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Fourth of July parade: ‘We are America’

As the Rotary Independence Day Parade on Saturday, July 3, will surely exemplify this year’s theme, “We Are America,” history can attest to how our diversified local heritage, customs and culture brings us together as a community.

?Two men whose families?were some of the?earliest settlers in our area remember their forefathers and how they helped shape this beautiful part of America.?

When we think about America’s Four Corners region and Archuleta County in particular, it’s important to remember there was a time before electricity, automobiles, the Internet and even the telegraph. Long before any of our ancestors arrived, there were just the mountains.

“There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run.

When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun.

Long before the Whiteman and long before the wheel.

When the green dark forest was too silent to be real.”

That passage is from the singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot’s 1967 album, “The Way I Feel,” in which he wrote a great folk song, “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy.” Gordon’s lyrics spoke of the Canadian version of America’s westward expansion during the 1800s. Yet, when we listen to the words, there’s a remarkable resemblance to the Colorado experience in the early days.

At the time when the San Juans were too silent to be real, there arrived a different sort of person strong enough to outlast the harsh winters and hot summers. The kind of American that defined the spirit of our American western migration.

Men like Pedro Aragon, born in 1874 in the La Loma between South Fork and Del Norte. Like many Hispanic families of the day, they came to the San Luis Valley from Northern New Mexico, Denver and Trinidad for a better farming opportunity. Besides farming, the Aragon family ran a sheep operation. They can trace their lineage there as far back as 1821.

Just one example of this heritage lies in a state park outside Grants, N.M. Within the park lies a 30- to 40-foot rock called “El Morro.” On this rock are inscriptions from Spanish settlers and soldiers over 200 years old. And one of the family names carved on El Morro is Aragon.

About the time the Aragons established themselves in Colorado, there was a young cowboy/maverick named John Henry Toner operating the Indian agency near Zuni, N.M. Family history says he gained the Native Americans’ trust through fair dealing, a trait somewhat unheard of at the time. Legend says a Native American chief once brought in 13 pelts to the agency for barter. When John Henry told the chief he brought in one too many and gave it back, the word spread fast and relations between the whites and Native Americans vastly improved.

A few years later, John Henry got into the freight business in the Farmington and Gallup areas of northern New Mexico. During this time, he met and fell in love with a young woman named Maggie Brown. Soon, John Henry proposed to Maggie via the fledgling U.S. Mail service. Due to the nature of his freight business, he was out of contact for some time and when he finally got to Maggie’s home, he was confronted by his future brother-in-law. It seemed the Brown family never received the proposal letter, doubted his seriousness and were none too happy about it. After much explanation and apologies all around, everyone made up and the wedding went off as planned. John Henry’s story was later validated when the previously mentioned proposal arrived in the mail at the Brown residence a year too late. Some things never change.

Near the turn of the century, the Toner family homesteaded on the Upper Piedra area of Hinsdale County. Very close to Archuleta. John Henry’s grandson, Ed Toner, tells of a time when there was a Hinsdale County election of some sort and John Henry delivered the ballot box to Lake City, via horseback, which took over two days. Unheard of by today’s standards of electronic voting, but not uncommon for those times.

Close to the time the Toners homesteaded, Pedro Aragon’s family left the San Luis Valley and settled near Arboles, Colo. Pedro turned out to be an extremely industrious individual, as be began breaking horses for the U.S. Calvary at $5 a head. When he wasn’t busy working for the army, he earned a living shearing sheep and farming. The Aragons will tell you Pedro was a visionary, as he was one of the first people in the area to modernize the farm. It was the dawn of America’s industrial revolution after all, and he took a huge risk in buying modern tractors and harvesting equipment. Pedro even went on to hire his equipment and employees out to farmers from Chama, N.M,, to the Upper Piedra in Colorado. It’s hard to be sure, but entirely possible he may have encountered John Henry Toner somewhere along the way.

Pedro had a son named Juan Aragon born in Allison, Colo., in 1904, who married Beatrice Chavez. At this time, there was a shift in the family business away from agriculture as Juan began to work in the mines, mostly in Telluride and Silverton. Mining is dangerous enough today, so we can only imagine how tough it was back then. Besides cave-ins, there were consumption and methane poisoning to deal with.

Close to the time of Juan Aragon’s birth, Archie Brown Toner was born in 1902 in the Upper Piedra area. Archie married Bess Miller and was a lifelong rancher. One thing the Toner family cared deeply about was education. Therefore, his parents made sure Archie attended Fort Lewis College at Hesperus, Colo., and later Colorado A&M, presently Colorado State University at Fort Collins.

Archie and Bess had a son named John Edward Toner, who married Dorothy Short. In his early years, Ed attended a one-room schoolhouse near the family’s 300-acre ranch, then went on to finish school in Durango and, as his father before him, Ed attended Colorado A&M. He graduated in 1953. His ROTC curriculum led him to a 24-year career in the United States Air Force. Ed flew 103 combat missions over Southeast Asia, was stationed in England, France and North Africa, among other posts, and retired as a lieutenant colonel. Ed and Dottie came back to the family ranch after Archie passed away and built their current residence in 1980.

Juan Aragon had a son named Ross, whose life is well documented in Pagosa Springs. Each generation of Aragons have moved from their early roots in agriculture through mining up to today where Ross has dedicated himself to public service. He’s managed the Archuleta Housing Corporation since 1975 and is presently serving as the mayor of Pagosa Springs.

As each generation of Coloradans comes and goes, the dates and names will undoubtedly begin to fade. What’s important to remember is there are reasons a building is named the Ross Aragon Community Center and a mountain is called Toner Mountain.

It’s doubtless that Ross and his late wife, Patty, knew Ed and Dottie Short Toner. But, did Archie Toner ever meet Juan Aragon? Or did Pedro Aragon ever sell a horse to John Henry Toner? We’ll leave that for the families to sort out. But, one thing’s for sure:

“All the songs of the future have been sung.

All the battles have been won.

On the mountaintops we stand.

All the world’s at our command.

We have opened up the soil.

With our teardrops and our toil.” — Gordon Lightfoot.

Parade applications are now available at the Chamber of Commerce or?you can download the application directly from The SUN website, fun and be creative!?This is your opportunity to celebrate your idea of what “We Are America” means to you. The application deadline is June 28 for placement in the parade line up, but you can still enter at the registration desk on July 3.