SCATTERED THROUGHOUT NEW MEXICO are many old­fashioned water mills, used for grinding the small crops grown in the valleys along the water courses. Each settlement usually has its own mill to crush the wheat, corn, and chile used to supply the needs of the community—just as in the days of the pioneers and early Spanish colonists. The old mills are symbolic. In this back country, the mills of time grind slowly, and years bring but little change.

One such mill, that owned by Juan de la Cruz Borrego, still serves after many generations, and to it Señor Borrego and his kinsmen and neighbors regularly take their grains for grinding. Located across the Río Grande from San Juan Pueblo [now Ohkay Owingeh—Ed.], 30 miles north of Santa Fe, the old mill is off the beaten track and few visitors seek it out.

The mill, housed in an ancient log cabin crudely but sturdily built, is at the edge of the Borrego orchard several feet below the level of the water in the cottonwood-shaded Acequia San Rafael. This height causes the water to fall with considerable force. When power is needed, a gate at the head of a wooden chute is opened and a stream of water rushes down, splashing against the broad paddles of the large wooden wheel under the mill. The wheel turns, wobbling on its long vertical shaft, and as it turns the millstone revolves and grinds.

Inside the mill structure can be seen the hand-hewn stone, revolving and crushing to a fine powder the material being ground. A large bag made of dried hide, sewed with thongs, hangs above the stone and allows its contents to dribble out. The centrifugal force of the revolving stone causes the grain to work toward the outside, away from the hopper as it is ground to fall eventually down a chute into a sifter. An ingenious device shakes the sifter, letting the finest material fall through at the end nearest the chute into the first bin. The coarsest part falls off at the far end into the second bin. Of course, the result when wheat is ground is not the refined, white flour that we use, but it does give a healthful, whole wheat flour which is only slightly brown and nearly as finely powdered as ours.

Santiago Naranjo of Santa Clara Pueblo on the cover of New Mexico Magazine for November 1939

About the cover

“After more than four years of repeated demands, we give in! This month, Santiago Naranjo, of Santa Clara Pueblo, appears on the cover again. His first appearance was in July 1935, and the cover proved to be one of—if not the—most popular ever used on the magazine. The issue was sold out within three weeks.” The photograph is by H. Armstrong Roberts, of Philadelphia.

How was the mill made? According to Señor Borrego, generations ago, the logs in the mill were cut from the slopes of Truchas Peak, which can be seen in the distance to the east. After days of cutting, the logs were dragged, a few at a time, down the mountain trail by a couple oxen. At home, the logs then had to be peeled by hand and sawed into the right lengths. It was a family enterprise that took several of the Borrego men and the Gallegos kinsmen several weeks to accomplish. When this was done, some of the men with oxen and a cart went to Black Mesa and brought the grinding stone. The stone was then worked over with a hand chisel before it could be set in place on the revolving shaft. The old, original cowhide bag, which has been replaced several times, was made by a visiting relative who was handy with crude needle and leather thongs.

Fall days are busy days at the mill. Each family is anxious to get some of the fresh crops ground but must wait its turn. For using the mill, they pay by sharing crops that the Borregos may be lacking. Or they exchange by helping a day or two in the field.

So, when grinding time comes, it is like an old-fashioned “gatherin’ bee” at the Borrego place. The men attend to the grinding and sacking of the flour from the bins while the women help Señora Borrego with whatever she may have on hand to do—perhaps sorting the chile into piles or cutting up apples for drying. During harvest season, when food must be gathered and stored away for winter use, there must be no idle hands.

Thus, the old mill serves its people in their daily needs today as it has—for how many years? When I asked Señor Borrego this question, he replied that his great-grandfather told him the mill was old when he was a small boy. His family settled in the valley with the original colonization. "Our folks came from Spain and settled in this valley from the very beginning and have been here ever since," he told me.

This first colonization was started by Oñate, across the Río Grande from San Juan, just four miles from the mill. Oñate established his capital of San Gabriel on the site of the Indian village of Yunque-Yunque. This was in 1598—the first colonization in America—years before settlers had arrived on the New England shores. So the Borrego family history goes back 341 years.

The Borregos are proud of their old mill and happy to have anyone notice it. While to us it is an unusual and interesting link between modern 1939 and the life of early New Mexico, to them it is more than just a family relic. It is an important part of their existence.

Read more: Autumn color and history await along the route from Taos to Red River, Eagle Nest, and Las Vegas.

More Ambitious Acres, by Casey Hollbrook, from the November 1939 issue of New Mexico Magazine. Photograph by Inga Hendrickson.


“Yes, I still have a small ranch in the Río Grande Valley. I have had one for more than five years during which I have fought a bloody battle with sand burrs; fought with the ant, the aphid and the grasshopper; fought with the hail, wind, and weather; and in spite of the whole caboodle of them, have managed to put enough good old eatables in my cellar every fall to last me the rest of the year.”

—from “More Ambitious Acres,” by Carey Holbrook

“the sun dial”
november 1939 calendar


All Souls’ Day (The Day of the Dead)

Football, Panhandle Aggies vs. Eastern New Mexico Junior College, Portales

Little Theater, Workshop Sunday Matinee, Albuquerque

Feast of San Diego (Saint James), annual Fiesta and Harvest Corn Dance, Tesuque Pueblo & Jemez Pueblo

Community Concert, Josephine Antoine, Santa Fe

Football: Arizona University vs. New Mexico University, Albuquerque (UNM Homecoming), and Texas School of Miners vs. N.M. Aggies, State College