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John Waelti: Toward Fort Sumner and tales of Billy the Kid
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Tucumcari, N.M. - Tom and I had arrived after a day's drive down the eastern edge of Colorado on US 365, the High Plains Highway. We decide to have dinner at the Pow Wow Inn, on the several-mile strip that was a major stop over on historic Route 66. Today that strip parallels I-40, a less glamorous route to the west.

The strip currently is a mixture of a few motels left intact from the 1950s, some upgraded and new motels, assorted restaurants and various businesses that cater to local clientele.

We enter the Pow Wow and see that its décor is radically reconfigured, crowded with temporary tables in contrast to its usual appealing Southwest décor. Turns out that they are preparing for a reunion of the Tucumcari Rattlers later that evening. Gotta love that mascot - it's unique and original, sort of like Monroe's Cheesemakers.

Next morning we revisit the Pow Wow for their huevos rancheros with green chile sauce. Few places can match the way they do it.

Instead of the usual I-40 to Santa Rosa, then US 54 south, we decide to take a different route. But first I take Tom through another part of Tucumcari, the old Main Street business district. Although that three-mile strip paralleling I-40 has become the main business district, the original business district was several blocks north. It is now all but abandoned, consisting of second-hand shops, abandoned stores, a few miscellaneous offices and a burned out building that is a real eyesore.

After paying homage to the once-flourishing business district that is on a one-way journey to oblivion, we head south on NM Route 209. We roll through typical New Mexico rangeland, except that with the unusually heavy summer rains, it is far more green and lush than usual. We encounter no traffic except for a few local pickup trucks.

At McAlister (no population listed, less than a dozen would be my estimate) we take NM 252 over to House (population 72 and site of a regional high school) and head south to US 60, then a few miles west to Fort Sumner.

Were it not for the exploits of the West's most iconic outlaw, Billy the Kid, Fort Sumner would be just another remote town surrounded by sparsely populated range country. Fort Sumner is where the Kid met his death at the hands of Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett and is the location of the Kid's grave site - and the "Billy the Kid Museum."

A native of Michigan, Ed Sweet, arrived here at the age of 4 with his family in 1908. Early on he had the ambition to build a museum. As he grew older, making his living as a peddler, he kept his eye out for anything old. After many years of collecting, Ed and his wife opened a museum in 1953 in Fort Sumner. It was intended to commemorate the struggles of early settlers. However, as he had collected several items connected with the Kid, he would take advantage of the Fort Sumner location and call it the "Billy the Kid Museum."

Ed Sweet died in 1974. The Museum and Gift Shop is now operated by Ed's son, Don, who cordially greets visitors from all over the world.

Visiting the museum stimulates further interest in Billy the Kid.

Although everyone has heard of Billy the Kid, few know anything more than the sketchiest details of his life. This is forgivable because most of what we hear is based on myth. Even serious researchers either disagree on events or are unable to discover missing links in the life of the Kid and his family. Add to this time-honored press sensationalism, the tendency to enhance events with passage of time, the fact that there were arguably more fictitious movies based on the Kid's character than on any other single character in history, and, inevitably, the legend of the Kid will be distorted far out of proportion to reality.

Controversy over the Kid's life begins with his birthday. Dates tossed around include Sept. 17, 1859; Nov. 20, 1859; and Nov. 23, 1859.

With no claim to historical accuracy, here are some data that appear to me the most credible.

Irish immigrants Patrick McCarty and Catherine Devine were married June 15, 1851 at the Church of St. Peter in New York City. Their first child, Bridget McCarty, was born in 1853. No further records are available on Bridget's life, possibly due to death or early marriage to an unknown mate.

A second child was born Sept. 17, 1859. A third child, Joseph, was born Oct. 14, 1863.

It is the second child, christened Henry McCarty at the Church of St. Peter in New York City on Sept. 28, 1859, who would one day attain notoriety as Billy the Kid.

Shortly after the birth of the couple's third child, Patrick McCarty died, last listed in the 1863 New York City Directory. Cause of death is unknown. The 1864 New York City Directory lists "Catherine McCarty, widow of Patrick," as head of a family living at 210 Greene St.

Historians draw a blank between 1864 and 1870. An 1868 entry in the Indianapolis City Directory, listing "Catherine McCarty, widow of Michael," raises questions. There is no evidence, however, that this was the widow of Patrick.

The first firmly documented location of the family after 1864 is Wichita, Kansas, where Catherine McCarty was given title to a vacant lot on Sept. 12, 1870. On March 25, 1871, (Henry would have been nearly twelve) she purchased a quarter section of land from William Henry Harrison Antrim, who submitted a statement reading that he had known Catherine McCarty for six years and she was head of a family consisting of two children and is a citizen of the United States.

Those six years would account for the 1864-70 gap.

Next week: Henry gets into trouble.

- John Waelti of Monroe can be reached at His column appears Fridays in The Monroe Times.