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Returning to roots in Tularosa

Cynthia Duran Prelo-Riedlinger

Text by Sharon Niederman
Photographs by Sharon Niederman

Folks take their history seriously in Tularosa, a southeastern New Mexico village of 1,500 souls and not a single stoplight. With a past that includes Apaches, Civil War veterans, West Texas outlaws, and a young rustler named William Bonney, tales of yesteryear are shared with the same gusto as fresh gossip over coffee at the Lazy DR Café.

The reason people here speak with strong emotion — or refuse to — of Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, Oliver Lee, Pat “king of the cattle rustlers” Coughlin, and the “two Alfreds” (Fountain and Fall) is that many residents here are descendants of these infamous men or of other early settlers. In Tularosa, long ruled by “the law West of the Pecos,” you never know when insulting a historic figure means stepping on great-great-granddad’s toes. In these parts, some scores have yet to be satisfactorily settled.

Native daughter Cynthia Duran Prelo-Riedlinger understands that the history of this place is every bit as vital as the evening news. Her great-great-grandfather, Cesario Duran, was alcalde of the original hundred Mesilla Valley farmers who, after their lands flooded, came to Tularosa in 1860. They settled the approximately four-mile area known today as the “49 blocks.” The acequia they dug still carries water from the Sacramento Mountains as it winds through town, nourishing towering cottonwoods, grand weeping willows, poplars, mulberry, quince, and fig trees that shelter the original townsite with deep shade through the hottest July. Tularosa — a name that combines tular, Nahuatl for “reed,” with rosa, Spanish for the wild roses that grew along the ditchbanks — may be the only town in New Mexico where one is never far away from the sound of running water during growing season. “It’s part of my identity,” Cynthia says of Tularosa. “It’s part of what makes me who I am. Every time I walk through a street, I know somebody in my family walked here. Every time the water flows through the ditches, I know somebody in my family built these ditches.” Ambling through the “49 blocks,” which are dotted with the vernacular architecture of southern New Mexico, Cynthia passes several solid, tin-roofed adobe homes built by her ancestors. She stops in front of Cesario Duran’s house, originally a fort, with a walled zaguan where cattle were kept. The first buildings were low dugouts, or chozas, protected by earthen walls from attacks by nomadic Apaches, who for centuries hunted and camped in this valley cradled among the Sacramento, San Andres, and Organ mountains.

Born and raised in Tularosa, Cynthia started school on the Mescalero Apache Reservation, where members of her family have lived since the 1920s. At 18, she left home for college at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, N.M. After graduation, she taught at Jemez Pueblo for 16 years. Following retirement, in 1994 Cynthia and her husband, retired executive and wine merchant Ken Riedlinger, returned to “Tulie.”

“We had no idea what we were going to do,” Cynthia recalls. They had been busy restoring their home, an 1868 adobe built by a veteran of Gettysburg who, following the Civil War, came west and married a local girl. Cynthia and Ken then started buying old furniture from yard and garage sales. “We would strip, take apart, and reassemble each piece,” she recalls. “We were crawling around on our hands and knees under the carport. Ken had a natural feel for working in wood.”

They heard about the program in Spanish Colonial woodworking at Northern New Mexico Community College in El Rito. “We hopped in the car one afternoon and went up there. We were in awe of the WPA-style campus,” Cynthia remembers. They registered for classes in traditional weaving, Spanish Colonial loom making, and traditional New Mexico woodworking — Cynthia one of only three women in the class. The couple even lived on campus in the dorm.

On returning to Tularosa, Cynthia took up her forebears’ craft as she and Ken built their adobe woodshop on Tularosa’s main street, Highway 54/70. “We made about 3,500 adobes ourselves,” she says. “We made the frames — it was learn as you go. We took a couple of workshops and hit the library up pretty hard.” They designed the building themselves, with a shop on one side and a showroom on the other, carved and built all the doors, and installed the roof. “It got really tough when we got to the top course of those adobe walls!” she laughs.

Now they are busy collaborating on cajas (trunks), roperos (wardrobes), bancos (benches), and trasteros (kitchen cupboards) for clients from California, Utah, Texas, and Germany. All pieces are made by hand of pine, the traditional wood used in New Mexico, with mortise and tenon joinery, and ornamented with simple interpretations of rosette and spiral designs. The only tools used are knives with flat and beveled edges. A piece can take between 200 and 400 hours. The finish work is especially labor intensive, requiring Danish oil finish with hand-rubbed beeswax.

Cynthia and Ken built their business mostly through word of mouth and prime location, a busy interchange between Ruidoso, Alamogordo, Odessa, and El Paso.

“The best thing for me is the tradition of the furniture,” says Cynthia, who adds punched tin to smaller pieces. “These heirloom pieces are helping keep the tradition and heritage of the style alive.”

One of Cynthia’s proudest accomplishments is the hand-carved altar she made for her mother’s private chapel. Artist Viviana Prelo, who has shown her work at Spanish Market in Santa Fe and ran a gallery on the Mescalero Reservation, paints saints but does not consider herself a santera. “I’m a Hispanic artist,” says the self-taught Prelo. The altar piece combines Cynthia’s woodwork with Viviana’s saints, the magnificently carved golden pine spiral columns forming frames for the delicate, Renaissance-like saints.

As if they were not busy enough filling their backlog, Cynthia and Ken began a new venture this past summer when they purchased the 1905 bank building in Tularosa’s historic downtown. The building features tongue-and-groove roof, wainscoting, storefront plate glass windows, and a rock foundation. With plans to restore the historic building, the couple started a weekly newspaper, the Tularosa Reporter. In yet another bow to tradition, both the name and the masthead were borrowed from the town’s turn-of-the-20th-century paper. Like their other projects, the couple does all the work themselves, from taking digital photos of high school football games to selling ads to laying out the copy. They even deliver the paper themselves, by bicycle. The paper is a mix of local news and events, historic preservation information, and coverage of significant current issues such as the water battle between Alamogordo and Tularosa. Starting in July 2002 at four pages, the paper was up to 12 pages by fall.

“They told me, ‘Don’t make waves,’” Cynthia recalls of advice by townsfolk. “These are going to be tsunamis! I try to be precise, fair, and factual. Sometimes things need to be said, and the truth doesn’t always feel good. But I’m confident everything we’re doing is productive.”

Cynthia’s vision for the paper is to be of service to the community, informing residents not only of local issues and activities, but also of historic preservation. “We have to keep reminding people how important it is — that we can’t lose it and can’t forget it,” she says.

To Cynthia, lacking a sense of place is “like having your heart ripped out. How do you grow up without history and heritage and stories?” she asks. “When we weren’t hanging out with the old guys, we were up in Mescalero learning all the cuss words in Apache. That’s not something you can leave when your family has been here many generations like mine has, connecting me to the physical and spiritual aspects of the place. I dropped back in after being gone a long time, but it was like I’d never left. It was easy to come back because there was such a tie.

“History is personalized here,” Cynthia muses. “It’s like it just happened. Everyone is tied to it and interconnected by it. We have a sense of community here. Tularosa works together almost like a family.”

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This article was first published in the
Spring 2003 issue of Su Casa Magazine


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