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Mining New Mexico: A Turquoise Trilogy in Old Cerrillos, Part 3, Casa Grande Trading Post!

November 18, 2010

Mining New Mexico: A Turquoise Trilogy in Old Cerrillos Part 3, Casa Grande Trading Post!
Paul Baxendale
Thursday, November 18, 2010

So, after having read my harrowing tale of a backcountry turquoise trek through the hardscrabble hills of Cerrillos, you've opted instead to undertake a relatively safe day-hike through the handsome and nicely maintained Cerrillos Hills State Park. Completing your ramble, you find that your legs ache pleasantly from the exertion and, listening intently, you can almost hear the sound of a phantom pickaxe ringing against stone, a distant echo from the days when the hills were bustling with hardworking miners, each one eager to find his fortune. Your heart pounded as you peered down into those seemingly endless vertical mineshafts from the safety of the sturdy observation deck but you realize, while making your way back to the car, that your medicine bag is still lacking a little piece of turquoise to remind you of your time in the Land of Enchantment; that your pocket isn't yet heavy with the blue-green stones you thought you might pick up along the trail. Your turquoise fever is still burning and it seems likely that a prompt ice-bath may be the only cure!!! The very cure, in truth, is well-marked on your drive out of the park; simply follow the prominent signs indicating the way towards the Casa Grande Trading Post!

The appearance of heavy antique mining equipment and majestic view of the Devil's Throne Cliff indicate your arrival at Todd and Patricia Brown's crown jewel of my Turquoise Trilogy, and the bona-fide treatment center for every known symptom of the turquoise fever!

Originally from Long Island, NY, Todd Brown has been rambling the hills of Cerrillos for decades now, inspired by the beauty and history of the area. In the early days I think a touch of turquoise fever must have kept him on the lookout for any hint of color among the long-abandoned mine sites, and as he describes it, one day he found what he was looking for:

Thirty-five years ago, I was walking in a New Mexico snowstorm and was taking the long way home around Grand Central Mountain in the Cerrillos Mining District. I came across a vein of brilliant green stone and decided to stop and work off some of the vein. I worked for 15 minutes and got about 2 lbs of rough turquoise, then covered it up and headed for home. 35 years later still dreaming of the green turquoise I had found that day, I decided to file for a mining claim with the Bureau of Land Management on that same spot.

Today, his mine, officially registered as the "Little Chalchihuitl", is perhaps the most actively worked mine in the area. With the help of family and friends, Todd continues to coax brilliant chunks of genuine Cerrillos turquoise, prized for its unique greenish hue (imparted by the iron content of the surrounding soil), from the rock walls of his claim.

Back at the Trading Post, Todd and Patricia choose the finest pieces to cut, polish and set in sterling silver; a wide range of their handiwork is available, from earrings and pendants to money clips and keychains, all set with that coveted natural Cerrillos turquoise!

If an uncut, unpolished pocket piece is more your style, you can dig for your treasure in one of several small boxes brimming with rough turquoise direct from the Little Chalchihuitl; prices are reasonable, ranging from six dollars for quarter-sized chunks, on up. I picked up two nice six dollar pieces, and a fine silver-dollar sized specimen from the eight dollar box, all richly colored and guaranteed to be completely natural: unstabilized with no color enhancements, just the way nature made it!

Just as you finish picking out your turquoise pieces, either rough or set into finely-crafted jewelry, you take in a wider view of the shop and realize that your shopping adventure is far from over!

All around you are artifacts from the days of old, skulls and antlers, colorful mineral specimens (not just turquoise!) and all manner of handmade creations; of the latter category I noted lovely walking sticks crafted from lengths of Cholla cactus skeleton, decoratively painted hubcaps, locally produced pueblo pottery, plaques mounted with samples of old barbed wire, little pouches sewn from swatches of old pendleton blankets, turquoise-covered skulls, and so much more.

If artifacts are your thing, perhaps you'll be interested in Civil War-era bullets, antique bottles, old ceramic crucibles left over from ore-refining and smelting operations in the area, railroad tie date nails (to indicate when the track was laid) or actual old documents and checks pertaining to the daily transactions common to turn-of-the-century New Mexico businesses. Oh, and I know you'll love (carefully!) picking through the labeled boxes containing segments of authentic antique barbed-wire!

In addition to the Cerrillos turquoise, Todd has rounded out his offerings with abundant samples of turquoise from other mines as well, including the well-known clear blue turquoise from the Sleeping Beauty mine in Arizona: (I want to go back for a bag of that turquoise powder!)

Sleeping Beauty is a large-scale commercial mine that does things a little differently from Todd. Where Todd may spend days or weeks carefully teasing a precious vein of color by hand out from the drab matrix stone around it, the folks at Sleeping Beauty literally blast away huge portions of mountainside and later sift through the rubble for pieces of turquoise. The following video is pretty interesting; a good example of turquoise mining on a large scale where the mineral is relatively abundant in the surrounding rock.

An abundance of other mineral specimens are offered in the Trading Post as well. Perhaps your collection is lacking a fine, colorful specimen of Peacock Chalcopyrite, New Mexico Garnet, or a jumbo, clear sheet of Mica? Can't make it down south to White Sands on this trip to New Mexico? Don't worry, Todd's got you covered!

I'm quite certain at this point you will have settled into the cheerful and charming atmosphere of Casa Grande sufficiently that you'll begin to think "Wow! I could just live in this place!" In fact, Todd and his wife do; they built the 28 room adobe casa by hand and raised their six kids there as well, one of whom very kindly tolerated my awe-struck bumbling around the shop photographing everything in sight on the afternoon of my visit! Once you've taken in all there is to see (is that even possible?) in the shop portion of the Casa Grande, be sure to request admission to the mining museum; at two dollars a person, you are virtually guaranteed at least another hour or two of visual and educational delights! Step through the gate and walk back in time!

See photos of a younger, bearded, ponytailed Todd scouring the hills for what would eventually be known as Little Chalchihuitl! Pore over maps indicating the locations of mine sites and peruse articles on the history of the area! See a real vein of Cerrillos turquoise just as it is found in the rock! A long glass display case houses collections of pottery and artifacts dating from the time when indigenous people worked Mt Chalchihuitl for the precious blue stone. Another case is full of colorful mineral specimens and samples of turquoise from many different mines.

Cross the room and learn about the connection between Tiffany's department store and a Cerrillos turquoise mine! This display features a cloth bag and tins of genuine old nuggets from the American Turquoise Company mine, which sold almost all of its robins egg blue stones to the world-famous Tiffany department store in NY after their chief gemologist, George F. Kunz, declared certain shades of turquoise (not coincidentally, the specific and well-known shade of blue unique to Tiffany gift boxes, aka "Tiffany Blue") to be gem-quality stones worthy of inclusion in the finest jewelry.The Mine's chief operator, James P. McNulty, who mined much of the turquoise himself, shipped cigar boxes packed with the precious stones back east where they were worked into chic pieces of Tiffany jewelry.

Afternoon sunlight streams through the colorful glass insulators that line the windows, administering a healthy dose of light and color therapy quite certain to boost your spirits even further in this bright, happy place!

Many pieces of equipment are labeled and explained, though Todd welcomes further inquiries if you'd like to know more. He has crafted some wonderful displays depicting the earliest Native miners in the hills. An old ore cart piled high with antlers shed in the hills by the resident mule deer population. Don't forget to look up! An old, exquisitely beaded glove is among the many treasures hanging from the rafters!

Now, lest you fear I've herein revealed all of the most remarkable points of interest throughout the trading post and museum, fear not! The wonders that await you at Todd and Patricia Brown's Casa Grande Trading Post and Mining Museum are sufficient to fill volumes; my photographs and brief descriptions barely scratch the surface of what you will find there in old Cerrillos! Oh, and did I mention that the Browns also run a petting zoo?

When you bring your treasures up to the cash register, be sure to ask for a two dollar bag of food for the petting zoo... your Casa Grande adventure continues just outside the shop, where goats, a llama, turkey, fancy chickens, and pigeons come right up at the sight of the feed bag!

A day in the Cerrillos Hills State Park is certainly a worthwhile adventure, but get an early start and make sure to plan on spending a few hours at the Casa Grande Trading Post; I sure did, and I probably could have spent a few hours more! In editing the photos for this post, I kept noticing things I hadn't noticed in person; thats the beauty of of the Casa Grande, and indeed of the Cerrillos hills as well: there is so much to see that you'll surely need a second visit to take it all in! Thanks so much for joining me on this Turquoise Trilogy! Before long, I will be embarking on a mining adventure of a different sort, and will introduce you to another local FinderMaker... I'll see you then!

Yours Truly, Paul Baxendale
East Bay, California, United States

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