Mona Monarez Koehn can point to the exact spot where cement steps used to lead up to Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. A few years before it was torn down, her brother, Carlos, painted the church a gleaming white in exchange for a six-pack of beer from the priest.

 

"It was such a pretty little church," Koehn said. "I used to go to catechism there when I was a little girl."

 

The church building sat on a corner of an area on the south side of First Street and west of Sand Creek known as the Mexican camp, or the Ranchito.

 

Susan Mosqueda still lives across the street from where the Ranchito was located and where she spent much of her childhood hearing tales of the community's earliest years, when the Santa Fe Railroad let its Hispanic workers salvage materials to construct homes.

 

"Way back in the beginning, it was tin and (railroad) ties," Mosqueda said.

 

Pictures of the early homes show that boxcar doors were used as roofs. A separate communal bathroom was used by workers until the brick housing units were built.

 

"They looked like brick duplexes," Koehn said.

 

Five of Koehn's family members, including her father, came to Newton around 1916. Born in Mexico, they first sought work in Texas and Colorado.

 

"When they were in Colorado, they knew a gentleman — a Hispanic man that lived here already — who told them that the railroad was looking for workers, so they came on a train from Colorado down here," Koehn said. "The first place they went was Peabody. That was where the train took them. And then, from there, they lived in Walton for just a short time."

 

Koehn, one of 11 children, said her family lived in the Ranchito until she was a toddler.

 

"There were a lot of big families," Koehn said. "...We were fortunate. We were able to get out because my brother was in the service and he was sending my folks money."

 

Her family moved into a house just a few hundred feet away from the Ranchito and Koehn playing around the Ranchito with her friends.

 

"Growing up, I spent a lot of time over there," Koehn said.

 

One of the most popular pastimes for the children was baseball.

 

"We had a diamond and bleachers," Mosqueda said.

 

Pieces of cardboard fastened in the ground with railroad spikes served as the bases, and one of Koehn's brothers had a rough encounter with the metal.

 

"He slid into base and tore up all his knee," Koehn said. "...He had his scars forever, till the day he died. I remember seeing it. You could see his knee, his bone, that's how bad it was."

 

Water attracted the children as well, and they played around the city's water tank and Sand Creek.

 

"We used to climb the fence in the wintertime and we'd slide down on the snow. We didn't have sleds, we just tore up boxes to flatten them out," Koehn said.

 

Mosqueda said she remembered a young boy riding his bike home and trying to go across the ice instead of the bridge. Tragically, he fell through the thin ice and drowned.

 

The train tracks and other nearby structures like the roundhouse also appealed to the children.

 

"I remember, as a little girl, we used to go in there and play," Koehn said. "There used to be a lot of pigeons in there and we'd chase the pigeons."

 

Koehn said she did not realize how poor her family was until she went to school.

 

"A lot of times, the school would want a dime or something for a meal or whatever, and you most of the time didn't have it," Koehn said. "Even when I ran out of paper at school, I hated to ask (my mother) for a dime for tablet paper."

 

Though her mother had to stretch the family's money to keep her children clothed, the Koehn children never went hungry.

 

"I would have never given up that experience, even though we had next to nothing," Koehn said. "...I just thought this was great. I was happy."

 

The nurse who came to the small health clinic building at the Ranchito is also remembered by both Mosqueda and Koehn.

 

"All the Hispanics in this town remember Mrs. Thomas," Koehn said. "She would come and treat us for whatever we needed."

 

Harvey County Historical Museum Director Debra Hiebert compiled as much of the community's history for a program entitled "Ranchito Roots."

 

"It's easy to find newspaper accounts and information about people like the public health nurse...but there's nothing that exists for Ranchito anymore. There's no physical evidence," Hiebert said. "The Santa Fe, when they moved their headquarters from here, they shredded all their records."

 

The Ranchito was demolished around 1960, and no trace of the community of Hispanic railroad workers and their families who lived there is left to mark the site. Builder's Concrete and Supply now occupies the land on which it sat.

 

"I am afraid our younger generation will not remember it or have much information on it anymore," Koehn said. "Every once in a while, when the older people get together, we start talking about the Ranchito. Eventually, it's going to be lost."

 

The two women said they would like to see some sort of memorial to the early Hispanic community for future generations to visit.

 

"Put some kind of a memorial or a plaque...honoring the Mexican camp," Mosqueda said. "It's part of Newton's history."

 

If you would like to share your memories and pictures of the Ranchito, call 316-283-1500 or email pmiddleton@thekansan.com.