Aztec's past revisited in presentation at historical society meeting

City's boomtown era of 1950s led to huge population growth

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Workers unload apples from a truck at the Lawson Cannery in Aztec in this photo, circa 1948.

FARMINGTON — When local historian Dr. Jimmy Miller delivers his presentation on the history of Aztec June 12 as part of the San Juan County Historical Society meeting, he'll make a point of leaving out one of the more contentious episodes in the town's past.

Don't get the wrong idea. Miller's speech, which aims to cover Aztec history from the 1870s through the 1960s in just 30 minutes or so, isn't about dodging controversy. He just figures the story of the rivalry between Farmington and Aztec, and how the latter became the seat of county government, is a tale best avoided in these circumstances.

"I didn't want to get bogged down in that," Miller said, explaining that the allegations of stolen documents and other cloak-and-dagger activity that characterized the battle for local supremacy between the two communities, while entertaining, are too numerous to chronicle in a mere half hour.

Dr. Jimmy Miller

Instead, the San Juan College professor emeritus will focus on his favorite aspect of Aztec history — how the town went from a village of fewer than 1,000 folks in the late 1940s to a peak population of 7,000 people less than a decade later. That shift came about largely thanks to a natural gas boom and the construction of a pipeline to Southern California that transformed the community, he said.

Other parts of San Juan County experienced rapid growth in that era, as well, Miller said, but none of them could duplicate the boomtown conditions in Aztec, where double shifting of students at the schools and the construction of temporary housing became the norm.

"Aztec, on a per capita basis, had much bigger growth than Farmington during the gas boom," Miller said. "It really changed the culture. A lot of people from Oklahoma and Texas became better represented over the 1950s because that's where all the (drilling) talent that was needed came from."

The first commercial gas well in New Mexico is pictured just south of Aztec in 1921.

That influx of outsiders changed the character of the whole town, Miller said. The apple orchards that had been a staple of the local economy since the early days of Anglo settlement disappeared to make way for housing as Aztec came to rely much less on agriculture and much more on the energy sector for its economic activity.

"That brought us into the 20th century," he said.

Miller's presentation will focus on three to five significant developments in the city's history, including the 1911 flood, and will feature dozens of historic images from the Aztec Museum collection. He will take particular note of the city's changing appearance, especially among its churches and government buildings.

Miller also will address the city's receipt of an All-American City award in the 1960s, an event that was precipitated by the construction of a highway from the town to the Navajo Lake Dam in a remarkable three and a half months one winter.

Miller and his wife have been residents of San Juan County for nearly 50 years, but he said he has lived in Aztec for "only" 20 of those years. He said during a question-and-answer period at the end of his presentation, he likely will defer to members of the audience who have lived in Aztec for much longer, encouraging them to share their personal experiences.

A Denver & Rio Grande railroad train chugs past the Aztec Depot in 1905.

The meeting will take place at 6 p.m. at the Aztec Senior & Community Center, 101 S. Park Ave. The meeting is open to the public, and admission is free.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.