Saturday, February 28, 2009

Billy the Kid--Up Close and Personal!

Fort Sumner, New Mexico

He was a competent dancer and neat dresser who wore a plain, Mexican sombrero and had a reputation for charming the ladies. With his big blue eyes and boisterous personality it’s no wonder Billy the Kid became a popular symbol of the American Old West!

Billy the Kid was also known as Henry McCarty, William H. Bonney, and numerous other names. He was born in the Irish tenements of New York City, but his mother and stepfather later moved the family to Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was often in trouble as a teen, but many believe this was a matter of necessity as he tried to help his mother support the family. He was a key player in what was known as the Lincoln County War, a battle between wealthy ranchers and merchants in Lincoln County, New Mexico. He is said to have died when he was 21 years old on July 14, 1881 in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, while staying at the home of his friend, Pete Maxwell. Sheriff Pat Garrett tracked the Kid to Maxwell’s house and shot him in the dark, then later wrote a book about the young man. Billy the Kid’s grave is also located in Fort Sumner.

And although many people believe the above to be true, unfortunately, just about every detail of Billy the Kid’s life is disputed!

In spite of the controversies surrounding the life and death of Billy the Kid, there is a place in New Mexico where one can find an interesting collection of some of his former possessions. The Billy the Kid Museum is located in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and the owners of the museum believe they have the most accurate details and evidence of this famous outlaw’s life and death listed and exhibited in their displays. The museum is a large building packed wall to wall with artifacts of the American West, including many items that once belonged to Billy the Kid, such as his rifle, chaps, spurs, and an original “Wanted” poster. They even have a lock of Billy the Kid’s hair!

Other items on display at the museum include over 150 firearms and numerous vehicles, including stagecoaches, fire trucks, and classic cars. The museum’s collection was compiled by Ed Sweet, who grew up in Melrose, East of Fort Sumner. Sweet was a well-liked community member who collected antiques and historical artifacts from the area for many years before opening the museum with his wife, Jewel, in 1953. The museum is now run by his son, Donald Sweet, Donald’s wife, Lula, and their son, Tim.

There are many, many rooms in this building and it takes a good hour, perhaps more, to see everything it offers. It is a truly enjoyable experience and well worth the time, particularly if you are a fan of Billy the Kid and the American Old West. The museum is located thirty minutes west of Clovis at 1435 E Sumner Avenue on the main road in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. You can check out the Billy the Kid Museum website or call them at (575) 355-2380.

I also wrote a short history article on Fort Sumner, which mentions Billy the Kids connections to that area.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Incomparable Stanley Hotel

The Stanley Hotel sits high on a hill overlooking Estes Park, Colorado, about an hour’s drive from Denver. It is a 138 room Georgian style building and the inspiration for the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s novel The Shining. It is one of the more popular tourist sites in Colorado and a great deal of its popularity rests on rumors that it is haunted by former owners Freelan Oscar and Flora Stanley. In spite of its haunting reputation, it is a lovely old building with breathtaking views and well worth the drive up the Big Thompson Canyon. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has seen many famous guests, such as Theodore Roosevelt and John Philip Sousa. It is open year round and even offers ghost tours.

The Stanley Hotel is named after F.O. Stanley, a successful American businessman who owned and operated the Stanley Motor Carriage Company with his brother, Francis Edgar Stanley. They invented the Stanley Steamer Automobile and other popular vehicles. In the early 1900s Tuberculosis was still a serious threat to the health of Americans and in 1903, it ravaged the body and soul of F.O. Stanley. He knew that if he didn’t do something drastic and fast he would soon be dead, and his beloved wife, Flora, would be alone. He convinced Flora to join him on a trip to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado where he was told the mountain air would clear his lungs. Flora was a dedicated and devoted woman who was passionately in love and would gladly follow her husband anywhere.

They made the trip in a Stanley Steamer. They stayed in a friend’s cabin for the summer and fell in love with Estes Park, which is completely understandable to anyone who has been there. The Stanleys decided to stay. They built the luxurious Stanley Hotel between 1906 and 1909 and worked side by side supervising the staff and entertaining the guests. Flora often performed piano solos for visitors in the music room. Flora, who was equally in love with their former home in Maine, eventually convinced her husband to build a replica of that home about a mile down the road. The cool, mountain air and pleasing company must have been just what F.O. needed because he lived another thirty-seven years, until 1940.

For more information on the Stanley Hotel, check out their website at:

Monday, February 9, 2009

St. Elmo, Colorado--A Lovely Little Ghost Town!

When my family first moved to Colorado we were fascinated with its history, and we still are! One of the more exciting aspects of Colorado is its extensive mining history and when I was a child we spent many weekends and holidays driving through the Rocky Mountains visiting former mining towns turned ghost towns.

Saint Elmo livery circa 1880-1890 - Saint Elmo, Chaffee County, Colorado, Katie E. Clark, Dora Launder, and Herman D. Clark pose with horses in front of a framebarn. They wear dark bustled dresses, wide brimmed hats, and a sack suit with gold chain. Sign reads: "Levi Block Mens and Boys Clothing Snag Proof Boots and Shoes." The Denver Public Library Western History and Genealogy Department. 

One ghost town well worth the drive is St. Elmo located west of Buena Vista off Hwy 24. St. Elmo is a remarkably well-preserved ghost town with 24 of its original buildings still intact, including the church, general store, saloon, and jailhouse, and most of these buildings still have their original outhouses! At one point, St. Elmo had over 150 mine claims and was on its way to becoming a bustling city. Of course, Cripple Creek, also located in the southern part of the state, once had over 4500 acres of mining claims. Nevertheless, by all accounts, St. Elmo was a happy, busy place, even if it was smaller than other nearby towns.

St. Elmo was started in the late 1870s at the height of the gold rush. It was first called Forrest City and was later renamed, possibly after a popular fictional character from the 1859 book St. Elmo by August Jane Evans. In this book the main character, St. Elmo Murray, experiences a spiritual awakening through the influences of a woman named Edna Earl, which is rather romantic, and as you drive through the area with its breathtaking scenic views and sunsets that explode with color, the thought of a romantic title for this town seems perfectly logical.

Annabelle Stark and her brother, Tony, were the last residents of St. Elmo. Annabelle’s personal history fits well with a romantic ghost town. By all accounts, Annabelle was an attractive and charming young woman who certainly had a bounty of handsome suitors available, but some sources claim she remained single and attended few social functions. Annabelle had two older brothers and this could explain why she rarely attended social functions if they were over-protective of their lovely sister! It was rumored that Annabelle was engaged to a man in Salida, but the engagement was broken with no explanation. However, at least one Colorado magazine lists Annabelle’s name as Annabelle Stark Ward, which may indicate that she once married and perhaps divorced, or was widowed at a young age.

The Starks owned and operated the Home Comfort Hotel and a retail store that once supplied the miners, as well as the telegraph and post office. As often happens in mining towns, the more than 2000 residents moved on in the early 1920s when the mines stopped producing, but the Starks decided to stay. They purchased homes and properties as the rest of the miners and their families left, but without a town, the properties lost their value. In 1922, the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad (DSP&P), which brought many of the miners and families to the area in the first place, changed its route and no longer traveled to St. Elmo. After their brother, Joe, and their mother passed away, Annabelle and Tony, who was once a telegraph operator for the DSP&P, remained. In later years, Annabelle was often seen patrolling her properties with a shotgun, and considering the remoteness of the location, I can’t say I blame her!

The drive to St. Elmo is worth the time, especially in the fall when the trees change their colors. St. Elmo now has eight full-time residents and all buildings are privately owned, so please be respectful when you visit. The general store is open from May to October. There are numerous websites that discuss St. Elmo, and I would recommend checking them out and taking notes before visiting this lovely, little town. I have a feeling Annabelle Stark would be more than happy to know her town still attracts visitors!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Welcome to my blog!

Welcome to my Wild West History blog! I love reading and writing about history and am particularly fond of stories from Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. I will occasionally take a trip up to Wyoming, but I am far more familiar with the states where I have lived for the past forty some years. Each of these states has an amazingly rich history filled with people and events that thrill me, chill me, make me smile, and sometimes make me cry. My ancestors are, for the most part, scattered between Ohio and Texas and with the help of my little sister and my cousin, I now have a carefully researched genealogy filled with fascinating stories that I also hope to share on this blog. Please, leave me a comment, share your own story, and make suggestions for topics because I also love talking about history! Enjoy!

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...