Isolation has been a two-edged sword for many a New Mexico small town. While it has made life tougher and less convenient for residents, it has also allowed communities to go their own way with a minimum of interference from larger neighbors.
It’s also been a boon for local cultures. Communities as physically close as Edgewood and Tijeras or Estancia and Moriarty have very different ways of going about their daily lives, solving their problems and thinking about the world.
Such has been the case with Mountainair, which has been able to develop its unique culture as, by one estimate, the most isolated town in New Mexico: the one furtherest from any large town.
With its old downtown, its collection of individualistic writers and artists, its hard frontier ambiance, its historic hotel, its focus on a series of ancient pueblos and Spanish missions, and its proximity to the dramatic heights of the Manzano Mountains, Mountainair has much to be idiosyncratic about, in spite of a fire earlier this year.
Of course isolation and uniqueness are mixed blessings, for Mountainair also has a great deal of poverty, few jobs and a lot of drugs.
A new 82-page paperback book by Mountainair resident Dixie Boyle (“A Pictorial History of Mountainair, New Mexico,”) captures the history of the town, primarily through photographs recording the lives of its residents beginning in the early 20th century.
In an email, Boyle explained the genesis of the book:
“The reason I put the pictorial history together is because of Dorothy Cole. Before she died, she called me and asked me to come to her house and told me she wanted me to have her historical collection: old photos of Mountainair, local stories and articles, a real treasure really that she had collected over the years.
“She asked me to get the history out there and do something with it. So, I started with her photos and have added a lot of my own I’ve collected since and used many of her stories. Dorothy and I both have had a passion for preserving history so that’s why I put the booklet together.”
Boyle, has written other volumes of history, including most recently “True Stories of Frontier Women: 1860 to Present” and “A History of Highway 60 and the Railroad Towns on the Belen, New Mexico, Cutoff.”
Her other books deal with Encino, rail depots and Harvey Houses, the Mountainair Ranger District, a walking tour of Mountainair, her memories of serving as a forest lookout, old mysteries and legends of New Mexico, and Sundance, Wyo. All are available online at Amazon.com.
Earlier this year Boyle won a New Mexico state preservation award for individual achievement. The citation praised her for “multi-faceted preservation of underrepresented history in central New Mexico and for exemplary grassroots outreach.”
With the Torrance County Archeological Society, she broadcasts a weekly program on KXNM radio called “Archeology and History in Your Back Yard.” It airs 1 p.m. Mondays, 7 p.m. Tuesdays and 10 a.m. Saturdays.
Mountainair, the first incorporated town in Torrance County, was founded in 1903 by E. C. Manning, John W. Corbett and former Kansas Governor Elias Sleeper Stover. The earliest photos in Boyle’s book are from this era, showing street scenes and men at work.
With an economic base of the railroad and agriculture (Mountainair once billed itself as the pinto bean capital of the world), the town grew rapidly in the early years, according to the U.S. Census—tripling its population form 577 in 1920 to 1,605 in 1960. Since then, however, it’s been pretty much downhill. Its estimated 2016 population of 866 was just over half of the 1960 peak.
Mountainair, like many isolated small towns, continues to find survival problematic despite the attractions of physical beauty, fascinating culture and pleasant lifestyle. In 2010, the per capita income was only $12,566 as opposed to the U.S. per capita income that year of $40,277. An old adage says you can’t eat the scenery, but the hardy survivors of Mountainair haven’t given up trying.