Well, the older I get, the more I realize how many opportunities I’ve missed…mainly, the opportunities to visit with those who were much older than I, and who knew so much local history.
The above just came to light again as a neighbor and I had a visit about the incredible strengths of the long-ago settlers and builders in this area. We were standing in front of a solid adobe home, a two-story house with a Mansard roof. There are two of these homes with this style roof right in this area. I now have learned that a Mansard roof has two layers, two slopes, and usually covers a dormer.
There are many old adobes with this style roof in Mora County. Because they are steep, and with two layers shed snow remarkably well, they were popular here at the turn of the last century. Another one of my favorite books in my collection is “From Hacienda to Bungalow, Northern New Mexico Houses, 1850-1912,” by Agnesa Lufkin Reeve.
She defines a Mansard roof as a roof having a slope in two planes, the lower plane usually being much steeper than the higher plane. These old houses have cozy upstairs bedrooms covered by a solid roof, and a window in each bedroom that looks out on the world, north, south, east and west, depending on which room one is in. Quite a nifty idea, I’d say!
Mrs. Reeve interviewed us at length and took many pictures of our two-story frame house here at Gascon in 1980. That house was a victim of very old dry wood rot, so was replaced with an almost lookalike version recently. Her photograph of that house, built by Richard Dunn, Jean Pendaries’ son-in-law, in 1880 is the featured photograph on the cover of her book.
My neighbor, who continues to repair their old outbuildings (we who own such find this is a never-ending job!), marveled at how the oldtimers built these houses. Rocks had to be brought in for a foundation, probably with a team of horses and a wagon. The correct kind of dirt had to be located then screened to make the adobes. There is nothing quite like the feel and smell of a freshly plastered adobe wall … this I know from experience. If the house was frame, the trees had to be cut with long, two- man crosscut saws.
Then the logs were hauled or drug to a steam-powered sawmill, where they were cut into boards. Imagine trying to build a house today without electricity, which translates into power tools. Most of these old houses were built with square nails. The tools of the day were scarce.
Hammers, axes, crosscut and handsaws plus a lot of strength and ingenuity turned our standing pine trees into beautiful homes. Fancier tools came into this part of the world late, so almost all of the very old homes in this area were truly built by hand.
That makes these Mansard roofed houses all the more remarkable because the engineering alone so long ago was both impressive and certainly correct for roofs that had to withstand large and heavy depths of snow. They did not collapse under that weight, and the moment the temperature warmed up, that snow slid off, and often left a very high drift where it fell.
I just wish I’d thought to ask my neighbors of long ago how they built these houses. This is one of the many regrets I now have as I discover more fun facts about this great area.
Editha Bartley lives in Gascon in Mora County. She may be reached at 454-0563.