Article first published in Vol. 28 (2010-2011)
By Cadyn Crawford, Luis Gavan, Amanda Rodriguez and Dakota Scheller
Soldier, adventurer, miller, pioneer, entrepreneur, editor. He fought against Mexico but married a Mexican woman and learned his trade from her father. Establishing a home in the desert, he became known for his hospitality to all, stranger and friend. Simeon Hart led an extraordinary life, and his home continued to welcome those looking for good food and drink as the Hacienda Café.
Image caption: Simeon Hart and children. Back left to right: Leonardo S. Hart and Simeon Hart, father. Front left to right: Carolina S. Hart, Antonio S. Hart, Clara S. Hart, Paulina S. Hart, Corina S. Hart, and Juan S. Hart. (Photo courtesy of the El Paso County Historical Society)
Hart was born March 28, 1816, in Highland, N.Y. While he was a young child, his family relocated to St. Louis, Mo., where he studied civil engineering. Hart came to the Southwest in 1847 as adjutant to Col. John Ralls who commanded the 3rd Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers.
Not knowing that the war with Mexico had ended on Feb. 2, 1848, Gen. Sterling Price, military governor of New Mexico, ordered Hart’s company and several others to invade Mexico. The Americans defeated the forces of Gen. Angel Trias in Santa Cruz de Rosales, Chihuahua, on March 16, 1848, six days after the United States had ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe. Hart was recognized for having fought with distinction but suffered injuries in the battle.
Hart recovered at the home of Don Leonardo Siqueiros, a wealthy Chihuahuan who owned a well known molino, or mill. Hart fell in love with Jesusita, the oldest of Don Leonardo’s five daughters, but her parents rejected his initial marriage proposal. He returned for Jesusita and the two were married in 1849, when she was 17. The last battle of the Mexican War not only brought Hart a military commendation but a young, beautiful wife.
Immediately following their marriage, the Harts settled in Franklin, as El Paso was then known. Hart purchased more than 600 acres along the north side of the Rio Grande from the present-day site of the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) to the corner of Oregon Street and Franklin Avenue for 50 cents an acre. Hart had prime property to set up his homestead and a prime location to give birth to El Paso’s very first industry: milling.
Hart’s flour mill was constructed with three-foot thick adobe walls. Sycamore beams and willow branches were fashioned to support another four inches of adobe on the roof. Power for the wheel was supplied by a dam made of timber, brush and earth, located half a mile north of the mill on the Rio Grande. Although the dam was owned by the Mexican government, Hart had permission to use the water. After torrential floods washed away the original earthen dam, in a joint effort with the Mexican government, “Hart’s Dam” was reconstructed using stone and cement.
Historian W. H. Timmons wrote in Password, journal of the El Paso County Historical Society, that on March 28, 1850, Hart signed his first contract with the Army. For 11 cents a pound, Hart supplied flour for one year to the posts of Doña Ana, the Post Opposite El Paso (later Fort Bliss) and San Elizario. Until his own operation could produce the flour required by this contract, Hart imported flour from his father-in-law in Chihuahua. With renewed lucrative Army contracts, Hart expanded his operations. In an effort to widen his market, Hart purchased horse teams and the mail line running from El Paso to Santa Fe. He added $25,000 worth of machinery to the mill, and farmers on both sides of the Rio used the services El Molino, as his mill was known, provided.
According to an article published in the El Paso Times on Oct. 30, 1947, Hart’s Mill boasted paying the highest cash prices for wheat and corn, as well as the lowest market prices on flour, semita, corn meal and beans. With a capacity to produce 100 barrels of flour per day, troops, stage drivers, travelers and gunfighters were all customers of Hart’s Mill.
Hart held the monopoly on the milling business from San Antonio to Tucson, from Santa Fe to Santa Cruz de Rosales in Chihuahua where his closest and only competition resided, his father-in-law. In Six Who Came To El Paso: Pioneers of the 1840’s, Rex Strickland wrote that the true extent of Hart’s success can be seen in the 1860 Census, where Hart’s real and person property was valued at $350,000, making him the richest man in the community, the equivalent of a multi-millionaire today.
In 1855, construction began on Hart’s mansion. With two large fountains in the front for watering horses and evergreens, and fruit trees and mission grapes adorning the property, the house was a true “oasis in the desert.” According to an article about El Paso landmarks in the El Paso Herald-Post in August 1935, the original Hart home, built of adobe, had 16 or 18 rooms, each with its own fireplace. Over the years, additions were made to the house, including the mission-style front and large patio.
About a year after the mansion was completed, Jesusita gave birth to her first child, Juan Siquieros Hart, on July 24, 1856. The couple would have six more children: Leonardo, Antonio, Clara, Paulina, Carolina and Corina, all bearing Siquieros as their middle name. Hart was known as a loving husband and indulgent father. He was also recognized far and wide for his legendary hospitality.
Hart’s homestead was a beacon to the road-weary traveler. After an arduous journey on a rocky, dusty trail, ministers and gold miners alike were greeted like family and treated to all the comforts of home. On Jan. 13, 1952, the El Paso Times ran a reprint of one chapter of El Gringo, a book written by W. H. H. Davis, the New Mexico Territory Attorney General in the 1850s. Davis described Hart as a hospitable man, and his wife as “a lady of refinement and intelligence.” After a meal eaten with gusto, Davis and Hart retired to the library and passed the time in “most agreeable conversation.” Davis confessed to sleeping late the next morning, so agreeable was his stay with the Harts.
Hart’s homestead was not only a respite for weary travelers, but it was often the site of social and civic gatherings. According to early historian Cleofas Calleros, Hart hosted parties that sometimes lasted all day and night, parties that “lingered in the memories of early El Pasoans.” The mill was also the birthplace of the El Paso Pioneer Association, which became the El Paso County Historical Society, and the meeting site of El Paso’s first Masonic Lodge, No. 130, of which Hart was a charter member.
Although Hart never sought public office, he was persuaded to accept the seat of county judge. The only other official position Hart held, according to Strickland, was Confederate Agent for the State of Texas in El Paso. Hart was a staunch secessionist, and according to an El Paso Times article in August 1887, he loaned the Confederacy large sums of money and was a good friend of Jefferson Davis. During the Civil War, Hart relocated his family to San Antonio, where they remained until Reconstruction.
After the Civil War, Hart sent his family to relatives in Mexico while he traveled to Washington to apply for presidential amnesty, which was granted by President Johnson on Nov. 6, 1865. Unfortunately, this pardon did not prevent the sequestering and sale of Hart’s property. The new owner of this prime river-front home and mill was none other than Hart’s long-time nemesis, fellow El Paso pioneer, W. W. Mills.
The two men held opposing views on secession, with the rivalry between Hart and Mills becoming brutal. While acting as a Confederate Agent, Hart had Mills incarcerated at Fort Bliss. According to Strickland, it was the humiliation of incarceration that led Mills to seek vengeance on Hart through legal channels as well as “chicanery.” This obsession led not only to well defined political parties in El Paso, like the anti- Mills Republicans, but it also spawned El Paso’s very first newspaper, the Sentinel, with Hart as one of the co-founders. On May 5, 1873, after a lengthy and exhaustive judicial process, Mills released all rights to Hart’s property for the miniscule sum of $10. Hart and his wife returned to their beloved home on the Rio Grande. But the loss of their property and the subsequent fight to regain it had taken an immense toll, and Jesusita died shortly after returning home. Hart followed her on Jan. 21, 1874.
Hart’s Mill became the fourth home to Fort Bliss from 1879 until 1893, when its present location became ready for occupancy. Plots of Hart’s land were split among heirs and sold. By 1895, with competition from the railroads, El Molino went out of business. The millstones were sold and shipped to Mexico, the wheel taken to a ranch in Cloudcroft.
Several members of the Hart family lived in the family home after Simeon and Jesusita died, including their bachelor son Juan, who built a large monument on the grounds in 1913 to honor his father. It was believed that Simeon Hart was buried under the tomb. The bodies of Juan Hart and his sister Pauline Hart Davis were removed from the monument in 1936 and taken to El Paso’s Evergreen Cemetery. The monument itself was destroyed in the early 1950s to build Paisano Drive. No one knows exactly where the elder Harts are buried. Three other bodies were excavated close to the tomb, but none has been positively identified as Simeon or Jesusita.
Reputedly haunted and with a story all its own, the Hart mansion, best known to locals since 1940 as the Hacienda Café, stands empty in 2010, awaiting another owner. For more than 50 years the café welcomed natives and tourists alike to its historical rooms, serving food and drink in the shadow of the first industry of El Paso: Hart’s Mill.
1915 El Paso Times article on Hart's Mill