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The daring Apache who inspired the film Ulzana's Raid left his mark on SW New Mexico.

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Features

Building Lightly
on the Earth

The green-building revolution promises to save money and the planet.

Paper Work
An inventor turns waste paper into an earth-friendly building material.

Do-Overs
Re-using old building materials and furnishings.

Heart of Glass
A man, a plan, a wall--and several tons of wine bottles.

Sex Sells
The "adult-entertainment" business is becoming mainstream.

High Desert Reggae
Root Skankadelic dishes funk and peace to the masses.

Searching for Ulzana
The daring Apache who inspired the film Ulzana's Raid left his mark on SW New Mexico.

Rodeo Roundup
Meet a "rodeo mom," a champion rider-turned-breeder and a future star.

The Art of Teaching
At Alma d'arte Charter High School, art saves lives.


Columns & Departments
Editor's Note
Letters
Desert Diary

Tumbleweeds:
Having a Ball with Billy
Author on Fire
Tumbleweeds Briefs
Top 10


Borderlines
Business Exposure
Into the Future
Celestial Cycles
Kitchen Gardener
The Starry Dome
Ramblin' Outdoors
People's Law
40 Days & 40 Nights
Millie & Billy Ball
Clubs Guide
Guides to Go
Henry Lightcap's Journal
Continental Divide


Special Section
Arts Exposure
Marilyn Gendron
Arts News
Gallery Guide

Body, Mind & Spirit
Tools for Living
Ways to Heal

Red or Green?
Dining Guide

HOME
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Having a Ball with Billy

Seeking the soul of Billy the Kid—or at least a souvenir T-shirt—in Lincoln, NM.

By David A. Fryxell

 

With the Mimbres Region Arts Council's annual "Millie & Billy Ball" fundraiser coming up this month (see box below and feature in this issue), we thought we'd take a little road trip to Lincoln, NM, for some inspiration. For those of you not steeped in Billy the Kid lore (the "Billy" of the aforementioned ball, "Millie" being Silver City's infamous "Madame Millie"), Lincoln was where the Silver City-reared Henry Antrim a.k.a. William Bonney a.k.a. Billy the Kid went seriously astray.

The Torreon made an excellent hideout from which to fire on the enemy in the Lincoln County War. Photo by Lisa D. Fryxell.

After the 1874 death of his mother, Catherine Antrim, who's buried in Silver City's Memory Lane Cemetery, young Billy began to get into some scrapes. He swiped some clothes from a Chinese laundry in Silver City, which got him his first taste of incarceration in the town's notoriously porous jail. But he didn't start down the long, bloody trail that would make "Billy the Kid" an Old West legend until after leaving his boyhood hometown—and, yes, after making the first of many escapes from jail. On the lam, Billy set off to Clifton, Ariz., to find his stepfather, William Antrim, who apparently wanted no part of the young scalawag. By 1877, the effectively orphaned Billy the Kid had shot his first man. But Billy might have been just another trigger-happy no-account if he hadn't then joined up with a gang dubbed simply "The Boys," who soon rode into history—and trouble—in Lincoln County.

Lincoln remains a bustling little town for its size, much as it was in the late 1870s when Billy and the Boys rode in. But these days the town is selling history, not beef cattle to hungry troops at nearby Fort Stanton. Lincoln is down to just 60-some residents, yet 30,000 visitors a year make the dusty drive to walk in Billy the Kid's bootsteps and ogle the hole in the old courthouse wall that supposedly resulted from a bullet shot from his gun.

These are diehard Wild West buffs. You have to want to go to Lincoln; there's not much chance of anybody "just passing through" unless you're on some sort of kitschy Americana road trip from Capitan (home of Smokey Bear) to Roswell for alien sightseeing, with a Billy the Kid pilgrimage in-between. Yet when we visited Lincoln there was a steady if slender stream of cars, and the tourists shuffling with us through the well-preserved old buildings included an English couple and one from Germany.

The third annual Millie & Billy Ball will be held Saturday, June 10, from 7-12 p.m. at the Flame Center, 2800 Pinos Altos Road in Silver City. Tickets include a barbeque dinner, dancing and a chance to win a $10,000 raffle. Come dressed as your favorite Wild West character, either from Billy the Kid's era or Madame Millie's day. For information and tickets, contact the Mimbres Region Arts Council, 1201 Pope St., PO Box 1830, Silver City, NM 88062, 538-2505 or (888) 758-7289, email info@mimbresarts.orgor see www.mimbresarts.org.

Click here for more in this issue.

In part to make sure Lincoln continues to be well-preserved, earlier this year the state monuments division took over seven buildings there and 22 nearby acres. Along with 10 historic properties already owned by the state, the acquisition means the state essentially is in charge of all Lincoln's most historic sites. The additional structures and land were a donation from R.D. and Joan Hubbard; he's the majority owner of the Ruidoso Downs racetrack and Billy the Kid Casino down the road near Ruidoso, plus the Zia Park racetrack in Hobbs. Hubbard also tried to give the state the Hubbard Museum of the American West, adjacent to Ruidoso Downs, but concerns about operating costs led state officials to say no thanks. Instead, the museum—and a $1.5 million endowment—went to the city of Ruidoso Downs.

Though the state takeover is only a few months old, Lincoln has already seen some changes. For one thing, you used to be able to shop an impressive collection of Old West books here, but evidently the state is getting out of that business. We found the books in a close-out sale at the Billy the Kid Scenic Byway visitor center, back at Ruidoso Downs.

And despite the colorful history that made Lincoln infamous, there's a serious, "monument"-al feel to the parade of weather-beaten buildings along the town's lone street, which doubles as Hwy. 380. Don't expect any Tombstone-style gunfight re-enactments here (though the Anderson-Freeman Visitors Center and Museum does host a small theatrical production about Billy the Kid). Strict historic-district rules govern the handful of structures not owned by the state. You'll find a B&B and an earnest-looking "Earthly Greens Pottery," but no Deadwood-style souvenir geegaws, plastic Colt's six-shooters for the kiddies or "I Shot Billy the Kid" T-shirts.

 

We started our tour on the western edge of town, at the old Courthouse and Murphy's store. For $5, you can buy a ticket that admits you to this and five other historic buildings that are open for tours. Plan to move your car at least once unless you want quite a hike along with your history; we originally set off to walk to the east end of town and back, then thought better of it when we compared our progress to the plain little map we'd gotten along with our tickets.

The building that was once the L.G. Murphy & Dolan Co., then also a courthouse and jail, makes an appropriate starting point. Irishmen Lawrence Murphy and J.J. Dolan, who ran not only the store but also ranchland with lucrative Army beef contracts, headed one side of what became known as the Lincoln County War, made famous by countless Hollywood fictionalizations (most recently Young Guns). The "war" began when Englishman John Tunstall came to Lincoln to launch his own rival ranch operation and mercantile store. Murphy and Dolan brought in the Boys to show Tunstall the error of his ways.

But Tunstall soon wooed Billy the Kid away from the gang to join his own private army, which would come to be known as the Regulators. They couldn't protect the Englishman from a posse dispatched by Lincoln County's sheriff, William Brady, which shot and killed Tunstall in a wrangle over some horses. In those rough-and-tumble days, the law belonged to whomever had bought it last or whomever had his finger on the trigger: Billy, a witness to Tunstall's killing, was deputized by the local constable to help arrest the posse members—but Sheriff Brady instead jailed the constable and his newly minted deputies.

After Billy's release and Tunstall's funeral, the Regulators set out for revenge. On April 1, 1878, they ambushed and killed Sheriff Brady. Soon, the two factions were shooting it out in the streets of Lincoln.

We toured the former Tunstall store, which has been restored and refitted with period dry goods, as well as several other historic buildings with less direct ties to the carnage. At the Montano store, we learned about the town's Hispanic heritage and the secrets of building with adobe. (Among other things, adobe bricks turn out to be very, very heavy.) We stuck our heads inside the lovely, sky-blue interior of the San Juan Bautista church. At Dr. Woods House, we followed a charming and elegantly coiffed tour guide—herself virtually a monument in the region, apparently—who told us not only about the work of a country doctor but about the town's social life in Dr. Woods' day: "Mrs. Woods would give three dinner parties a year, each time with exactly the same menu," the guide related, holding up the dress Mrs. Woods wore as hostess. "She liked her wine, and would drink before and after dinner—" this delivered with a vigorous glass-downing motion "—as well as excuse herself during dinner to sneak off and drink. After dinner she would sit down at the piano and play 'Clair de Lune,' over and over until everybody left."

 

But we'd come, after all, looking for Billy the Kid, and Lincoln wasn't quite done with him at the end of its "war." A new sheriff who would someday be almost as famous as Billy—Pat Garrett—finally caught up with the young outlaw. In March 1881 Billy was sent to Mesilla for trial in the murder of Sheriff Brady; he was convicted and sentenced to hang back in Lincoln County on May 13.

Walking carefully on the boards set down to protect the original floor from tens of thousands of tourist feet, we saw where Sheriff Garrett locked up Billy the Kid, under the watchful eye of deputies Bob Olinger and James Bell. On a trip to the privy on April 28, Billy somehow got his hands on a gun and shot Bell dead. We stared out the second-floor window at the spot where Olinger, summoned by the sound of gunfire, was likewise shot dead by Billy the Kid.

In the Courthouse and the Anderson-Freeman building, we studied documents (all reproductions) in Billy's own handwriting, including his brief plea to Governor Lew Wallace (of Ben Hur fame) to make good on the governor's earlier promise of a pardon. We ogled leg irons and Winchester rifles. We studied a photograph of an unidentified Indian agent with a group of Apache scouts, and instantly recognized the white man as John Clum, who at one point captured Geronimo, from his picture on page 107 of Six-Guns and Single-Jacks, the Silver City area history by Bob Alexander we published. We saw the original wooden grave marker of Billy the Kid's mother, Catherine Antrim, and briefly contemplated absconding with it back to Silver City, where it belongs.

The afternoon lengthened and we crossed the highway back to our car, looking both ways to avoid being run over by speeding history lovers. Studying the map, we decided that Fort Sumner—where Pat Garrett once again caught up with Billy the Kid, ending his young life (though some to this day insist that Billy got away) and launching his legend on July 14, 1881—was much too far away to tack onto the day's agenda. The site of Billy's grave (or so they claim!), 150 miles to the northwest, would have to wait for another day. Perhaps when we visit the aliens in Roswell.

In the meantime, we're truly inspired for the Millie & Billy Ball costume contest. We're thinking of going as German tourists and Wild West buffs.

 

Read More Tumbleweeds:

Tumbleweeds Top 10
Tumbleweed Briefs
Author on Fire: Linda Jacobs

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