Monday, April 10, 2017


I first visited New Mexico way back in 2001 as the initial stop in a whirlwind three state tour which included Colorado and Wyoming. One of my ideas for something to do in New Mexico in '01 was to stop by one of the many ghost towns scattered about the state, former mining camps where the ore ran out or stagecoach stops made obsolete by the railroads or just places that no longer made sense for folks to live any more. I've always loved the old west and figured it would be kind of cool to poke around in an abandoned town to see what was what.

Ultimately I chickened out and found other things to do. The fact that I was traveling alone, didn't really know what I was doing and didn't have a cell phone convinced me maybe I'd be better off seeing something else that didn't involve the danger of me falling down a disused mine shaft miles from anyone else. And don't start with me about the cell phone thing. I know they existed in 2001 and that everyone had one back then; it's just that everyone didn't include me.

So now it's 2017 and I can't believe it's been 16 years since I've set foot in New Mexico, which I thought was one of the most beautiful places I'd ever been back towards the turn of the century and which I still think now that I've been back. And in 2017, and with cell phone in hand, there was no way I was missing a ghost town again.

Foundations of long gone buildings on Shakespeare's Avon Street.
There's a pretty good list of ghost towns on the New Mexico Tourism & Travel website. Some have awesome names. Ancho. Pie Town. Chloride. Monticello. Magdalena. I poked around each one of these on line for some clues as to which might be the best for this first time ghost town visitor to spend an hour or two in. 

Some virtual digging got me to the conclusion that some of these towns weren't ghost towns at all, but were just mostly abandoned, with some buildings standing and empty but others very very occupied. I'll pass on those thanks. I then re-boarded my 2001 train of thought about towns with formerly active mines for a little bit before ruling out places that I could easily disappear from without a trace and die. Crossing these places off the list killed me because I so very much wanted to explore places like Chloride and Fierro and Hanover. Maybe some other time.

Eventually, I settled on one, a small former stop on the San Antonio to San Diego mail route originally called Mexican Spring. The town renamed itself Grant after the Civil War and prepared to resume its spot on the stagecoach line. Then silver was discovered and the place experienced a boom of sorts while also switching names again to Ralston, after the President of the Bank of California, which had invested heavily in the mines. The town was in for one more name change but this one would be the last. In 1879 the mining camp was re-christened Shakespeare, after the English playwright and poet. And this one stuck.

Shakespeare, New Mexico is right in the southwest corner of the state just south of the town of Lordsburg, about 10 miles from the Arizona border. From Las Cruces (where we happened to be staying), it's a good two hour or so drive down I-10 then Lordsburg's Main Street then a dirt road with Shakespeare signs pointing the way. It's been privately owned since 1935 by the Hill family, first as a part of their ranch property and then as a preservation labor of love stewarded by the Hills' daughter Janaloo and her husband Manny Hough. Today the board of the town offers tours on the second Saturday and Sunday of the month. Fortunately for me, we happened to be in state that weekend.

The west side of Shakespeare's main drag. Can't imagine how rough this place would have been in 1870.
The town of Shakespeare was never very big. At its height during the silver boom of 1869, there were three main streets and maybe 3,000 people living there, mostly men and mostly not in permanent buildings in the center of town. Today, the former stagecoach stop and later railroad stop numbers six and a half buildings: three on the west side of what would eventually become Avon Street and four more (or three and a half if you like) on the east side. Five and a half of the buildings are original; the last, the National Mail and Transportation Building, is a reconstruction. 

The half building, by the way, is the completely amazing original stone foundation and basement walls of the general merchandise building. The wooden part of the building which defined its character and volume went up in a fire in 1997. If there's one thing that roaming around southern New Mexico for a week will impress upon you, it's that it is dry and there is plenty of fuel for fires if one ever gets started. In the late '90s in Shakespeare, one got started and wiped out a treasure of a building at the site.

Our couple of hours on the roads of New Mexico and $4 each got us into Shakespeare for two plus hours of tour with our guide Keith, who along with Manny Hough is keeping the town's dream alive. And the $4 is not a typo; four bucks gets you two hours of all you can digest old west history in a place where the history actually happened. I've been in a lot of places where history happened in the last almost four years; almost nowhere did it look as authentic as it did in Shakespeare.

I've watched my fair share of western movies and television series in my time. My dad sat down with me and introduced me to Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns when I was a junior or senior in high school. I'd watched the occasional cowboy film before that but those really got me started on the genre in a serious way. Every so often since that time I've re-defined for myself what it was like to live in an old west town through what I'd seen on the big or small screens. Unforgiven and HBO's best series ever Deadwood stick out as personal favorites.

Keith "tending bar" in Shakespeare's Grant House Saloon.
None of those could prepare me for what Keith led us through that morning by taking us in and out of five of the six whole buildings in our ghost town (the sixth was occupied, polluted and defended by a barn owl). The quick tour around the ruined town opened my eyes in ways I could not have imagined.

I think we (or maybe it's just me, I don't really know) think we have a pretty good fix on what life in an old late 1800s mining town is like. Sure it's mostly all men there and it's rough and ready and all that but it looks good, right? I mean the saloons are pretty much always grand, with expensive mirrors, pianos, dark stained wood bars in main halls with sweeping staircases leading to upstairs rooms for whatever purpose you want to suppose. The hotels have spartan but well appointed rooms which cater to sophisticated travelers if they must, right? Right?

Our first stop that morning was at the former Grant House Saloon, a one room establishment maybe 300 square feet in size, which is about as big as my living room. Makeshift doesn't begin to describe it. Adobe walls, maybe a wood floor (there's one now but there's some question as to whether there wasn't just dirt back in the mining camp) and no piano. And the bar? Well, no mirror for sure. It was likely a wooden plank covered with a sheet like the one in the photograph above. Also, no beer or real spirits. Maybe you get real whiskey from time to time but in a place like Shakespeare, you'd more likely get grain alcohol cut with water down to about 80 proof (that's 40% alcohol for the uninitiated) flavored with cayenne powder, coffee grounds or maybe some maple syrup. Looks like whiskey and if you swallow it quickly enough it gets you drunk like whiskey.

Grant House, which served as the Butterfield Station or stage house before it was expanded and re-named.
Want some more enlightenment? How about the stage house adjacent the Grant House Saloon. The building consisted of all of two rooms: the back room was the original dining room for stagecoach passengers but also served as the residence of the family living there to service the passengers. Likely mattresses on the floor in a drafty adobe room, if you are interested. Later on, they were able to move the eating into the front room, which unfortunately also functioned as the hanging room for, well...people when their antics got too much for the townsfolk to handle. Quicker to string them up, I guess. And no neck breaking here; they suffocated.

Let's move to the hotel next door, which is nothing like I've ever seen in a western movie or TV series anywhere. Private rooms? Forget it. Private beds? Also forget it. This place was strictly a place to sleep indoors. No luxury. And I mean like none. I never thought the old west had much luxury, although I'd allow myself to think some comforts existed. After Shakespeare? I have been corrected. And I think that's useful. I know more now. My beliefs about an old west mining town have been completely turned on their head.

Keith telling us how things in the Assay Office worked, complete with the original tools of the trade.
If there's something equally or perhaps more impressive as the town itself, it is the dedication of those people who have devoted their lives to saving and preserving this place. Between the stories of Johnny Ringo (who later would pop up at the OK Corral in Tombstone) and Russian Bill and Sandy King (both hanged in Shakespeare) there were equally remarkable stories. How the original assay office equipment from Shakespeare were found in some adjacent town in New Mexico and brought back to the site. How Manny Hough is adamant about collecting as many pairs of historic blacksmith tongs as he can. How they restored parts of the hotel and stage house using original 1800s construction techniques combined with modern technology to stabilize the old ruins.

Time is running out for this town. Manny Hough and Keith aren't going to be around forever and there's some real question as to what becomes of this town when they are gone. It appears that the best course of action would be if the federal government would step in and adopt what the Hill family and their in-laws and associates have propped up for decades with their own money. If they don't, this place will surely be consumed by the New Mexico desert quickly and forgotten. And I think that would be just awful. Yes, it's a long way to get there. Yes, it's remote. And yes, you can't save everything. But this spot seems worth saving. It changed my perspective on the old west. 

There's one more story worth relaying here and I may show my continued ignorance of how things used to work by telling it and I really don't care. One of the prized treasures in the reconstructed blacksmith shop is a machine that makes the metal tires that get applied to wooden wagon wheels. Now I had no idea these things even existed. I assumed the wheels were just made of wood but it makes a whole lot of sense that they were covered with something more durable. Blacksmith shops in the second half of the nineteenth century used to make and repair these things and Shakespeare's building has not only a machine that made them but also one that repaired them. It was an incredibly cool moment in a couple of hours tour that had already blown my mind about how things worked about 120 to 150 years ago.

If you have time and you are in New Mexico on the second weekend of the month, I'd suggest a visit to Shakespeare might be worth it. There's so much more to find than I've written here and I'm sure everyone will find their own stories.

The reconstructed blacksmith shop. Eye opening ending to an eye opening couple of hours.

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