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Smokestack Industry

Even as the symbols of Hurley's mining past are about to come down, industrious residents have banded together to give the town a brighter future.

By Donna Clayton Lawder

 

Sitting at a booth at the Gateway restaurant on Hwy. 180, a throwback of a gathering place at the, well, gateway to Hurley, Sa Vanne Kilgore looks out the window with wistfulness and affection toward the humble mining town she calls home. The small town–population 1,464 in the 2000 census–has long lost the luster of its copper-milling heyday, and its signature smokestacks could come toppling down as soon as this month.

The days are numbered for Hurley's signature smokestacks.
(Photo by Lisa D. Fryxell)

But residents are far from ready to declare Hurley a ghost town, says Kilgore, who's president of the Hurley Pride Committee, formed last June. The group of local residents–neighbors and volunteers–banded together with the intention of promoting civic pride and generating community participation. The group proclaimed, "We take pride in Hurley as most would take pride in their own home."

Long-time Hurley residents aren't the only owns who think Hurley is "hot" as a place to live and do business, though. Touched by Hurley's past and convinced of its potential for the future, Karin and Joseph Wade bought the landmark Old Hurley Store on Cortez Street and converted it into JW Arts Gallery, opening in April 2005. The gallery features regional artists and western-themed fine art. Joseph, who is an artist himself, has studio space within the building and offers printmaking classes. The building also boasts a local history museum and gift shop selling southwestern mementos.

"We looked around for a spot when we decided to relocate and open the gallery," Joseph says. "We fell in love with Hurley and just knew it would be right. This town has huge potential. We see it as the next local art district. It's up and coming."

Karin puts in enthusiastically, "We've been here almost a year now, and business is picking up every day." She adds that she's aware of several business owners looking to open up in the town, and that properties are being looked at, "but no decisions have been made yet."

When the Hurley Pride Committee coalesced last year, its goals weren't nearly so ambitious. "We just wanted to get our Christmas decorations repaired," says Kilgore. From June to December, the committee held a number of successful activities and fundraisers. Neighbors and local businesses "came out of the woodwork," she says, offering financial support, in-kind donations and countless hours of volunteer effort.

"Things kind of snowballed," she adds with a smile. "It just shows you how much heart there is here in Hurley."

Whereas the first meeting involved just a handful of locals, now some 40 people show up twice a month at the community center. The committee held a successful raffle and gave out 23 prizes, donated by individuals and businesses, in September. That same month, the group held the first Hurley Car Show–with more than 30 cars entered and up to 1,500 people in attendance–generating a load of excitement and a respectable amount of funds, Kilgore says. The Finer Limitz Car Club was co-sponsor of the event.

A bake sale, T-shirt and cap sale, yard sale and aluminum can drive peppered the summer, into the fall. And while gathering steam and resources for its own efforts, the group also gave to others–offering help to families in Hatch recovering from the floods there.

"We've done things to restore and encourage the pride in the actual, physical town, too," Kilgore says, describing the targets of various clean-up efforts: Town Hall, "Christmas tree corner," various individual neighbors' yards. Cleaning up neglected properties eliminates "trouble areas," Kilgore says, and where the group legally can, they have addressed some of those eyesores. Thanks to volunteer manpower and the generosity of New Mexico Pole Line, the trees along the First Street ditch received a long-overdue trimming. Phelps-Dodge donated 10 trash receptacles, now distributed around the town and maintained by the committee.

A growing sense of community and concern for one's neighbors also has emerged. A group of volunteers now makes regular phone calls to certain residents–seniors and folks on their own who might need looking in on–"just making sure they are okay," Kilgore says.

Buoyed by their early successes and looking to open the floodgates to even greater support, the group joined the Silver City-Grant County Chamber of Commerce and made application for 501(c)3 non-profit status. Hurley Mayor Ray Baca recognized the group's accomplishments with an official proclamation in December. After getting its bylaws approved at a general meeting last month, Kilgore says, the committee will now be able to apply for grants.

 

The community boasts a large concentration of military veterans and families with active service personnel, Kilgore says. She has three nephews in the Navy. Her father and her husband, Rex Kilgore, both served in the Navy. "There are a lot of older vets here, and families with sons who served in Iraq, too," she says. "Some of them are over there now."

So it is only logical that, in a town with such a strong military heritage and identity, the local American Legion building also has been a focus of the committee's efforts. A group of volunteers painted the building's flagpole, and Baca's Funeral Home donated an American flag.

"Oh, there hadn't been a flag flown on that pole for about 20 years," Kilgore says, taking a breath to choke back some emotion. The group plans to assist with restoration of the building itself with painting and remodeling "after years of neglect," Kilgore says. A new roof, among other things, is needed.

Starting with this past Thanksgiving holiday and running into the New Year, the American Legion's flagpole was the site of the new lighted "Hurley Star," the piece de resistance of the town's Christmas decorations this past season.

Ah, yes, the Christmas decorations–that first item on the committee's humble wish list. Things "snowballed" there, too, Kilgore says. In order to restore and enhance the town's meager set of holiday lights, the group found it needed to install four additional electric poles and meter loops–at a whopping $800 a pop–to carry the power. Thanks to some generosity from Texas-New Mexico Power Co. and the committee's successful fundraising efforts, they got it done.

The committee also coordinated the First Hurley Christmas Parade and Bazaar, a day and night of pageantry and celebration, the success of which took its organizers–perhaps especially Kilgore–by surprise.

"I was here at the Gateway, directing traffic that night," she recalls. "Not a lot of people were coming in, and I was getting pretty down about it."

She was mystified at the absence of traffic to direct, sinking into despair that the participants she thought were coming were largely no-shows. Where were the Cobre High School and Snell Youth bands? The Mariachi Herencia Mexicana youth group from Deming also was slated to participate, along with Carlos Herrera's Dancing Horses, the Harley Motorcycle Club doing its Christmas Toy Run, and various bicycle clubs. Members of the Finer Limitz and Copper Country Cruizers car clubs had promised to participate with numerous entries. The Red Hat Society and other groups all planned to bring floats. She'd seen precious few of the parade participants arrive, and with the scant traffic, thought all the committee's hard work would be viewed by a positively anemic audience.

"Oh, I just thought it was a flop," Kilgore says. "Then they called me from the other side of town and told me they were all lined up and I should get down there. I didn't realize they were coming in the entrance from North Hurley. When I got down there and saw it, I just started to bawl. It was huge!"

 

Christmas was good to the town and the Hurley Pride Committee. Hardly a week later, Kilgore and the group were in for another surprise.

"We made a very big deal about decorating for Christmas this year," Kilgore says. The group put together a contest–with five prizes awarded for home lighting displays and a $100 grand prize for the best-decorated fence in Hurley–and coordinated a community hayride to drive around the town and view the lighted homes and properties.

The evening's festivities started with free hot cocoa, with vehicles meeting at the Gateway Plaza, of course.

"People went all out," Kilgore recalls. "I had people tell me that they decorated their houses and yards for the first time in years! Oh, that was very touching."

The caravan started out, with Kilgore somewhere in the mix of the initial vehicles. After several minutes of oohing and ahhing over the houses' decorations, she chanced to look back at the line behind her.

"I just couldn't believe it. I hadn't expected it," she says. As the caravan had wound through the town's streets, more and more residents had tacked on to the end of the line of traffic.

"What a sight it was! It was such a long line of lights. Dozens of cars. Oh, you just have to pardon me. I get so emotional over these things," she says, blinking back tears and smiling at the memory.

 

Past and present blur and sometimes collide in Hurley. The much-talked-about "stacks"–smokestacks for smelting operations from the town's mining days–are slated to come down in the near future. Though Phelps-Dodge declined to give an exact date at a community meeting last month, Kilgore says, "the town knows it's coming soon."

Long a town landmark, the stacks often bring up strong emotions and fuel heated debates.

"Oh," Kilgore says at mention of the stacks, and closes her eyes. Another deep breath. "A lot of people hate to see them go. I mean, people are glad they're not working, you know, that they're not in operation. Because of the pollution. But they represent history. They represent heritage. They're what brought a lot of us here.

"They're a landmark," she adds. "People say 'out by the stacks,' and you know where they mean."

She calls over to a nearby table where some gentlemen are having breakfast. "Do you remember when they took the stacks down in Morenci?" she asks. The men put their recollections together, trying to come up with a date, and begin offering opinions about Hurley's smokestacks.

"Oh, they ought to level the whole place," one jokes, meaning not just the smokestacks, but the entire town of Hurley. "Don't listen to him," another says, laughing. "He's an alien from Arenas Valley."

The men continue to joke and offer wild opinions about Hurley and the stacks, and one finally comes up with the year the stacks in Morenci came down, to his best recollection, at least.

"Oh, we just stood there crying," Kilgore says, shaking her head at the memory. To her, the smokestacks represented "the work of all those men, and then it was just gone, like nothing."

The table of gentlemen quiets at her serious tone, and one offers, "You know, a lot of people might not like to see it, but I think it might be time. It is the past." The first of the stacks was built around 1938, he says, the second one in the 1970s. As if to ease the pain of the smokestacks' inevitable fate, he adds that he'd heard of smokestacks in another town "just falling down" after years of disuse. "You can't have that," he says. "It's not safe. And these stacks aren't being maintained now to be kept standing."

 

The Hurley train station, on the other hand, is an item from the town's past that the committee hopes may have a rebirth and serve a useful purpose into the future.

Kilgore looks and points out the window in the direction of the old depot. "Well, it's hard to see from here," she allows.

Eventually, the Hurley Pride Committee hopes to get the green light–and find the resources–to restore the old train station, now in disrepair.

"You may have heard that our cars came off the tracks," she says. Two of the old cars now lie on their sides, alongside the tracks, near the station. "Well, we've got a long way to go. There's a lot of work to be done, for sure." But the committee hopes the station may yet be restored and serve as a visitors' center and local museum, showcasing the town's history and the history of the railroad.

She brightens at the thought of the revitalized train station welcoming visitors to a thriving Hurley village, and talks about the Hurley Pride Committee's plans for the coming year.

"The community has expressed interest in a street dance and a big one-day Hurley yard sale," she says. "They want us to try to bring a carnival to town." Enchilada and spaghetti dinners also are in the works, as are potluck luncheons to celebrate the work of the volunteers.

Youth-oriented activities also are planned. Bike races, a baseball team and even a junior rodeo–Hurley was once a national rodeo hotspot–are some of the ideas the committee is tossing around.

"Young families are starting to come in again and young people are staying put," Kilgore says. "We need things to interest the kids we already have, and to put out the message for others to come, that this is a good place for kids to grow up."

Looking out the window, reflecting on the town at the foot of Geronimo Mountain, she says, "It's really coming to life."

 

The Hurley Pride Committee meets twice a month at the Hurley Community Center at 6 p.m. The public is invited to attend, but only Hurley residents can vote on issues affecting the town. For more information, call Sa Vanne Kilgore, 537-2124.

 

Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of Desert Exposure.

 

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