A native son’s return


Eugene Manlove Rhodes, to my mind, remains one of the most engaging figures in the literary history of New Mexico. Self-educated in the classics, he has been described as possessing a poet’s soul. His biographer dubbed him “The Cowboy Chronicler.”

In this column, I have dealt at least a half-dozen times with different phases of Gene Rhodes’ many-sided career. But until now, I’ve neglected the brief period he and his wife lived in the Santa Fe “suburb” of Tesuque.
How Gene acquired a wife forms a tale in itself. Born in 1869, and raised by a homesteader family in southern New Mexico, he first went to work on a cow outfit at age 13.
Later, he was employed by the fabled Bar Cross Ranch on the Jornada del Muerto. His experiences there provided rich material for future novels, short stories and poems.
By his late 20s, Gene was able to obtain his own small, hardscrabble ranch in the San Andrés Mountains east of the Jornada. There, he began publishing poems in the California magazine Land of Sunshine, edited by famed New Mexicanist Charles F. Lummis.
By chance, a young widow in rural New York, May Davison, saw one of the poems and wrote the author a fan letter. He responded and a correspondence developed, which in the course of things led to marriage. Gene brought his innocent bride out to the arid wastes of new Mexico.
May bravely attempted to adapt, but after a decent interval returned to the family farm in New York. Gene soon joined her and spent the next 20 years there in exile, writing up a storm.
By 1926, May’s elderly parents had died and she could now give in to her husband’s wish to return to his beloved New Mexico.
They chose Santa Fe, in part because of its flourishing writers’ colony that included numerous friends. Some of them notified the local press of the Rhodes’ pending arrival.
The New Mexican in anticipation published on its editorial page a feature titled, “Santa Fe is Waiting to Welcome Eugene Manlove Rhodes.” Those words served as a measure of his national fame.
By now, Gene had published eight novels of cowboy life, set in his home country of the Jornada and composed in a fresh and original style that won him passionate readers. Some of his books would be made into Hollywood films, among them his widely regarded masterpiece, “Pasó Por Aquí.”
According to May Davison Rhodes, the couple rolled into Santa Fe after a cross country drive with Gene at the wheel of a mud-spattered Hupmobile.
“We rode up to the entrance of the De Vargas Hotel (now the St. Francis) on Oct. 12, 1926,” she declared.
The first person they bumped into was N. Howard Thorpe, a picturesque cowboy wearing a ten-gallon hat and boots. He’d once owned a small ranch near Gene’s in the San Andrés. The two had much catching up to do.
Thorpe, himself a writer and collector of cowboy songs, helped the Rhodes find a little house on Acequia Madre Street.
Days, Gene would stroll the Plaza in a rumpled brown suit and encounter people he’d had some connection with in the past.
One was poet Alice Corbin Henderson, who helped the Rhodes relocate to Tesuque, renting a house that May Rhodes judged to be “the most palatial place I ever lived in.”
At Christmas, writer Mary Austin brought the newcomers holiday cup cakes, baked in her own kitchen. Then, Charles F. Lummis arrived from California for a visit. Alice, Mary and Gene had all gotten their starts publishing in his magazine.
By spring, even the big house in Tesuque had paled. As May put it: “Gene had never lived in Santa Fe and it hadn’t the same pull on his emotions that southern New Mexico had.”
Another consideration was her husband’s chronic bronchitis. The Tesuque Valley with its winter snow and slush proved to be an unhealthy environment for him.
Shortly, the Rhodes packed up and moved to Alamogordo. After lingering there for several years, they migrated to California, where Eugene Manlove Rhodes, still writing, died in 1934.
Among a handful of us, his reputation still shines.