You can see a lot from the top of a forest service lookout tower. For one, and this is primary, smoke from a distant fire. And two — if you look in the right direction — you may be able to spot remnants of New Mexico’s past in the distance.
The state is dotted with disappearing towns and communities that once thrived in the settling of cowboy country, and from a fire lookout tower up in the Manzano Mountains, Mountainair writer Dixie Boyle can point to most of them on a map, even if they’re no longer marked.
Dixie has taken on the challenge of preserving the histories of as many of the shrinking and abandoned towns in New Mexico as she can.
“Willard, Lucy, Negra, Encino, Pedernal and Cuervo … they were all railroad towns, home to countless families, and have all but disappeared,” Boyle said.
For the past decade, Boyle has been publishing books and writing articles on the people and towns she says are New Mexico’s forgotten history. Her research has shaken the figurative dust off the boarded-up homes and abandoned churches and stores.
“What I’m finding is that nobody really cares,” she said. “It seems like no one has really cared enough in the past to put a history together. Nobody’s really written about these little towns at all.”
She feels these places are not unlike castaways.
“I think it’s because most of the those towns died in the 1940s when they moved the depots out of there, and then in the drought years people just moved away and never came back,” Boyle said. “I’ve been able to tap into diaries and letters people wrote, and I’ve talked to many old timers who know the history.
“When I first started my research 10 years ago, there were many of them, but those old timers are starting to pass away.”
While Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Old Mesilla, Lincoln and others have been studied and written about, Boyle maintains that the smaller communities also have a story to tell in the development and commerce of earlier New Mexico.
“Mountainair once had a population of 1,200 and now it’s shrunk down to 900. Magdalena boasted over 1,500, and now the population is less than 900,” she said. “Claunch, on the eastern border of Socorro County once boasted “five churches, a post office, two large grocery and mercantile stores, bean elevators and numerous homes, as four hundred people lived in the Claunch area during these years,” she said.
Born and raised in New Mexico, Boyle gets sentimental about the towns she grew up around in Torrance County.
“I think some of my passion for history has to do with my dad and our old home place in Cuervo, before he bought our ranch at Mountainair,” she said.
“It was a farming community right on Route 66. What made the town die is they put the interstate through there in the ’50s and it divided the town.”
Now it’s not much more than one of New Mexico’s myriad ghost towns, with only a handful of families living there.
“But I loved growing up on our Mountainair ranch,” she said.
“I remember doing a lot of work on that ranch, helping my dad all the time, put in fences and rounding up the cows. I developed a real love for ranch life and ranchers. Of course, I still have that today.”
She will never forget the time when her horse somehow got a burr under its saddle. She was about 10 or 12 years old, and the horse kept bucking her off every time she got on it. Her dad forced her to get back on the horse, telling her she was not going to be afraid of horses. Boyle had to get back on about six times before they finally found that burr.
The history of rural New Mexico continues to beckon her and has since she was in the seventh grade in Mountainair.
“My seventh-grade history teacher in Mountainair took us on a field trip to Lincoln,” she remembers. “It was the first time I had been there. I was very intrigued with Billy the Kid in the beginning. I sort of got into his life, and then I started reading about the other outlaws, beyond the wild tales printed up at the time in East coast books and magazines.
“I think we have misconceptions about him because of the novels written back in his day.”
After that, she started reading as many biographies and histories as she could get her hands on.
She ultimately earned her BA in history at the University of New Mexico.
“I already had a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Evangel College in Missouri,” she said.
Later, she earned her teacher’s certification at New Mexico Tech while she was a teacher at Magdalena High School. When she taught history in Magdalena in the 1980s, she found it was much easier for the kids to learn if she dressed up in period costumes for class. Then one day, she had a compulsion to move on from teaching, like an epiphany.
“I had been reading about the Black Hills of Wyoming and South Dakota,” she said. “I decided to move there, live there — and I did.”
Dixie spent the next 20 some-odd years working in the Black Hills at a fire lookout near Sundance, Wyo.; then as a newspaper reporter for the Sundance Times.
“While at the Sundance Times newspaper, they asked me to write historical articles,” she said. “It was a dream job, digging into the history of Deadwood, Sundance and the Black Hills.”
After her stint as a newspaper reporter, she was the curator and educational director at the famed Adams Museum in Deadwood, S.D., just a few miles from Sundance.
“The town has been pretty much preserved since the days of Wild Bill Hickok,” Dixie said. “And I discovered that even the clothes from that time had been saved. So when I would put on programs for school kids and exhibits for tourists on different aspects of Deadwood’s past, I would do it in costume.”
One such exhibit may have been the inspiration for her 10th history book, Old West Saloon Girls, Madams & Bordellos, published in 2018, spotlighting the red lights of early New Mexico and beyond.
Of her curiosity on those alternative lifestyle businesswomen, Boyle writes, “Only now are historians starting to appreciate the contributions of these women of questionable morals. Accounts of their lives were left behind in diaries, newspaper articles, photographs found in scrapbooks kept by madams as well as in family albums ...”
The book profiles, among others, the historic bordellos in White Oaks, Silver City and Hillsboro, which boasted the fanciest “gentlemen’s clubs” in New Mexico.
Boyle is working on a new book and still works for the U.S. Forest Service as a wildfire spotter stationed at Capilla Peak Lookout in Cibola National Forest. Her books can be found on Amazon.