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John Waelti: The legends and lore of Romantic Old Mesilla
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Tucumcari, New Mexico - It was a trip to the Southwest to temporarily escape the typical November gloom of the upper Midwest. But so far, without much success. It was cloudy and gray through most of Kansas, and high winds and snow flurries across the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas. But the day dawned bright and clear in Tucumcari, the fabled stop on historic Route 66, now on I-40.

I leave the Route 66 Motel and head down the several-mile motel strip to the Pow Wow Inn for my customary breakfast of huevos rancheros smothered with green chile sauce. The last time I was at the Pow Wow was in July with St. Paul pal, Tom. The Tucumcari High School Rattlers were having a class reunion and the place was packed. I love that mascot, "The Rattlers." It's almost as unique and original as Monroe High School's "Cheesemakers."

This morning, the Pow Wow is almost deserted, but those huevos rancheros are as good as ever.

I hit I-40 for the 50-mile jaunt over to Santa Rosa, then take U.S. 54 south across typical New Mexico range land, dry and brown this time of year. The west wind is vicious and doesn't die down until I reach Carrizozo. I'm perennially disappointed that my two favorite establishments there are no more. The Outpost that served the best green chile cheeseburgers around has long been closed. I'm surprised that some enterprising entrepreneur has not taken it over as it always seemed to do a flourishing business.

Roy's Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor had posted a sign, "closed for the season." Roy had died some time ago but his niece was trying to keep it open and had applied for a grant from the New Mexico Historical Society. I don't know what came of that, but surely wish her success. Being in Lincoln County, site of the Lincoln County Wars involving Billy the Kid, Carrizozo is in the land rich with history.

I leave Carrizozo and take the 60-mile stretch to Tularosa, then south to Alamogordo. The bypass around Alamogordo enables one to escape the long dismal stretch of fast food joints in town. Then it's across the Tularosa Valley and White Sands Missile Range, and over the Organ Mountains to a view of Las Cruces in the Mesilla Valley of the Rio Grande.

My guest house in Mesilla is undergoing some roof repairs, so I grab a motel in Las Cruces. The next day I check in with Jackie, who lives next door to, and manages my adobe. I find that my tenants are happy, and I'm happy with them. As the roofers are working on my guest house, I climb the ladder and visit with them to find out what the scoop is.

That business taken care of, I run a few errands and check in with friends and former colleagues at NMSU. It's hard to believe that it has been 25 years since I left the Tundra of Minnesota for an 11-year stint as head of NMSU's Ag Econ Department. That position gave me a great opportunity to get around the state of New Mexico, leaving a lot of memories, mostly good.

Although there are a lot of interesting places in New Mexico, romantic old Mesilla has special charm. Mesilla was incorporated in 1848. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo after the Mexican-American War moved the U.S.-Mexico border south of the village of Dona Ana. A group of Mexicans moved south of the newly created border and settled in Mesilla.

By 1850, Mesilla was a well-established village. The Gadsden Purchase of 1853 brought Mesilla and what is now the southern parts of New Mexico and Arizona, into the United States.

During the Civil War, Mesilla briefly served as the capital of the Confederate Territory of Arizona. It was recaptured by volunteers of the California Column, and became headquarters of the Military District of Arizona.

Mesilla was for a time the most important city of the region. It was a major station of the Butterfield Stagecoach Line. That station is now the La Posta Restaurant. Directly across the street on the southeast corner of the plaza is a gift shop that once was the jail that held Billy the Kid before he was transferred to the Lincoln County Jail from where he made his notorious escape, killing two guards in the process.

Mesilla's regional dominance ended in 1881. As the Santa Fe Railroad planned to build across the Gadsden Purchase, it selected the much smaller settlement of Las Cruces. Las Cruces has since expanded to more than 101,000 residents while Mesilla's population has remained at just more than 2,000.

But to those who either have lived or now live in Mesilla, that's just hunky dory. Mesilla has made every effort to retain its historic ambiance. Building codes are held to stringent standards, and no ketchup palaces are allowed. There are enough of them elsewhere.

The historic plaza, anchored by the Basilica of San Albino, has retained its historic charm. On the Plaza is the Double Eagle Restaurant, occupying a building constructed in 1840. This was once the home of an affluent Mexican family. The family hired a maid with whom their teen-aged son fell in love, much to the displeasure of his mother.

The mother returned to the house one day to find the young lovers in a romantic embrace. In a blind rage she grabbed a scissors from a bureau drawer, stabbed and killed the maid. In the process, she accidentally stabbed and killed her own son.

The ghosts of the two lovers still inhabit the Carlotta Room of that establishment. Employees find unexplained broken glass and furniture out of place. They refuse to enter the room alone after hours. Of course, it must be true - well anyway, it's true that it adds to the mystique of romantic old Mesilla.

- John Waelti's column appears every Friday in the Times. He can be reached at