A Rip-Roaring Town

SUNDT HAD NOT FOUND RELIEF for his asthma in Colorado, so he decided to try Mexico as a place to live, and bought a ticket on the Santa Fe Railroad. He had a bad cold and the conductor suggested that he get off in Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory, because the hot springs in the town might help. At that time Las Vegas was the largest city in New Mexico, thanks to the railroad, which had placed its maintenance facilities there. Sundt found that not only did the hot springs help cure his cold; he loved the climate and the town in general, in spite of its widespread lawlessness. He found a job quickly with a building contractor named J. J. Hill. Sundt became Hill’s carpentry foreman when Hill won the bid to build Springer Hall, the first building on the campus of what would become New Mexico Highlands University.

Soon Sundt sent for his children. A young woman who had been caring for them, a recent immigrant from Norway named Thea Rosland, came to Las Vegas with the Sundt children. Mr. Sundt and Miss Rosland soon became engaged, and married a few months later. They had an additional nine children, making the family an even dozen.

Not long after his marriage, M.M. Sundt and co-worker V.A. Henry bought out their employer and formed Henry & Sundt, Contractors and Builders.

One of their first jobs was building a hospital at Fort Stanton in the south central part of New Mexico. Sundt supervised the job and moved his wife and children to the fort in a covered wagon.


Within a few years, M.M. bought out his partner and began doing business as M.M. Sundt, Builder. (In the company’s historical records the founding year is shown as 1890. Obviously M.M. Sundt couldn’t have founded the company then, since he was still working for J.J. Hill as a carpenter. It must therefore be assumed that 1890 is the year J.J. Hill founded his company, and when M.M. Sundt and V.A. Henry bought him out they decided to keep that birthdate for their firm as well.)


One of M.M. Sundt’s first major contracts was constructing a dam for the Agua Pura Water Company in 1910. Documents from the project reveal the simple nature of construction in that era. Laborers were paid 15 cents per hour; carpenters got 30 cents. A mule skinner handling a double team was paid 40 cents. Concrete for the dam was bid at $6.95 a cubic yard, in place. The dam, still in use today, was built for a total cost of $21,800. This project and others in Las Vegas made Sundt’s reputation be taken seriously.

M.M. Sundt, Contractor and Builder, constructed several other projects of note in North Central New Mexico during this period. Some of the structures, like the dam, are still in use today, such as the Las Vegas YMCA building, which still stands but is used for other purposes. Also built were a retail center known as the Romero Block, the Johnson Mortuary, the Meadows Hotel and a new Methodist Church.


During the early years of the 20th century, M.M. Sundt established himself as a prominent and trusted contractor in New Mexico. Many of the contracts were sealed only with a handshake.

M.M. Sundt made his home in Las Vegas for the rest of his life. He was a devout Methodist and did not believe in smoking, drinking alcohol, dancing, swearing, or going to movies. Sundays were given over to worship and family activities; certainly no working was permitted. One of the few examples of M.M. Sundt’s plain, direct way of speaking is demonstrated in a speech he gave to the Rotary Club in Las Vegas, probably in the 1920s:

What the Contractor Steals From the Public      Fellow Rotarians: Speech making is not a part of my makeup and when I was asked by the chairman of the program committee to speak on the above mentioned theme, I thought the best man to throw some light on this subject would be Mr. Brindell [apparently Robert P. Brindell, a contractor charged with extortion] of New York as he seems to understand how to steal from the public and I take for granted that our fellow Rotarian Lucas had this notorious character in mind when he assigned this subject to me. For over twenty years I have been engaged in the contracting and building business in Las Vegas. And throughout our beautiful state, during this period of time I have seen contractors come and go.

     The old saying is a ‘new broom sweeps.’ I have seen some of these men get a number of contracts at a price I considered below a living wage and when they in some way would succeed in getting a substantial payment and leave town between the two suns, forgetting to pay the material man and leave the bondsmen to finish the unfinished job and pay the bills. I have been accused a number of times of trying to hold up prospective customers and the job would be let at a much less fi gure than I could see my way clear to do the job for, but I know of instances of this kind where the contractor lost all he had and the bondsman or the owner had to complete the job. Now we all want a fair remuneration for out labors and I can assure you that a contractor’s life and work is not all sunshine.

     When a housewife makes up her mind to build a house she will look over her Ladies Home Journal for a suitable plan. If she does not find one there she will probably send for or borrow a Bungalow  Catalogue, as has often been the case for me, and forget to return same, or go to an architect if she can persuade her husband to go with her.

     A plan is finally decided upon and a contract is made with a builder to complete the building for so much. Now the contractor’s worries begin, when the material begins to climb, the mechanics demand higher wages, something is wrong with the plan, it does not work out right, the contractor has to sit up and burn the midnight oil trying to work out some way to overcome the mistake without injuring the building. The next time the housewife makes a visit she sees something she wants to change, maybe a door or a window she thinks ought to be in a different place. Now this may be repeated a dozen times before the house is completed, and if the contractor should present a bill for what these changes are really worth, the chances are the owner would think he had been robbed.
     A contractor often puts in a days of hard figuring without getting a penny for same, very often the building figured is never built, quite often a contractor is imposed upon by people who have already let the contract to some other contractor, but he begins to think that perhaps they paid too much and therefore they would like to get other figures to compare. Now I think that is stealing just as much as if this same party had stolen from the contractor the equivalent in money.

     Fellow Rotarians, I thank you for listening so patiently to these rambling remarks. I thank you.

One of the family’s favorite stories about M.M. Sundt’s religion was about the time he was with his son John on a trip to Guaymas, Mexico, along with several of John’s friends. They reached Guaymas on Saturday afternoon, and they knew of M.M.’s aversion to doing anything other than worshipping on Sunday, so there was some hesitation about fishing on Sunday. But M.M. wasn’t a spoil-sport and he

told them to go ahead and fish, and he even agreed to go along, but he would not fish. The fishing was very poor that day. The next day, Monday, they went out again and this time M.M. got the only fish caught that day, a 200-pound sea bass. He boasted to the crew that it was God’s way of rewarding him for not fishing on Sunday.

In another similar religious crisis, one of his two sons who attended West Point was caught taking dancing lessons when his report card came home. Mother Thea was incensed because their religion forbade dancing, and she told M.M. that the boy should be forced to quit school. M.M. was more philosophical: “He’s not doing very well in the [dance] class, so let’s let him stay.”

The dozen Sundt children were remarkable in that all were highly intelligent; all the boys became successful and all appeared to be happy and well-adjusted. Although the Sundt girls were equally intelligent and industrious, women weren’t yet welcome in offices and board rooms, so little has been written about the Sundt daughters. All of the children did well in school and the boys went on to either college or to military academies. Joe, the eldest son, became an engineer on the Santa Fe railroad. John, Eugene (Gene) and Martin ran companies for their father, and Thoralf became an architect and later joined his brother John to run projects in Tucson and help out with managing the company. The two youngest sons, Harald and Dan, went to West Point and both made careers of the military. Harald served with General George Patton’s famed Third Army and saw a lot of action in World War II. Dan was a teacher at West Point when the war started, and he later served in the Seventh Army and was in many battles as well.