Spring is the busiest time of year at El Rancho de las Golondrinas, a living history museum and working farm in La Cienega. Spring is when crops get planted and sheep get sheared. And at El Rancho (as the staff call it for short), they do it all by hand, the old-fashioned way, cutting the wool off the churro sheep with large spring-loaded scissors that are razor sharp.
“If you nick yourself with those, you’re going to need stitches,” said Sean Paloheimo, El Rancho’s operations director.
El Rancho’s days as a Spanish settlement date to the early 1690s, after the reconquest of Santa Fe by Don Diego de Vargas. Paloheimo’s family bought the abandoned ranch in the 1930s, and his grandparents established it as a living history museum in the 1940s. The museum’s mission is to preserve and teach about the lifeways of the early Spanish settlers. Paloheimo, 37, has been working at the ranch since he was a teenager, following in the footsteps of his uncle, who trained him to care for the animals and crops on the property.
El Rancho de las Golondrinas is open to visitors from June through late October. The season starts with the annual Spring & Fiber Festival on Saturday, June 1, and Sunday, June 2.
The family-friendly festival features entertainment, food, vendor booths, and activities, including arts and crafts and agricultural and animal demonstrations. Attendees can watch the sheep-shearing and learn how to wash the wool; they can also learn to card, spin, dye, and weave it from a team of volunteers who are well educated in the ranch’s history.
Paloheimo cares for 20 ewes and five rams. (Two lambs were born earlier this spring, and he expects one more to arrive before the Spring & Fiber Festival.) The churro, which are also known as churra sheep and Navajo-churro sheep, are descendants of the animals that the Spanish brought with them to the region in the 1590s. They adapted well to the high elevation and over the centuries have continued to provide wool to generations of Spanish and indigenous weavers.
Julia Gomez, a volunteer at El Rancho, learned to weave and embroider at the museum, starting in 2000. Gomez, now 78, is a retired schoolteacher whose family has lived in Santa Fe for approximately 12 generations. She weaves sabanilla, which is the background wool fabric used for traditional colcha embroidery, a colorful form of embellishment used to mend holes and brighten up the undyed utilitarian sabanilla.
“Sabanilla is the color of the sheep that you happen to have,” she said. “Mostly it’s white or off-white, and once in a while we’ll do black if we have enough black wool.”
Paloheimo and Gomez are effusive about the work they do at El Rancho. When asked about the process of taking wool from shearing all the way to a finished woven or embroidered product, both insisted they could talk about it for hours. They are eager for the museum to open for the summer. Paloheimo explained that they look forward to seeing the same family — the Jaramillos from Las Vegas, New Mexico — who have been coming to the Spring & Fiber Festival for at least three decades to shear the sheep in a big corral for crowds of onlookers.
“They have a ranch out in Vegas where they have their own sheep, but it’s also a way that members of the family make money, and it’s been passed down generation to generation,” he said. “The individual that comes to shear our sheep now primarily does it to keep the tradition alive. His son shears sheep. His dad shears sheep.”
One of the main attractions at the Spring & Fiber Festival is Saturday’s Catholic Mass and procession of San Ysidro, during which a carving of the patron saint of farmers is carried from the main Placitas Chapel to the Saint Isidore Chapel, also known as the oratorio. “Catholicism was synonymous with the Spanish coming into Northern New Mexico,” Paloheimo said. “We do the San Ysidro procession to take him up to the oratorio, which is the lookout chapel, to look over the crops.”
Gomez said the procession fills her with thoughts of the early Spanish settlers and how they struggled for survival. Paloheimo pointed out that without the friendship and knowledge of the Native Americans who were living in the area when the Spanish arrived, the settlers never would have made it through the first harsh winter.
Daniel Goodman, the museum’s director, said that New Mexico’s indigenous history is inseparable from its history of Spanish conquest and settlement, and the museum is dedicated to providing a complete narrative. To that end the Spring & Fiber festival includes demonstrations about Apache lifeways.
“This has been an informal effort and is admittedly in its infancy,” Goodman said. “I hope we are able to further our efforts through directed engagement with various communities. We want everyone to feel welcome and know that this is a safe place where their stories are told.”
At the Spring & Fiber Festival, Gomez will show people how to card freshly washed wool to soften it and ready it for spinning. From there, the new yarn is taken to the dye shed, where natural dye materials are used, including brazilwood, indigo, and cochineal. (Cochineal, or carminic acid, is extracted from the female cochineal insect. It produces vibrant crimsons and scarlets.) Gomez is looking forward to seeing the faces of the children as they learn about the many skills and impressive handiwork of their forebears.
“There are so many things to do for the children! They learn to make adobes. They can see the sheep. It’s wonderful to get them off their phones and to spend some time at the ranch learning history and be outside in nature.” ◀
▼ Spring & Fiber Festival: Tierra, Agua y Vida
▼ El Rancho de las Golondrinas, 334 Los Pinos Road, 505-471-2261, golondrinas.org
▼ 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, June 1, and Sunday, June 2
▼ $8 for adults, $6 for teens and seniors, free for children 12 and under