The Mule Creek Adobe program nurtures young adults—helping to build solid homes, productive lives and strong communities.
Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder
"People don't know where their groceries come from anymore," says Susie Jerome. She's slicing a cucumber into thin wafers, spooning artichoke hearts onto platters, getting ready to serve lunch to family and friends. "I want them to know where their walls came from, because they're going to be looking at them for a long time."
She and her husband, Alex Jerome, have owned and operated Mule Creek Adobe out in the hills of the tiny town of Mule Creek, off Hwy. 180 between Glenwood and Buckhorn, since 2000.
"It kind of started by accident," Alex puts in. "We wanted to build some things around our own home, and there just weren't any adobe block makers anywhere nearby."
The two describe their foray into making blocks with natural materials—clay and sand rich in obsidian particles—abundant right there on their sprawling land. Having some success, they went professional, acquiring more equipment, hiring on employees. Today their block is hauled to customers as far away as eastern Kentucky and central California.
Setting a salad bowl and an armload of bottled dressings down on the huge wood dining table, Susie adds that most of their customers are local—in Las Cruces, Zuni, Socorro, Deming. Some folks come with friends and pickup trucks to pick their block up themselves, saving themselves the shipping dollars and making a picnic out of the whole adventure.
She parks a steaming slab of lasagna—fresh from the oven—on each plate and hands them around the table, a veritable groaning board. Baskets of freshly made garlic bread are passed, along with platters of vegetables. Susie Jerome is used to feeding an army.
Today is Saturday and the working crew is off. It's just the Jeromes sitting down to lunch with a family friend, one journalist with an overwhelmed appetite and Angela Muhanga, a beautiful young woman from Kenya, a member of this season's young adult work crew.
Soon after they started making clay into block, it seems, the Jeromes found themselves shaping teens and young adults into responsible community members. They taught the young workers not just how to make traditional adobe blocks, but also how to apply for, get and hold a job. How to find something productive to do with their lives, their energy, their time.
"We've cycled through around 60 teens and young adults," Susie Jerome says. "Some stay with us for three or four years, and some cycle through in a couple of weeks," she adds with a laugh, noting that the physically demanding work is not for everyone. "We had a work-study program with Cliff High School for about four years, but we haven't had any applicants lately."
Teens have a lot of energy, she notes, energy that can get them into trouble without a proper outlet.
"We do have drugs in the area," she says, "and there are not a lot of employment opportunities. I believe in that 'It takes a village' concept, and we try to offer that kind of support."
Muhanga is the Jeromes' first foreign student. She's just completed her first year at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. During this block-building season, she's living on the Jeromes' property. She says she loves New Mexico's weather, that she finds the people here very friendly. Majoring in industrial engineering, she hopes to take this knowledge of making traditional adobe building blocks back to her country. She is polite and conversational, in her soft-spoken, elegant Kenyan accent, the very model of a young woman of whom any parent would have the right to be proud.
Not all the Jeromes' student workers are such bright gems—having the social graces, goals, a plan to where they want to go in life. Some are diamonds in the rough, works in progress. But all get a taste of responsibility, real work and the real world at Mule Creek Adobe.
"We teach them, 'How do you fill in a job application?' We tell them, 'Memorize your social security number. It's a good idea,'" says Susie.
Alex puts in, "We tell them they have to come to work on time, how to be responsible. Sure, things come up, but call us. We teach them that they have to communicate. It's simple courtesy and responsibility."
"Oh, and safety!" Susie adds. "We teach them how to lift properly, so they don't hurt themselves. I'm a retired nurse and health educator," she says. "They have to wear a hard hat. We teach them about sunstroke. We tell them, 'Drink water, use sunscreen.' I don't want them coming back to me in 20 years and telling me their nose fell off from skin cancer," she says with a laugh.
"We pay them minimum wage. We reimburse them half on their steel-toed boots, which we demand that they wear," she goes on. "We have a sign up, 'No shirt, no shoes, no job.' It's that simple. Cut-and-dried. They've got to be safe."
Drug testing comes with the territory. Alex says, "That's a safety issue, too, plain and simple. They've got to be clean and sober if they're operating heavy equipment."
The adobe block itself is a good teacher, too, Susie allows. "We teach them quality control in our product. It's got to be a nice, uniform block, else you wind up with bulges," she says. When a block is not up to snuff, she instructs the maker to "try laying that in the wall." The lesson on sloppy work is wonderfully immediate and clear, she says, as the block rocks and rolls, refusing to sit properly in place.
The Jeromes believe strongly in their product, going so far as to call the simple, ancient adobe block the building material of the future.
"It just makes sense!" Susie says, pointing out that the materials are simple, cost-effective and take much less energy to produce than concrete building materials. Adobe block is durable and a superior insulator, she says. "It makes perfect sense in this part of the world, and civilizations all over the world use them."
Young Angela Muhanga smiles. "Cheap and reliable," she chirps, waving one finger in the air to underscore her point. She nods at Susie, and the two exchange smiles. This is why she has come to Mule Creek to learn about adobe block.
"How many people are there in Kenya? Thirty million?" Susie asks, to which Muhanga nods. "See? This is a real solution, an environmental solution," Susie says.
The ample lunch finished—topped off with brownies and ice cream, no less—the group puts away the leftovers and prepares to set off for a walk in the adobe production fields.
Alex talks about the make-up of Mule Creek Adobe's block, composed of local clay, that obsidian-rich sand brought down to them by the seasonal flooding of the Tennessee Creek, water and a very small amount of asphalt emulsion to hold the blocks together, so they don't melt in the rain or blow away in the wind. The asphalt emulsion, he notes, is mostly water that bakes out of the block.
Susie adds, "Back in the Bible, the Israelites used straw for their emulsion, the thing that holds the block together. In the Bible! That's how long we see this building material being used by people."
Alex gets a mischievous smile and lowers his voice. "People want to know what the secret formula is to make them. The secret is. . . there is none!" he exclaims with a laugh. "The sand we have here won't work with the clay you find just 15 miles from here," he says. "You find out what works for your resources, your materials."
To make good block, Alex asserts, you need three things: quality materials, consistency and thorough mixing.
The Tennessee Creek—that seasonally raging body that floods the property with the building sand they need for block—bisects the Jeromes' land. And so, even though the production field lies not far behind the homestead, the party all piles into a couple of SUVs and drives to the other side of the property, where the equipment stands idle today and new blocks are drying.
Susie scrapes her toe in the dirt, showing the quality of the earth. She stoops and picks up a small handful of obsidian chunks.
"See how plentiful they are? They're everywhere," she says. "They're also called 'Apache's tears.' The legend is that these are the tears the Apaches cried as they were driven from their homeland."
Most of the stones in her hand are a dull black. She turns one over to show the shiny black side where the small rock was broken. She warns that the edge may be very sharp. Alex adds that obsidian can be used in surgical instruments, as the mineral is extremely sharp and maintains an edge.
The average home takes about 5,000 such adobe blocks to make, Susie estimates. Mule Creek Adobe has been churning out between 1,000 and 2,000 blocks a day. She explains how the new block "lay-down" equipment, purchased from a California adobe block company that just closed, will help them boost their production up to 15,000 blocks a day.
She waves an arm over rows of rich red adobe blocks lying flat in long rows. After a short time drying, they will be turned on their sides and sit baking in the sun for a full 30 days, she says. This is necessary to ensure their strength. Mule Creek Adobe's blocks are certified as building materials.
Muhanga walks along the rows and rows of blocks drying in the sun. It is easy to imagine her doing the same one fine day in Kenya, her handiwork baking in Mother Nature's oven.
Susie Jerome calls out to her, playfully, "Now the only reason you can be out here without your hardhat is because it's a Saturday and we're not working! Remember that!"
Like a child bearing a benevolent scolding, Muhanga smiles back, and in her sweet Kenyan accent, calls back, "Yes, I kno-o-ow!"
Mule Creek Adobe, 547 Hwy. 78, Mule Creek, NM,
Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of Desert Exposure.