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My Own Lake Wobegon

May 4, 2012

If you’re driving along Highway 180 in Western New Mexico, just about midway between the towns of Glenwood and Alma you’ll come across a historic marker announcing a turnoff to the ghost mining town of Mogollon. If your interest is piqued and you turn east, you’re in for a hairy nine-mile trek up a windy, narrow mountain road.

Mogollon (muggy-own) isn’t a real ghost town; seventeen people live there. And while this is a small fraction of the nearly two thousand inhabitants of a century ago, the town is by no means dead. You’ll find a museum there, a restaurant, a trading post, a woodshop, and a bed & breakfast. It’s best to arrive between May and October, Friday-Sunday, those being the main times these establishments are open.

The first thing you’ll notice on Bursum Road are the signs. Eleven warnings greet the intrepid traveler, from Open Range Cattle to Watch for Snow Plows. Some signs they neglected to add include No Gas; No Public Restrooms when Businesses are Closed; No Lodging for Kids or Pets; and Beware: Severe Acrophobia.

Whitewater Mesa – through a dirty windshield

Three miles up the road flattens out on Whitewater Mesa. But don’t speed up too much – calves and deer are liable to dash into the road at any moment. And it’s windy. About eight years ago a fire crew set up camp on the mesa while fighting a blaze on nearby Spring Mountain. They returned one night to find a freak windstorm had torn up the stakes from all eighty of their tents and deposited them in Whitewater Canyon. This may or may not have been accompanied by a deluge of monsoon rainfall, but in any case they were forced to shack up in Glenwood High’s gymnasium for the duration of the job.

After the Mesa the road steepens sharply, the dotted yellow line disappears, and you find yourself winding up the side of a steep canyon wall. This is the point where many tourists would like to turn around, but there’s nowhere to do so. The worst part is Rocky Cut, a blind corner with no shoulder and a clear view several thousand feet down the mountain. It’s only after this that the road widens – marginally – and small pullouts offer the harried a chance to skedaddle back to safer terrain.

Bursum Road crests at the eight mile mark – 7000 feet elevation. Here you can see blatant evidence of ancient mining operations – a giant pile of tailings and old rusting equipment on Fanney Hill. The Fanney mine was once the largest single producer of silver and copper in the state, but its inaccessibility and hazardous conditions shut it down over fifty years ago. Between 1872-3 the stagecoach was purportedly robbed 23 times by the same assailant!

The last mile is a sharp drop into a canyon. If you’ve persevered this far, you’ll round a bend and suddenly find yourself in town. The canyon runs East-West; buildings line both sides of the canyon walls, and a stream (Silver Creek) runs parallel to the road. Buildings on the North side of the canyon (and South, midway through town) require bridges to gain access. If you show up between November and April, you may well drive through town without seeing anybody or a single OPEN sign. But don’t go trying doors – remember, this isn’t a real ghost town. Hazel Mallinckrodt (1915-89), likely the last survivor to be born during Mogollon’s heyday, tore out her front steps after curious tourists peered in her window while she took a bath in her living room.

You would think, in such a small community, that people would work together for their common good. Unfortunately reality has proven otherwise – the seventeen steadfast hermits of Mogollon are there for their own reasons, and they seldom include community. Stan King, owner of the Silver Creek Inn, spent twenty years restoring his historic building – the J.P. Holland General Store. While working he often played NPR at a volume audible across the street. His neighbor didn’t appreciate this, but instead of working it out with Stan he installed a radio tower in the valley – a slight decimal’s reach from NPR – and broadcast the same classical album, on repeat, twenty four hours a day. It only took one call to the FCC to shut him down, but some time later the same neighbor discovered Stan’s girlfriend’s keys lying in the street. He waggled them at her and refused to return them. She called the police, who met with the man some days later. He immediately returned the keys – ground smooth. That way, he claimed, he couldn’t be accused of trespassing or robbery.

A newcomer built a house above the Volunteer Fire Station some years ago – he became number seventeen again as Stan had moved north to Pietown, NM. This man immediately began buying houses and land plots up the valley, ostensibly to provide homes for his children. To date none of them have uprooted their families and moved to Mogollon. One of his houses had been eyed for several years by Niels Mandoe, owner of Mogollon Woodworks, and his friend Jim Green in Santa Fe. They’d gone as far as to contact the owner, a lady from Silver City. She demurred at Jim’s offer of $30,000 cash. When the newcomer bought the house Niels and Jim were disappointed – until they learned he’d bought it from a man. A little research gave the explanation, and a huge sigh of relief from Jim’s bank account. The house was on two adjacent plots of land – the property line ran through the middle of its living room!

Mogollon Woodworks

Niels bought his house from Bob Mallinckrodt in 1993, four years after Hazel died. Bob was so thrilled with the sale that he insisted on visiting the Mandoe family’s former home on Maui and attending Niels’ son’s (my) high school graduation. While in the tropics, Bob sweated and complained about the heat. Mom looked him over – he wore cowboy boots and hat, jeans, and a buttoned-up long-sleeve shirt. ‘Why don’t you roll up your sleeves?’ she asked. ‘Oh, no,’ Bob replied. ‘Then everyone could see my long underwear.’

I was seventeen the first time I visited Mogollon, and found it strange then too. I wrote a letter to Derek Scanlon detailing the odd inhabitants, which he recently dug up and returned. Here are a few excerpts: ‘Leno, whose last name I never knew, a hypnotist. Her (small) yard contains a myriad of Junk, which she seems to value highly. She chain smokes, her hands shake, and she builds fires (inside) in the summer, so that she can wear a bathing suit.’ ‘Dan Morgan, a short monkey built man, with sideburns almost down to his chin, but no beard. He’s got a southern accent and even wears his belt and knife when playing baseball.’

Some years ago a man rented a house in town with his four dogs. He wasn’t prepared for the winter and had to burn furniture to stay warm. Unfortunately he fell asleep and the house burned. Nobody was hurt, but the town barely survived. The Volunteer Fire Crew was alerted and rushed to save the nearby historic Theatre which, if it’d burned, would have spread to Mogollon Woodworks and from there to the rest of town. It would have been the sixth time Mogollon burned to the ground. Today the VFC consists of three members – recent changes to national policies have forced most members to resign. After all, who would want to undergo the training and scheduling requirements of paid firefighters for no paycheck?

In many ways it seems Mogollon is dated – one wildfire or leaky boiler away from its final annihilation. Without the economic impetus of mining it’s unlikely the town would be rebuilt a seventh time. As it is few people choose to live there year round, and the fewer who might want to find land unavailable or their neighbors unwelcoming. This is a stark comparison to H. A. Hoover’s (no known relation to the President) observation of New Mexico in 1904: “Nowhere else have I ever seen and felt the friendliness that seems so spontaneous no matter into what establishment you enter. Maybe it is all of us living on the edge of the clearing that engenders an unconscious feeling of kinship.” (Tales from the Bloated Goat, p.24)

While newcomers may not be immediately embraced in Mogollon, neither are they forsaken. Drivers wave at each other across Catron County, ranging from a full-handed wrist twist to a single digit lifted from the steering wheel, and it’s safe to leave your vehicle by the roadside while hiking to a petroglyph. Transportation is survival in the country. Once I hitched from Silver City to Glenwood. A grumpy rancher drove me halfway, though I was obviously an out-of-town hippie spawn. My second ride came from a large man named Marlin who got very excited when he learned I’d grown up in Hawaii. He proceeded to tell me about his young days in Waipi’o Valley, catching prawns in the stream and frying them on the beach at night. One time he’d been neck deep in the water, three prawn tails sticking out of his mouth as he tickled more out from under the bank, when a buggy drove by. It was Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley, mingling with the locals.

It’s been 103 years since the telephone came to Mogollon, a $10 per month party line. Nowadays internet service is available, but your cell phone won’t work until you return to Silver City or Socorro. And it’s unlikely to any time soon. Western Tel is (allegedly) in the process of suing Verizon in an attempt to keep their phone monopoly. While this may not hold water in ‘civilized parts,’ it could well delay cell phone service by years out in the boondocks. But who needs it? You don’t go to the frontier to make yourself available on a minute-by-minute basis. You go there to escape, and Mogollon is great for that. You might not even want to come back.

The Purple Onion


From → True Stories

  1. Derek Scanlon permalink

    I read this aloud to Lara. She LOVED it and so did I. I feel like I was transported to Mogollon. I’m sure to read more of your blogs. Keep writing!!!

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