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For ‘Days Gone By’ in New Mexico

December 31, 2020

Today is New Year’s Eve and the haunting melody of Auld Lang Syne fills my head like a persistent earworm. The song is from an old Robert Burns’ poem, and its Scottish title translates to ‘Days Gone By.’ The last day of the year is a day to think of times past.

Few things remind me more of ‘days gone by’ than the remote town of Reserve, New Mexico (population 289) in Catron County among the west-central mountains of that state. A 1952 portrait of the old Catron County sheriff paints a vivid description of law and order in ‘days gone by’ in the rural West:

Sheriff Frank Balke of Catron County, New Mexico

Note the pearl-handled revolver and the belt made of rattlesnake hide. Sheriff Balke served three different stints as county sheriff in the 1930s and 1940s. His portrait hangs in the courthouse below, built in 1968 after Sheriff Balke’s times were themselves ‘days gone by’:

Catron County Courthouse. Reserve, New Mexico. Note the ‘Go Get Em Mountaineers!’ banner on the wall.

Catron County New Mexico has a population of less than 4,000, and that hasn’t changed much over the past few decades. The people here are a mixture of Hispanics and Anglos who settled the country along the San Francisco River in the late 1800s. The San Francisco River is an upper tributary of the Gila River, which flows westward through southern Arizona to meet the Colorado. The main town in the county is the village of San Francisco Plaza, but the county seat is the nearby town of Reserve, formerly known as Upper Frisco. Reserve was so named for the various Forest Reserves nearby (now called National Forests).

Reserve is the site of the siege of Elfego Baca, a local lawman who held off a gang of Texan cowboys seeking to kill him for arresting their fellow cowboy on a charge of drunkenness. The affair took place in December 1884 and became known as the Frisco Shoot-out. Badly outnumbered, Baca holed up in an adobe house as dozens of cowboys shot hundreds of holes into its walls. Baca was not wounded even once, while managing to kill four of his attackers during a siege lasting 33 hours.

What’s interesting about ‘days gone by’ in this instance is that fundamental facts are elusive — “Deputy” Baca may or may not have been an authorized lawman at all and the number of cowboys he held off varies from 40 up to 80. Many claim that the cowboys put over 4,000 holes into the adobe walls sheltering Elfego Baca. Regardless of how many bullet holes there were, the holes were real — they served as evidence in Baca’s acquittal at trial for murder.

Mural depicting the Frisco Shoot-out. Reserve, New Mexico

A statue of Elfego Baca stands at the center of town, and an historical plaque explains the circumstances of his fame:

Statue of Elfego Baca in Reserve, New Mexico
Historical plaque explaining the events of the Frisco Shoot-out. Reserve, New Mexico
Painting of Elfego Baca on a front door. Reserve, New Mexico

I was last here in December of 2012. Back then the “downtown” area of Reserve consisted of the county courthouse, a Mexican restaurant, a breakfast cafe, a small bank, two general merchandise stores, and a bar called Uncle Bill’s. It probably hasn’t changed much since then, nor had it probably changed much in ‘days gone by’ before 2012.

Ella’s Cafe. Reserve, New Mexico
The Black Gold Emporium: Gas, groceries, video rentals, etc. Reserve, New Mexico
Frisco Stables collectibles and visitor center, next to the Wild West Coffee Company. Reserve, New Mexico
Uncle Bill’s Bar. Reserve, New Mexico
Gas prices in 2012: $3.87 unleaded and $4.46 diesel. Reserve, New Mexico
Downtown traffic and mountains beyond. Reserve, New Mexico

All photos taken by the author. Photos taken either on January 25, 2007 or on December 12, 2012.

A list of all photo posts from the American County Seats series in TimManBlog can be found here.

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