safe place. It was a place where my parents and all my friends’ parents allowed us to roam at will. We’d go two and three or four miles away,” he said.

Now 70, Ted Sahd recalled being interested early on in the horses tied to the hitching post in front of his family’s store.

His contact with horses blossomed into a love for the big animals and for the family’s ranch, in part because the bike and roller skates with which he tried to travel around Peñasco didn’t do so well on dirt roads.

Participatory road paving

Ted Sahd, a pilot who has master’s degrees in engineering and political science, also recalled being fascinated with the men who came to pave the road in the early 1950s.

The roadwork was a blend of ingenuity and politics: It took both the manual labor and some lobbying by the locals before the project would be completed.

“If you wanted a road, you had to put up a bond, and to put up a bond, you needed permission from the [local] legislator and the governor. You had to go down and lobby,” he said in a recent interview.

While he, like many who grew up in this town, left Peñasco for other places, Patty Sahd never wanted to go once she had settled in.

As those wheels of the new times brought novelties her way, Sahd saw just enough of the outside world to know that she was where she wanted to be.

“Anybody that grows up in these two-bit towns like Peñasco really likes the town, and you want to go back to it,” she said.

War times

As the country entered the early ’50s and the Korean War, many families in the area played a role in the war effort, particularly by sending their men abroad.

The Sahds played a role during war times, too, helping relay the sad news of those who had died, as the phone in their store was one of the few in town.

“[The military] was sending [the dead] people back,” Sahd said. “We had to tell people who had the misfortune of waiting for people to be brought back.”

The Sahds had also felt the sting of world war; Patty’s brother Myron died in Japan after the Bataan Death March from an infection that wasn’t properly treated, about a month before he was due home.

Later, as the country moved to combat in Vietnam, Patty Sahd lived the life many mothers of sons in war did: one of waiting anxiously for news of her baby every day he was gone.

Ted flew frequently in and out of Vietnam, and he made it home safe, unlike more than 400 New Mexicans who didn’t return from that war.

As she worked for the family business, Patty Sahd worried.

It was all she could do.

“We just went day by day and hoped everything was going to be all right. There was really nothing you could do about it.”

People in town weren’t part of nationwide anti-war protests. They didn’t gather around to reject the country’s involvement, she said in November.

“They were just kind of swallowing what was happening to them,” she said.

With Ted back on U.S. soil, Patty Sahd felt good about the times. It was calm in her quiet town.

The civil rights movement was beginning, but it seemed a world away from the store, the gardens, the things that needed tending to in this modest village where people generally got along.

Second-generation shopkeeper

Soon, Randy Sahd would return from UNM and take over the store, where he works today.

He’s also the Peñasco volunteer fire chief.

The scene at the store is a real-life drama played in real time. On a recent day, Randy Sahd gets a call about a chimney fire and dashes out the door, leaving his mother to look over the few customers who wander in.

The customers buy a few things, but not big ones. The purchases pale in comparison to the big orders the Sahds used to handle.

One buyer needs an electrical box that costs less than $3, another a copy of the Rio Grande Sun.

From her perch at the entrance of the store, Patty Sahd minds the cash register when it’s busy and looks out the window when it’s not.

The store around her is almost a shrine to the past, with a beauty section that has a dated, dusty Health and Beauty sign.

There’s candy for less than a dollar and hair products in dated boxes, seemingly from the ’80s or before.

It’s quiet, except for the whoosh of wheels from the occasional car driving by the Sahds’ front windows.

The heaters hanging from the ceiling no longer work, victims of a broken part that’s no longer made. Sahd huddles into several layers of fleece, as she is by now used to the cold at these altitudes.

In between customers, she has time to recall how the business used to be.

Back then, people ordered sacks of flour and sugar in 25- and 50-pound bags.

Back then, Sahd and her husband would let people into the store after hours, for they had traveled mightily to get there.

Back then, a small business could afford to sell groceries and not worry about the competition undercutting their prices.

Back then, overalls and socks and underwear sold well, keeping the Sahds in business.

Back then.

As Sahd thinks about yesteryears, her early time in Peñasco seems like another age, she said.

“It just seems like two eras,” she said.

“It’s just like those were old times and these are new times and whatever happened in between … I was so busy I didn’t notice.”

Published Jan. 1, 2012.