The wheel incident

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Sometimes on the smallest incident, the course of history hinges. So it was in September 1898, when a minor mishap 20 miles north of Taos set off a chain of events destined to transform that isolated adobe town into an artist’s Mecca.

 

 

A key figure in this little saga was artist Ernest L. Blumenschein, then age 24. He had gone to Paris to study at one of the famous art schools and there met another young American, Bert Phillips.

When both returned to the States, they teamed up and rented a studio in New York. As Blumenschein explained it later, they were bored with hackneyed subject matter,then popular, such as Dutch windmills and French roads lined with Normandy poplars.

“We had a desire for fresh material,” he said.

Since the pair shared a deep interest in Indians and western landscapes, they decided to visit the Rocky Mountains with their paints and sketch books.

Denver was selected as their outfitting center and launching pad. Purchasing a light wagon with a two-horse team, the pioneering novices loaded up their gear and set out for the backcountry.

It was an idyllic summer, except for one unnerving encounter. At evening’s fireside, five hard-looking bandits, fully armed, rode into their camp.

The intruders took in the wagon load of artist supplies and the apparent poverty of the two travelers. These tenderfeet, they judged, were not worth robbing, and they rode away in disgust.

As summer waned, Blumenschein and Phillips thought of heading to Mexico. They planned to drive the wagons south, picking up the abandoned Santa Fe Trail at Raton Pass and continuing on to Santa Fe.

Fate intervened,however. Below Pueblo, Colo., they met a resident who convinced them to turn aside and see quaint Taos. So the artists threaded the mountains at La Veta Pass, descended the San Luís Valley, and crossed into New Mexico.

Thereby, they reached their rendezvous with destiny. At a steep, rough place in the unimproved road, a rear wheel fell apart. They were temporarily stranded.

It was quickly agreed that one of them must take the broken wheel to Taos for repairs. They flipped a gold coin and Blumenschein got the job, while Phillips remained with the stranded rig to protect it.

The trip with Ernest Blumenschein carrying the wheel in front of him on one of the horses, was anything but a lark. Yet, he had moments of pause, allowing him to glory in the spectacular landscape in all of its “beauty of color, vigorous forms, and ever-changing light,” to use his words.

After getting the wheel repaired in Taos, Blumenschein rejoined Phillips and the journey was resumed. Late of an evening, they approached Taos Pueblo and stopped to camp at its edge.

The Pueblo governor swiftly pounced upon them and said camping was forbidden. Should they wish merely to sketch, they’d have to pay “a considerable amount of money for the privilege.”

That was enough to send the pair into Hispanic Taos, where Blumenschein had gotten the wheel fixed.

No artists were here then. But he and Phillips decided that this small, rustic town, redolent of piñon smoke, was what they were looking for.

“We abandoned the idea of going to Mexico,” he afterward wrote. “So we sold the horses and wagon and moved into an adobe house. Then and there began the Taos art colony, now famous all over the world.”

Phillips would remain permanently in Taos, marrying a local girl and working as a ranger for the neighboring Carson National Forest until his artist career took off.

On the other hand, Blumenschein stayed for only a few months and then was compelled to return to New York, where he had obligations as an illustrator for several national magazines. Still, he managed to return to Taos during summers to paint.

While in Paris in 1903, Blumenschein met and, two years later, married American artist Mary S. Green. She had lived in France for many years, winning prestigious medals for her work.

In 1909, the couple was in New York for the birth of their daughter, Helen Greene Blumenschein. But it took another 10 years before Ernest, as he expressed it, “could induce my wife to risk her life and complexion on the frontier by a permanent move to Taos.”

They settled in a rambling adobe on Ledoux Street, two blocks from the plaza. Helen grew up there, becoming a renowned painter herself.

Meantime, Taos had flourished as a magnet for talented artists. Among them, “the legend of the broken wagon wheel” was often repeated. That small accident, which led two young men to linger in the Taos Valley long enough to fall under its spell, had started it all.

Helen Blumenschein, before her death in 1989, arranged for the family home, along with its contents, to be preserved. Today, it is administered as part of the Taos Historic Museums and is designated as a National Historic Landmark.