Heading for the Hills
This month, historic Hillsboro celebrates its role in the famous Fountain murder trial. But it's worth a visit anytime.
by Marjorie Lilly
You settle into Hillsboro down a paved sloping road. The place is as idyllic and quiet as an old New England village and warm and mellow as the adobe houses that make it up. The June fire that caused the evacuation of nearby Kingston left Hillsboro unscathed, although the steep, forested hillsides and Emory Pass along Hwy. 152 show its scars.
Hillsboro has about 100 residents, according to Postmistress Claudia Edwards, who staffs the post office that's been there since 1879. The town is a half-hour from T or C, an hour and a half from both Silver City and Las Cruces, making it a pretty obscure place.
But it's home to a lively, close-knit community of artists and writers, mostly retirement age. They go to each other's houses for supper sometimes and play in a loose-knit, shaggy group of stringed instruments and harmonicas two or three times a week. This group has run a cooperative known as Percha Creek Traders that supports their art, although it's no longer active because of the languishing economy.
Locals are visited at times by javelina, cougars and bear. Mule deer are visiting from the mountains in droves because of the drought.
Hillsboro resident Matilde Holzwarth is a former biology professor at NMSU who's now doing a lot of photography as an "encore career" ("I've finally figured out what to call it," she says). I ask her, "Does it feel remote here?" She thinks a couple seconds with her eyes half-shut, and then says, smiling, "No."
The town consists of mostly one main street with no traffic light and a couple of short parallel streets connected by the cosmopolitan-sounding Second, Third and Fifth Avenues.
At the top of a hill are the arching ruins of the old courthouse that still have a kind of august grandeur in the midst of this little mountain town. The fieldstone jail next to it has black window bars that are still intact.
The Pickers Circle performs at an artists’ reception.
Most old homes and buildings have been artfully and carefully restored, many with Victorian facades, giving the place the air of a little city lost in the desert. There's a detailed walking-tour map online with 25 buildings described. At its height, Hillsboro had about 1,200 people.
Hillsboro has some distinctions: The town was the county seat of Sierra County from 1884 to 1939, until that moved to T or C. It's said to have had the last operating stage line in the US. Since 1986 it's been a US Historical District. It's on the Geronimo Trail.
It was founded in 1877 when gold was discovered, and its character was mostly formed by the boom and bust silver mining cycle of 1882-93, like Kingston and the ghost town of Lake Valley in either direction. Of these towns, Hillsboro has by far the largest number of original buildings still standing.
Hillsboro was where the trial related to the 1896 murder of Judge Albert J. Fountain and his eight-year-old son took place in May 1899. The prominent New Mexico figures of Albert Fall and Thomas Catron, who became New Mexico's first US senators, were lawyers in the case. In the rest of the country it was called "the story of the century."
Claudia Edwards staffs the post office that’s
been in Hillsboro since 1879.
A play about the Fountain trial will be presented in a two-day event from August 31-Sept. 1 at the Hillsboro Community Center. Locals expect it to be a major event. This original piece was written by retiree Garland Bills with contributions by some of the actors. In his former life Bills was a linguist at UNM.
The historic trial wasn't held in Las Cruces, where Fountain resided, because it was felt defendants Oliver Lee and Jim Gililland couldn't get a fair trial there due to political tensions. The trial in Hillsboro was only for the murder of eight-year-old Henry Fountain because the physical evidence was so scarce that the lawyers felt they had to rely on the jury's sympathies.
In a clever attempt to bring history to life, townspeople will reenact the murder and trial and the audience will act as the jury. The outcome will depend on their decision.
In the actual 1899 trial, according to the Hillsboro Historical Society's blog, "After a three-week trial that made headlines in newspapers across the country, Lee and Gililland were acquitted. The prosecution faltered from the start; key witnesses didn't show up. Some historians say they got away with murder. Others reason that the Territory tried the wrong men." No one ever stood trial for the murder of Albert Fountain.
A reception will be held Friday, August 30, at a new winery, with members of the Fountain family present. Over the weekend several writers of books about the Fountain incident will be giving book talks and signing books.
Hillsboro isn't just history, though. Angela and Steve Detloff run an eatery called the Barbershop Café, with a large consignment shop in an adjoining room, and also the Barbershop Plaza Motel next door. The Café has been a popular place for 14 years, and Angela makes sure I realize that they've created their own cookbook.
She says the type of people who stop off in Hillsboro tend to be "wilderness campers and lots of cyclists — bicycles and motorcycles."
Angela says the town is made up of "mostly newcomers." But she knows of about eight locals who have either moved away and come back again, like herself, or who have always lived there. She lived in southern Connecticut, Albuquerque, California and other places before moving back.
Angela's family was German, but "the locals are mostly Hispanic," she says. Six out of the eight names she mentions are Spanish — Torres, Padilla and so forth. Both Lonnie Rubio and his father Lonnie were head of the Department of Transportation in the Hillsboro region for decades, going back to the 1930s.
Artist David Farrell's wife Barbara teaches in the schools in T or C, and she claims that no local kids are going on the bus anymore to T or C, since four kids graduated last year. But four rancher children outside of town still go to school there.
Another eating place, the General Store Café, built in 1877, is on the other side of the street from the Barbershop Café. They both close at about 3 p.m.
The town has a surprising number of points of interest for such a small population.
The Barbara Masingill Gallery is all adobe charm and gardens. There's a heavy emphasis on flowers and animals in the paintings and some sweet miniatures. They offer me southern-style cake with peaches on top, as they usually do for visitors.
Cuna Cueva is a gallery that you need to call in advance because the owners are cavers who aren't often there.
Sue's Antiques is a concoction of antiques and second-hand things. Sue Bason has lived in town for 50 years exactly, and makes crosses with fanciful paintings on them, like Saint Francis with several rabbits.
The Enchanted Villa is a B&B that is given good ratings and is right in town. The Hillsboro Museum has mostly mining artifacts, and should be called in advance. Birding Trail #32 starts from the center of Hillsboro, and there are hiking trails near town.
The Historical Society is opening a shop soon to support its operations, and a private gallery called Gallery 152 will also start up soon.
On the Friday I visit, there's a reception for an exhibit of Hillsboro artists' works at the restored Percha Bank in the tiny town of Kingston (population 25), only 15 minutes from Hillsboro up in the mountains over a stunningly beautiful road. Kingston was evacuated for 10 days in June after the Silver Fire licked at its edges, but survived unscathed.
Angela and Steve Detloff outside their Barbershop Café.
It's explained to me by Catherine Wanek, who co-owns the Black Range Lodge with her mother, that Kingston people are offering this space to Hillsboro artists because the Percha Creek Trading Coop has closed its doors. They consider themselves one community, she says. When Kingston residents were evacuated because of the fire, most of them took shelter in homes in Hillsboro.
It's clear that most people present know each other well. Embraces abound. Painter Melody Sears and photographer Matilde Holzwarth have an in-depth conversation that lasts close to an hour during the reception for their art.
Hillsboro and Kingston are unincorporated towns, so it leaves a lot of room for getting to know each other on the Water Board, at the Community Center (which hosts excellent musicians several times a year), or at town meetings.
Another painter featured at the exhibit is David Farrell, with his colorist-influenced landscapes. Farrell runs the Black Range School of Art, where he teaches people mostly on an individual basis.
When silver went bust in the area, Wanek says, Hillsboro people salvaged buildings in Kingston. There are only five of the original buildings in Kingston now, including the lodge, the bank and the assay office.
At about 6 p.m. the Pickers Circle musicians start up, after most people at the scattered tables have eaten from the array of dishes offered on a long table. The atmosphere is laid-back and people socialize as if there's no music going on.
I drive back by the tall peaks studded with tiny clusters of nopales. Cottonwoods follow the map-lines of the dry Percha Creek that fills up only in the monsoon season.
As I head up the rise leading out of Hillsboro at sunset, a mule deer leaps out of the road into the empty lot at the intersection, trembling in the cool shadow of the trees.
Two more deer appear in my rear-view mirror.
I leave Hillsboro to its silence and to other tourists who come along.
For more information about Hillsboro, see www.hillsboronm.com, www.sierracountynewmexico.info/attractions/hillsboro-new-mexico, and
Marjorie Lilly writes the Borderlines column.