TAOS, N.M. — As surprising as it may seem to many Americans, statehood isn't necessarily something dating back a couple of centuries. In fact, the last two of the Lower 48 — Arizona and New Mexico — became states only in the 1900s — 1912, to be exact.
The centennial festivities have been going on all year. Many of them honor the adventurous souls who settled these rugged, barren lands. And one northern New Mexico town is celebrating a particular group of early residents: The Remarkable Women of Taos.
A century ago, women definitely were considered "the fairer sex," making it all the more impressive that so many of them chose to relocate to a remote Native American community, in some cases long before electricity and indoor plumbing arrived. And though they're not necessarily household names — Jesusita Acosta Perrault, for example, was an early New Mexico secretary of state — the female settlers all left lasting legacies. Several were women of means who eschewed the East Coast cities for a simpler life that inspired them to create the varied works of art that enlighten and enrich modern-day visitors.
"Impossible to describe" was part of the paragraph in which early arrival Mabel Dodge Luhan did indeed describe this Alpine town overlooking Taos Mountain.
A New Yorker who had lived in Italy, Luhan moved to Taos in 1916. It was a hamlet where she discovered a "cosmos" far from her cultured Eastern roots.
"Another world is opened up to one in the cessation and the stillness, another music that is hidden deep within the world," she wrote.
By 1922, Mabel Dodge (as she was commonly known) and her fourth husband had built a rambling three-story home. Now a guest house and retreat, the place once hosted some of the biggest names of the avant-garde of the last century,
"They were referred to as 'escapees from mainstream America,'" noted Judi Jordan, a docent who shares her vast knowledge during tours of house.
A free spirit who admired the traditions of the ancient, adjoining Taos Pueblo, Mabel Dodge also is remembered for doing the unthinkable: marrying a blanket-wearing Native American.
"It was scandalous for Mabel to marry an Indian," observed Liz Cunningham, a local writer who blogs about the house. "She was a trailblazer who didn't care who she ruffled," Judi Jordan chimed in while seated next to Cunningham in the home's Rainbow Room. The walls of the expansive lounge are covered with black-and-white photos of Mabel and Tony, with whom she spent 40 years of her colorful life.
"It's a place where you can curl up — and enjoy the silence," Jordan reflected. "It's a place where you can meet yourself, if you dare."
Almost a century ago, Lucy Harwood began her journey of self-discovery. In 1916, the same year Mabel arrived in Taos, Harwood and her husband purchased a home on Ledoux Street, shortly after their arrival from Paris. Almost immediately, along with painting landscapes, Harwood began sharing her extensive collection of books. The house soon became the burg's library. As the Harwood Museum of Art, it now embraces new trends in American art.
By Taos standards, Millicent Rogers was a relative latecomer. The heiress to the Standard Oil fortune, Rogers didn't discover the region until 1947.
"Suddenly passing Taos Mountain, I felt I was part of the Earth. … I felt the Stars and the growth of the Moon; under me, rivers run. …" she wrote in a letter to her son shortly before her premature death in 1953.
"It was love at first sight," docent Nicki Korjenek said of the Hollywood jet-setter's first visit to Taos. "'Why has nobody told me about this?' she exclaimed.
A model, Rogers was a huge fan of turquoise jewelry. Pieces from her collection, along with other examples of Southwestern art, grace the rooms of the Millicent Rogers Museum.
First opened in 1956 in temporary quarters near the Harwood home, the museum moved to its current quarters, a sprawling ranch house a couple of miles out of town, in the late 1960s.
The Spanish colonial home, which was donated to the museum, features traditional mud floors in some rooms. They're a reminder that mud, or clay, is an essential element of the Native American pottery that's exhibited, some of it centuries old.
In another room, works of northern New Mexico tinware are featured. "It's called poor man's silver," Korjenek said of the tin artifacts. They're reminders of the modest lifestyle that continues at the nearby Taos Pueblo. By choice, residents there forgo many of the creature comforts of modern life — electricity and indoor plumbing included.
If you go
Rooms at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House (240 Morada Lane, Taos; 800-846-2235, mabeldodgeluhan.com) start at $105 a night. Another good lodging choice is the historic Taos Inn (575-758-2233, taosinn.com). On the main drag at 125 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, the inn's been a gathering spot for artists and free thinkers since 1935. Rooms from $75.
Harwood Museum of Art (238 Ledoux Street, Taos; 575-758-9826, harwoodmuseum.org).
Millicent Rogers Museum (1504 Millicent Rogers Road, Taos; 575-758-2462, millicentrogers.org).
Profiles of the Remarkable Women can be found at taos.org/women.