Gilbert Quiroga reminisces about his childhood in Patagonia in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Photo by Linda Jade Fong

You have to chuckle as you watch 77-year-old Gilbert Quiroga drive down the street in Patagonia in his black SUV. His brake lights go on every 100 feet or so. He needs to stop right there in the middle of the road and greet a passerby, oncoming driver, or someone out watering their garden. He knows almost everyone in town, so this can be a slow process.

This is a man filled to the brim with stories and opinions —all of which he is not shy to share. Coming from one of Patagonia’s pioneer families, he’s literally related to over half the town, and never left this place he loves. He has served in roles ranging from wrangler to bus driver to mayor.

Gilbert Quiroga at 7 years of age, circa 1953.

He was the youngest of 15 children of a rancher who came from Mexico to Patagonia in 1896 and a Yaqui woman from the Santa Ritas. His father died when Gilbert was one year old, from emphysema working in the local mine.

The family lived in two rooms in a small house with no running water on Santa Rita Ave. in a cul-de-sac which became known as Quiroga Canyon. Twelve of them, including his mother, slept in the one bedroom. His mother also raised about eight other children, so there could have been 20 at a time there. They later moved to what is now the Patagonia Library, to two rooms where they slept on the floor because there were so many in the family.

“Dinner time was not like a normal house,” he said. “One of the ranchers, Bill Douglas, would bring us a feed bag filled with raw menudo or a cow head—our only source of meat. We knew we had our work cut out for us: draw water from the well to add with lime into a tub to make menudo over a wood fire; put the mesquite coals over a layer of rocks down into a deep hole; lower into it a tub with the cow head wrapped in a gunny sack, seal it off with dirt and let it cook all night. By morning it was ready to eat, with the meat so tender it fell off the bones. Do you realize how much meat there is in the head of cow? Tongue, brains, and my favorite—the cheeks!” His mother sometimes sold menudo to bring in some cash. 

“But my favorite pastime was riding the donkeys that kept escaping to the river,” Gilbert smiled. “We would grab them, put rope around their necks and ride around town bareback and down along Sonoita Creek, where we hid with our slingshots to play Cowboys and Indians.”

Gilbert pulled out more stories, like getting out axes and making a baseball diamond west of Costello Avenue —“we called it Yankee Stadium”—with competing teams from opposite sides of the tracks. Or watching elephants put up poles for the circus tent next to the Catholic Church and getting free tickets to see the clown Tambourin for helping with set up. Or climbing up a tree to look in the windows of the old Opera House across the alley to see the Harlem Globetrotters.

The tracks and trains themselves were a thing of wonder right in the middle of town in Patagonia in the late 1950s and early 60s. There was an elaborate system of six tracks all meeting down at 3rd Avenue where, after unloading one of the eight or nine cars, the engine would disconnect and get turned around 360 degrees on a turnstile to come back to load. 

Two 300-foot ramps were used to off-load ice, oil, diesel for ranchers to generate electricity, fencing materials, lumber, and supplies. Six-foot high blocks of ice would come sliding down into a sawdust-insulated big hole by the side of the tracks, waiting to be broken into small pieces for “ice boxes” before the time of refrigerators. 

During the spring and fall, local ranchers had a specified day to bring in their herds of cattle into stockyards which the trains would back up to so the cattle could be pushed in—helped by Gilbert and friends with sticks—to be hauled off. “We could hear mooing all month. When they left there was a carpet of cow manure,” he laughed.

Dump trucks heavy with ore from the mine came down the mountain on Harshaw Rd. and on reaching the tracks would reverse back on a ramp made of dirt with no side or stop bars to load onto the train. “Little kids would be shooed away—too dangerous,” he said.

These are early memories of a town character and elder who can tell non-stop stories about a Patagonia most of us aren’t familiar with. Now when we look at the serene, leafy green town park, we can imagine the sights and sounds of jammed-in trains, trucks and cattle. And little boys giddy-upping on donkeys.