Taos Co. Historical Society


Believed Established In 1850

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Ceran St. Vrain was born in 1801 as the second of 10 children in a family that lived in the French community of Spanish Lake, near St. Louis, in what later became Missouri. When he was 16, his father died and he was sent to live in the home of Bernard Pratte Sr.. He soon became a clerk in the Pratte store in St. Louis.and then progressd to managing fur shipments and was involved in the trade of the Prattes� Missouri River outposts. In 1824 he secured a small consignment of trade goods on credit, and in partnership with Francois Guerin made his first journey west, reaching Taos in March of 1825. For reasons he declared "two teajus to mention", he bought out his partner for $100 and two mules, and began a career in trading, fur trapping and Santa Fe trail commerce, both on his own and in partnership with historic figures such as Charles and William Bent, Bill Williams, Thomas "Pegleg" Smith, Kit Carson, Paul Baillio, Cornelio Vigil, and Lucien Maxwell. For the next 39 years he lived principally in Taos, maintaining a store on the south side of the Plaza and becoming a Mexican citizen. At various times he published a newspaper, was public printer of New Mexico Territory, and was organizer and officer of various militia units during the war with Mexico and the Civil War. During this time he became very wealthy, as a partner in the enormous Animas Land Grant, owner of numerous saw mills, speculating in land around Canon City and Denver, becoming interested in various railroad and bank proposals. In 1855 he moved to Mora, where he lived until his death in 1870. He reportedly was married four times.

In 1848, New Mexico became a part of the United States. It immediately became evident that military forces would have to be stationed at various locations to protect settlements and commerce from continuing depredations by various Indian tribes. The number of army posts and men expected would require large quantities of supplies. During Spanish colonial and Mexican times, wheat was grown in many locations in New Mexico, but primarily for home consumption. Mills were small, mostly powered by hand or by draft animals, and would be incapable of producing the quantities of flour expected to be needed. It was at this time that Ceran St Vrain became interested in the flour milling business. In 1849 he obtained a contract to furnish the army with 1,000,000 pounds of flour each year for three years, and immediately went to Westport (now Kansas City) where he hired five experienced millers, and purchased five French burr mills which he planned to install in mills to be constructed at Taos, Mora, Peralta and Santa Fe, all areas where wheat was being raised.

The Taos mill was located on the west side of the Rio Grande del Rancho above Talpa, about 3 miles upstream from the Ranchos de Taos plaza, and probably started operations sometime in 1850. It continued producing until 1864, when it burned down. Ft. Burgwin had been closed in 1860, and evidently other competing mills were meeting the demand so that rebuilding the mill did not look profitable. There is evidence that someone named Tramley, or Trambley, rebuilt and operated a mill at that same site almost 30 years later, probably about 1892, until about 1901. A few years later, the mill site was acquired, as part of the Rio Grande del Rancho Grant by the Santa Barbara Pole and Tie Company, and after passing through other ownerships the grant was acquired about 1960 by the United States through a land for timber exchange and made part of the Carson National Forest.

One of the effects of the mill during the time it operated was to further stimulate the cultivation of wheat in the Taos area, which was already known as "the breadbasket of New Mexico". At the time, there was limited grazing and hay reported available in Taos on account of the intensive cultivation of wheat. In later years there were large flour mills in both Ranchos and Taos, which are now gone. Recently, Taos area farmers have tried to reintroduce wheat production by bringing back old wheat varieties to be grown using organic methods for use by local specialty bakeries, but there is currently no mill in the Taos Valley.

The New Mexico flour product was apparently a little cruder than imported flour. In 1850 a board of survey was convened in Santa Fe to report on the quality of the flour being purchased. After tasting bread baked from samples furnished, the board concluded that the New Mexico bread was lighter in weight, but less porous and therefore less digestible, and it contained grit. One inspector called it "dark, coarse and gritty", but apparently it was acceptable under the contract as the troops did not complain.

Milling activity during the days of Mexican rule (1821-1846) was frequently accompanied by grain fermenting and distilling operations for the production of whisky, and there were a number of such operations in the Taos area, the product well known throughout the west as "Taos Lightning". There is no evidence, however that any distilling was done at this site. It is possible that a still site existed somewhere in the vicinity, as an operation by Mathew Kinkead, Samuel Chambers, and William Workman is supposed to have been located in the winter of 1827-28 "about three miles up the Little Rio Grande from Ranchos". This would place it very close to the site where the St. Vrain mill was later constructed. This distillery was also said to have served as a secret repository for furs and other contraband being moved through New Mexico, but this distillery ceased operating long before establishment of the St. Vrain mill.

After the Tramley Mill closed about 1902 or 1903, useable roof beams and other building materials were probably hauled away for use elsewhere. Without roofs, the adobe buildings melted away, whatever else was on the site was abandoned, and gradually the St. Vrain Mill was forgotten. Archeological surveys by SMU in 1972 resulted in rediscovery and identification of the forgotten mill.. During a three week period in July of 1973 the St. Vrain mill site was mapped, excavated and documented by students of Southern Methodist University at Ft. Burgwin, and the artifacts catalogued and archived at Ft. Burgwin. The evidence showed that the buildings at the site had been constructed of wood on rubble stone footings, that a fire had occurred, and that after a "substantial" period suggested by a layer of sterile deposition, that buildings were reconstructed on the earlier footings using adobe, some being added, and some also reconfigured. A crudely carved cornerstone was found on the site which bears the date 5/7/92 and the initials "JCM" and may indicate that the second period of use may have started on that date. Testimony of informants in 1973 indicates that the mill site was completely abandoned about 1903.

Link To Site Map & Detail Report

This interesting site associated with the history of New Mexico, deserves careful preservation, and perhaps future study. A nomination to the National Register was prepared and sent to the State Historic Preservation Office in 1986 by the Carson National Forest, but the paperwork was returned for more detail. Because of many high priority projects the Carson National Forest has been unable to work on the nomination. Perhaps completion of this nomination would be a good project for the Taos County Historical Society. What do you think?

Essay assembled and prepared by Andy Lindquist
Based largely on reports prepared by students on the dig

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Taos Lightening Whisky



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