Belle Sweet


Miss Belle Sweet, retired Albuquerque school teacher, began her teaching career at Dolores in 1893, when the mining town was in the twilight of its existence. Miss Sweet, who was 14 at the time, recalls that Dolores had a population of about 100 in 1893. There were several small stores, a saloon, and a one-room adobe school house. The Ortiz and Tom Benton gold mines were still being worked at that time, she recalled, and there was quite a bit of placer mining in the district. Free gold could be picked up in the streets of the village after a heavy rain, she said. [OFF THE BEATEN PATH by Howard Bryan, The Albuquerque Tribune 3/21/1963

These are her

Dolores, New Mexico, or Real de Dolores, a small gold-mining town exists no longer except on a few records and in the mind of Miss Emma Belle Sweet, likely its first school teacher. Settling in Albuquerque and nearing ninety, she recalled life there during the McKinley Era. These are her memories.

Fairly compact and no larger than two city blocks, the village, which  consisted entirely of one-story adobe houses, save for the store, lay at the foot of the Ortiz mountains to the south.  Dolores was six miles from the town of Cerrillos and three miles from Madrid, both presently dependent on tourists rather than mining. Santa Fe, the territorial capital, was twenty-five miles to the north.

In this Old Placer district, mining, of course, was largely placer mining. In the nearby hills were "French tunnels," dug by a Frenchman searching for free gold. Regardless of the danger of cave-ins, boys sometimes braved these tunnels and went exploring.

After rains, persons with sharp eyes followed the roads and the arroyos hunting tiny flakes of gold called "colors" or "colors of gold". These they kept in little pill bottles. Often a dollar's worth could be gathered. It was rumored that someone living in San Pedro had a large nugget worth around five hundred dollars, and that when he passed it out once to be admired, it disappeared.

To climb the Ortiz hill was a walk of several miles, made more difficult because the Ortiz Mountains, being young mountains, had sharp rather than rounded stones. Nevertheless, the young school teacher and four or five teenagers would occasionally make the hike, reaching the top with her a bit dizzy from the exertion. From there, the lights of the territorial penitentiary at Santa Fe could be seen evenings. A reward for a climb made in the spring was the wild raspberries to be picked and eaten. And as Miss Sweet remarked, "there's nothing quite as nice as a wild raspberry."

As was the usual pattern, village life centered about the one church which was Catholic. A thick-walled, adobe building at the eastern edge of town, it had a dirt floor. There were no seats, nor any means of heating it. In the single bell tower above the flat roof, hung the bell. Ascent was by means of a hand-hewn ladder, for its clapper was operated manually, and it was rung for services and for important announcements, as well. Mischievous boys, one of who was Harry Coffin, rigged the bell with wires so it could be swung from below. When they rang it that evening, people hurried from their homes towards the church. Seeing no one on the roof ringing the bell, they dropped to their knees in the sand and remained praying and saying their beads, for it appeared to them to be a miracle.

Funeral processions accompanied the remains of the deceased from the home to the church for the burial. Mourners followed the bier while the musicians went ahead. On one such occasion, as Miss Sweet recalls, the musical group which included a blind violinist and two or three others played "After the Ball is Over." Interment was in the little yard fronting the church and bounded by a wall three feet high. Often when a new grave was dug, bones from former burials had to be tossed aside.

Real Dolores supported no regular priest; consequently, periodic visits were made by a padre from Santa Fe. At one time two couples were married. One paid a fee of fifteen dollars; the other, previously married by Miss Sweet's step-father, George B. Hendricks, was charged only two dollars, or perhaps two-fifty.

Outside of town and off the road to Cerrillos to the left was the Protestant graveyard. Here a Mr. Trujillo, of Albuquerque, who was either a Presbyterian or Methodist, was buried. A mis-shapen man, his back having been broken and not properly mended, he required a specially built casket. No man could be found who would read the Bible or say a prayer, so Miss Sweet read from the Scriptures. Lulu Hendricks, her half-sister, and Mrs. Atchinson, the saloon-keeper's wife, sang as a part of a quartette. Mrs. Legacy, a grandmother and blind, offered prayer. Forgetting the occasion, she prayed on and on, as she would have in their own home.

Word of The Healer, "El Sanador," who had arrived in Albuquerque in July, 1895, reached Dolores. Friends of Mrs. Legacy gathered funds and arranged a trip to Albuquerque for her. They put her on the Santa Fe trail at Cerrillos. When she returned, she reported that according to The Healer she would experience a change in three months. She said she might die, but at the end of the time, nothing had happened. She was not cured.

Unlike the church, school had no permanent building for its use. The first one was in an adobe house east of the mine road. Consisting of one room approximately nine by twelve feet, its one door faced north and opened into the room. Stepping inside over the ten, or twelve inch sill, one saw to the right a low wall four feet high and four feet long and rounded on top. Beyond this the children were seated facing the fireplace which was also on the north wall, which jutted out into the room on a small adobe base. There were two sealed-in windows of six or eight panes each, one being beyond the fireplace and the other across the room opposite it.

The best desks were made from boxes which had contained Arbuckles coffee sacks of 100 pounds each. These desks were about two and a half feet long and of a correct height. An apple  box served for a foot rest. Seats moved a bit on the hard dirt floor (which) dug small holes allowing a rocking motion and the children referred to them as "rocking chairs."

This first school was a private on with seven pupils enrolled who paid a dollar a month each. Among them were John and Annie Cravey, Ramon Garcia and Vernice Williams. Vernice's father made her a desk that was the envy of everyone, for it was sloping with a shelf underneath.

Ramon's father brought the wood for the fireplace. Ramon, a smart little boy, finished his work quickly then entertained himself by making a humming noise with his lips. The young teacher did not know then what to do with him. She knows now how she might have handled him and any number like him.

Joe Perron's Arbuckle Coffee desk had the lettering upside down, the box having been opened at the wrong end. That he had learned them thus, Miss Sweet realized when she handed him the book for him to identify the letters and he turned it upside down. As she said, she was "perfectly sick" over that, for he had to begin again.

At this first school, the blackboard was a shed door and a bit taller than the teacher, made of two boards each about ten inches wide. It was painted black, so white chalk could be used. To clean it, a damp cloth was required.

Established next was the first public school in Real de Dolores, held in the attic of the Perron Store. A term lasted three months and the pay of twenty dollars a month mad Miss Sweet feel wealthy. There were six or eight pupils in the small space which was heated by a stove, rectangular or box-like in shape and mounted on a platform or base. When fresh fuel was needed, the entire front, which was hinged, was swung to the side. In coldest weather, pupils crowded the stove leaving no room for the teachers who suffered frozen heels.

Another building where school was conducted was a small, one-room frame structure which had previously served as a bachelor's quarters. Its remaining foundation, Miss Sweet  contends, is mistakenly identified as that of the powder house.

Still in Miss Sweet's possession is the accabus her brother Clarence made for her to use in teaching. He cut the counters from a broom handle and burned them through with a heated wire - heated in the Charter Oak cook stove at which Miss Sweet had her first lesson in letters. While her mother cooked, she learned "Charter Oak" for her first venture into letters.

Memories of those early school days are many.

Emma Belle Sweet, National Teacher of the Year for 1962, taught school in Albuquerque’s Lincoln Junior High School. Among her distinguished students were Ralph Bunche, Under Secretary for the United Nations, attorney George Stevens, and businessman H. B. Horn. Stevens, who wrote the trust for Miss Sweet in 1966, remembers her as a stately grey-haired woman who loved children, and whom children, in turn, loved. She had a way with them since she was a caring, compassionate person. Emma Belle Sweet began her teaching career in the gold mining camp of Dolores near Cerrillos when she was fourteen years old. She taught seven students and earned $7.00 a month; nonetheless, the frugal teacher left thousands of dollars to the Foundation for the purpose of helping missions, especially ethnic missions (African, Native American, and Hispanic). Her teaching career eventually spanned 54 years. According to Lee Black, the largest Foundation grant ($10,000) ever made to an individual church came in 1994, when the Sweet Trust awarded money for Truevine Baptist Church, located in Albuquerque’s South Valley, money to buy and renovate a building.


Maybe Ralph Bunch's struggles reminded Belle Sweet of her own. When she was a girl, her father died trying to save others in a whirling flood near Las Vegas, N.M. Forced to go to work at 14, she found a teaching spot in tiny Dolores, a gold-mining camp near Cerrillos. The one-time taproom there had dirt floors, black-painted door slats for a blackboard and, for desks, fruit crates. She was paid $21 a year. After years of teaching at small stops in New Mexico, relying only on an eighth-grade education, she went back to school for her high school diploma. Even after she began teaching in Albuquerque in 1913, it took her 15 years to get a

bachelor's degree from UNM. Belle Sweet, a private woman who loved pets and collecting stamps, retired in 1948 after 37 years spent in Albuquerque classrooms, 54 in all. Miss Sweet never married; students were her family. In the rooms she rented on Edith Boulevard, she filled scrapbooks with news of her former charges. In 1968, Belle Sweet died in an Albuquerque nursing home. She was 89.
 ABQ Journal 2/29/2004