History in towns: Another Las Vegas, this one in New Mexico

I had wanted to see Tito Chavez’s house since he first describedit to me, and so one day at his invitation I made thedrive from Santa Fe for that purpose. The house had beenbuilt for his great-grandmother Julianita around 1870 andChavez was fairly certain that the people who had built theofficers’ quarters at nearby Fort Union had also built this andother houses in West Las Vegas. “I could go out there (to theIn place of the banal parterres of generic greenery, the Engelhard Court’s floor has been freed to fulfill its thwarted destiny JULY 2009 26 ruins of Fort Union),” he said, “and it’s like walking into myown home: the floor plan’s exactly the same.” While he wastelling me this we were standing in the yard of the two-storyadobe while cars and pickups whizzed by on the road above.The walls of the house are fully two feet thick, tapering toeighteen inches at the top, and their adobe bricks were laidin a kind of crosshatched pattern that Chavez says preventsthe stair-step pattern of cracks you see in older adobe buildings.“Another thing about this place,” he went on, “is itdoesn’t have any closets. People in those days lived out of theirtrunks.” Pigeons cooed and shuttled in and out of the eavesof the place, and as we walked to the car Chavez mentionedthat his large yard area had seen a bit of history itself.

In 1912 Jack Johnson (1878–1946), the first Americanblack heavyweight champion, had come to LasVegas for a title fight against Fireman Jim Flynn(1879–1935) and had used this house as his trainingquarters. Flynn, a “white hope,” had put up at MontezumaCastle. “Anyway,” Chavez said, “an uncle of mine putup bleachers here and charged people to watch Johnsonwork out.” I thought again of how much history lies forgottenin such places as this dusty yard next to an oldhouse on North Gonzales in Las Vegas, New Mexico.Later, at the Rough Rider Memorial Collection at theCity of Las Vegas Museum I saw photographs of Johnsonarriving at Las Vegas, stepping across the tracks towardLa Castañeda (which would not have allowed him in),splendidly turned out in suit and straw boater. At hisgallery Chavez pulled out another photograph of thechampion, posed in front of the North Gonzalez housewith his long arms outspread. The fight itself, held onIndependence Day, proved a bitter event for those whohad come to see the white hopedethrone the insolent black manwho had installed his white femalecompanion at ringside and chattedwith her while brushing asidethe Fireman’s clumsy charges.Finally, in the ninth round, thepolice stopped the bout becauseof Flynn’s flagrant fouling. Suchwas the town’s only brush withsports history.

But it has more than its share ofhistory even so. The tribes—Comanche,Ute, Kiowa, and JicarillaApache—who passed so lightlythrough this geographical borderlandseemed to me under-represented inthe exhibits and available literatureout at Fort Union, at the Citizens’ Committee for HistoricPreservation headquarters, and at the City of Las Vegas Museum.But they were here and doubtless had their sacred spots,like the hot springs. So were the bullwhackers, guides, andtraders who made those still-definable ruts in the prairie. Sowere the onetime “pards” Pat Garrett (1850–1908) andBilly the Kid (1859–1881), who paused here the day afterChristmas in 1880, when Garrett had the Kid under arrestand was taking him by train to Santa Fe to be held on murdercharges. One day over lunch at the Plaza Hotel, Tito Chavezregaled a table of listeners with stories of the many hangingsthat had occurred just outside the window where we sat; thescaffolding of a windmill had been used for the job. And fromour table we could also see Vicente Silva’s old bar. Chavez saidthere were many stories about the tunnels leading from it thatthe outlaw chief had dug. The Harvey Girls were here, too,bless their unremembered names, as well as Teddy Rooseveltand Jack Johnson and his outclassed opponent, the Fireman.

The town had quite a movie history, too, I was told, beginningwith Tom Mix (1880–1940), who was so taken withthe site he thought about moving here. The stars and crew of Easy Rider filmed here, as did those of No Country for Old Men. When I found the motel on the town’s north side thathad figured in that cult thriller there was not a soul in theoffice or a car in the parking lot. But then I spotted a cleaningcart down at the motel’s far end and an open door. Inside, agirl who must have been a teenager was changing a bed whilea child played on the floor amidst the cast-off bedding.

“I think this must be where they filmed part of thatmovie No Country for Old Men,” I said. She nodded andcontinued with her work. “That’s pretty cool,” I went onlamely. “You think so?” she said, lifting high a sheet and havingplainly more urgent concerns than even such recenthistory.

In addition to helpful interviews withTito Chavez, Mary Chavez, MageePoler, Donna Nathan, Vince Howell,Wid Slick, Katherine Slick, and ElizabethMorse, I consulted the followingprinted sources:

Howard Bryan, Wildest of the Wild West:True Tales of a Frontier Town on the Santa Fe Trail (Clear Light Publishers,Santa Fe, 1988).

The Ring Record Book and Boxing Encyclopedia, comp. Nat Fleischer et al. (RingBook Shop, New York, 1963).

Lesley Poling-Kempes, The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West (Da CapoPress, New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts,1989).

Historic Las Vegas, New Mexico: Along the Santa Fe Trail (Citizens’ Committeefor Historic Preservation, Las Vegas, N.M., 2006).

Living Las Vegas: An Anthology by Area Writers (Chicken River Press, Las Vegas,N. M., 2001).

Frederick Turner is the author of several books including The Spirit of Place; Beyond Geography; John Muir: Rediscovering America, and the forthcoming novel Miss America.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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