Orogrande, N.M., nestled short of the hills of the Jarilla Mountains along US-54 midway between El Paso and Alamogordo, cut its teeth on one of the biggest con games ever pulled off in the Southwest.
Known through its early history as Jarilla Junction it was turned into a hustler's delight when a nugget the size of a man's finger was found in the nearby mountains. Thus Jarilla Junction in 1905 was dubbed Oro Grande — "big gold."
Overnight, the sleepy railroad heading blossomed into 3,000-plus population community with Chicago suckers" herded daily through the nearby hills to "discover" planted gold.
Lots, according to one slick land salesman turned honest, were sold five and six times.
There was also a scheme to bring much-needed water to the town from the nearby Sacramento Mountains, but just when the project supposedly was about to be completed the promoters disappeared.
Perhaps the omen of things to come was established early in the history of the area by a hunchback, S. M. Perkins, who prospected the Jarillas in the 1870s.
He survived a threat from the Apaches after finding gold but for some unknown reason gave up his claim for two barrels of water.
The Southern Pacific rail line, which still runs east of the village, was originally constructed to meet the demands of the cattle barons of the Southwest. One of the most notable of the area was Oliver Lee, who was tried along with two others in 1898 for the murder of Col. A. J. Fountain and his 9-year-old son.
Lee's ranch once sprawled almost the entire basin.
When the mining operations were at their height, the now ghost town of Brice (4 miles east of Orogrande) was the major population center, not Oro Grande, and a railroad spur was constructed to haul the ores out.
Brice, in fact, had the first school in the area, and youngsters from Oro Grande (which has since been turned into one word) attended school there until the 1930s.
While gold captured the imagination of the prospectors, it was iron, turquoise and some silver which actually keep the towns alive.
There is proof a number of local residents lived out the depression; once all mining activity ceased, by panning the draws near the former gold-producing "Nannie Baird" and selling their meager findings to merchant Tom Bell.
Bill Ward, who operated an antique-rock shop, "Rocks and Relics' still has Bell's gold purchase-ledgers. They attest to the fact no big money was made. The largest purchase he recorded was $6.16 for 8 pwt (penny weight), 9 grams.
Ward knows the mountains and many mines of the area. He estimates at least 300 attempts to strike a glory hole dot the Jarillas. He was involved in the past decade's turquoise boom, working some of the Jarilla turquoise which comes in all shades of the spectrum and sold for $5 a pound.
“I got out of the turquoise business just in time." Ward relates. He still carries samples in the store and advertises "chalk" on a sign outside but blames the popularity of Kingman turquoise for the lack of interest in Jarilla.
Ward discounts the idea the Jarilla mining district can make a comeback. It remains rich in iron ore, such as the old diggings at the Iron King, Iron Queen and Iron Duke, but he speculates it would take a major development, such as the world's largest open pit iron mine near Duluth, Minn., "going dry," before the iron fields of Jarilla would be reopened.
Ward has found a measure of contentment in Orogrande and so has Mike Musgrove, owner of My Place. Musgrove came to Orogrande more than five years ago to "find some peace and quiet."
His restaurant in Alamogordo had become a rat race. "It was working my wife and I to death . . . and I'm at an awkward age, too old to work and too young to retire."
"Why Orogrande? "Oh, we looked at a lot of other places, guess because I learned to drink here was one of the reasons we settle here."
Musgrove and his crowd, "we were a bunch of knotheads," liked Juarez best, "You could get bombed there for 50 cents," but it took too long to get there.
The nearly-60-year-old War II veteran loves the folklore of the area and thinks it's a darn shame there's no oldtimers left to relate it.
"How do you get questions answered like where in the hell did they (3,000 residents) get their water? I've always wanted to know."
Musgrove's longing to learn more of the past comes honestly.
His best buddy in high school was Jack Lee, cattle baron Oliver Lee's son. "Mr. Lee didn't have much 'to say when I was around," Musgrove said, recalling about the only thing he heard uttered by the controversial figure was, "Good morning boys. Good afternoon boys. Good evening boys."
Lee, however, made a very favorable impression on Musgrove. "His life has never been written properly," he contends.
He likes to tell of Lee, slightly built, looking more like a college professor than what history has tried to turn him into.
"He was neat, well-groomed and could ride across the desert and still look immaculate."
Musgrove has his own idea on grocer Tom Bell. "You can pan around and find color (gold) — just enough to starve to death," he contends. He's sure Bell took pity on the gold panners of the 30s and gave them much more than they deserved for their gold. "He probably broke even, at best," Musgrove contends.
Besides Oliver Lee, Musgrove's connections with the past make for some interesting tales. As a lad, Musgrove used to sit in awe at the stories Uncle John Meadows of Tularosa used to tell.
Uncle John, who died in 1937, was married to Pete Maxwell's daughter, Mary (it was in Maxwell's bedroom Pat Garrett supposedly shot Billy the Kid).
Musgrove said Uncle John's wife was very vocal in her denial her sister had anything to do with Billy. "She was a beautiful woman and had her pick of men. My sister wouldn't have spit on his boots," Musgrove quotes Mary Maxwell Meadows.
One of the few life-long residents remaining in Orogrande is Isabell Rumsey, postmistress. She was born here. The job has been hers since 1960 and she is proudest of the fact that she straightened out seven-day mail service to El Paso which now takes two or three days at the most.
Her father, Harry Hamilton, and grandfather, W. A., worked on the railroad. Both had a hand in building and maintaining the spur which ran to Brice.
She bemoans the lack of interest in the old town. "All I do is come here, do my work, and go home," she laments.
"There's a community center meeting once every three months, but no one ever attends."
The Fourth of July was so dead here Musgrove closed his bar, rather than talk to himself, and took a two-day vacation.