This “Little Smithsonian” Is Worth The Drive
Written and photography by Rob McCorkle
Let’s face it spending time prowling around a musty museum typically doesn’t rank at the top of most travel itineraries when visiting a new destination. Shopping, sightseeing, recreation, dining, and drinking at the local “watering hole” tend to win out.
However, as my wife and I discovered on our first sojourn to Deming, there can be a worthwhile exception to the rule. After cruising through downtown and along the manicured main thoroughfares of this historic railroad town, we found ourselves on South Silver Street in front of a red brick edifice erected in 1916 as an armory to house National Guard troops; shortly after Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and his banditos staged a deadly raid that same year in Columbus 32 miles to the south. The impressive, two-story building resides on the National Register of Historic Places.
Charles Crocker, president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, named the town after his wife’s family surname. Southern Pacific crews from the west and Santa Fe Railroad track builders from the east met in Deming, the midpoint of the Transcontinental Railroad, on March 18, 1881 to drive a silver spike that marked the completion of the railroad’s southern route.
The sign outside the two-story Deming Luna Mimbres Museum proclaimed that we stood before “The Little Smithsonian” that attracts many Native American historians who come to see “one of the world’s largest displays of Mimbres pottery.” We descended the concrete stairs to the museum entrance to challenge that seemingly hyperbolic claim by seeing for ourselves.
The DLMM houses a host of exhibits that seek to portray the everyday lives of the citizens of Deming and the Mimbres River Valley. Mission accomplished. Visitors can spend hours wandering among the world-class collections of local early 20th century memorabilia, ancient Native American pottery and arrowheads, Old West artifacts, hundreds of sparkling geodes, and other curiosities typically found only in large municipal museums. The museum clearly represents one of southern New Mexico’s most impressive and best-kept secrets.
The Deming Historical Society purchased the former USO and National Guard Armory building in 1975 and operates it in tandem with the Custom House across the street that occupies the Seaman Fields home, one of the town’s many historic homes dating to the late 19th century. Visitors expecting a dimly lit, dusty collection of relics housed in an uninspired setting will be pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness and attention to detail exhibited throughout the renovated 25,000 square foot structure. A cadre of dedicated volunteer docents, many of them snowbirds who ended up making Deming their home, keeps costs down and entry to the museum free. Donations are welcomed.
Priceless artifacts of the earliest inhabitants of southwestern New Mexico—a arrowheads, arrow shafts and spear points (Folsom, Brown’s Valley and Plainview points)—provide insight into the area’s earliest primitive cultures. A 20,000-year-old Yuma point and Blanco point 8,000 to 10,000 years old found west of Hatch stand out among the hundreds of priceless archeological treasures.
An entire room is dedicated to the Mimbres Indians, an agrarian pueblo culture that flourished in the Mimbres Valley between 550 and 1100 A.D. Using fibers of the yucca leaf, chewed to a fine point to paint their designs, the Mimbres potters developed a distinctive style of black on white, and red on white pottery decorated with geometric patterns and naturalistic designs of rabbits, frogs, and other animals. Rustic hand-molded pots, pottery shards, and other ancient artifacts line the display cases. The adjacent hallway contains a collection of fine Native American baskets crafted by the Hopis and Apaches, hand-woven Indian blankets, and Navajo rugs.
In the Western area, we strolled the “streets” of pioneer Deming, which contains the city’s first traffic light, a jail cell from the city’s old jailhouse and storefront scenes of yesteryear. A restored Wells Fargo stagecoach proves a show-stopper. Meticulously recreated in this section of the museum are a turn-of-the-20th century barbershop, dentist’s office, lawyer’s office, and other businesses.
Nearby, a fully rigged chuck wagon from Luna County’s Diamond A Ranch transports visitors to1880s and days of the Western cattle drives. Do you know the difference between a chuck wagon and a hoodlum wagon? I certainly didn’t.
Chuckwagons, which were pulled by four horses driven by the camp cook and his “flunkies,” carried food and cooking utensils. Hoodlum wagons were drawn by four mules and carried the cowboys’ bedrolls, weapons, and other gear. Just beyond the wagons, you’ll find a well-preserved Crane, Breed and Co. hearse used from 1893 to 1909.
Old West aficionados will want to peruse the Tack Room. On display are hand-tooled saddles and sidesaddles, considered proper for women in frontier days. Here, too, are a myriad of cowboy hats of distinguished Luna Country ranchers of the 20th century.
I found myself mesmerized by a collection of vintage photos and historical accounts of The Race. It seems that in 1888, several citizens imbibing in a Silver City bar were debating whether a horse could outrace a new-fangled velocipede, a high-wheeled bicycle known as an “ordinary” in that era’s vernacular, over an extended distance. On the historic 50-mile race from Silver City to Deming over rocky roads and through a sandy riverbed, the equine prevailed, winning the $1,000 prize.
But, by far the museum’s most unanticipated and quirkiest display turned out to be Albert Fabian’s donated collection of more than 2,000 beer steins and whiskey decanters depicting real and fictional characters. An oversized Old Crow chess set, and the likenesses of Laurel and Hardy, Robert E. Lee, King Arthur, John Hancock, Ben Franklin and dozens of Elvis decanters fill dozens of display cases that demand the visitor’s attention.
With hunger pangs growing hard to ignore after our more than two-hour morning ramble through the museum, we decided the second-story Lace & Quilt Room and exhibits of additional Mimbres pottery, bells, cameras, Victrolas, nutcrackers, and other curiosities will have to wait until a future date with Deming.
The sign outside the two-story Deming Luna Mimbres Museum proclaimed that we stood before “The Little Smithsonian” that attracts many Native American historians who come to see “one of the world’s largest displays of Mimbres pottery.”
+4 More Museums Exhibiting the Old West
Written by Ashley M. Biggers
New Mexico State University Museum
This museum is a repository for archeological materials excavated by faculty and staff, so it boasts an impressive collection of items from prehistoric sites—including the earliest domesticated corn in the American Southwest collected from caves in the Organ Mountains. Its Pottery from the Americas collection includes almost 600 vessels that reflects a range of artistry from the Southwest to Mesoamerica.
Kent Hall, 1280 E. University Ave.
Geronimo Springs Museum
This museum’s permanent displays include a Southwestern pottery collection, mostly in the graphic Mimbres and Tularosa sides, some dating to 200 AD. A life-size wax statue of Geronimo greets visitors to the Apache room and is accompanied by an impressive arrowhead display and other elements of apache life. A cabin, which was dismantled from the Black Range Mountains and painstakingly reconstructed, stands at one end of the museum reflecting the area’s mining past and exhibiting some tools from that era.
211 Main St., Truth or Consequences
Hubbard Museum of the American West
A dramatic eight-piece bronze sculpture by Dave McGary, “Free Spirits at Noisy Water,” greets visitors to this Smithsonian-affiliated museum (the only in the state). 2017 marks its 25th year of exhibiting both art and artifacts of the West. The core collection includes modes of transportation—including stagecoaches and a Conestoga wagon—and rifles. Revolving exhibitions have touched on Native American pottery and the paintings of the Wyeth-Hurd family.
26301 U.S. 70, Ruidoso Downs
Western Heritage Museum & Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame
This general history museum traces the region’s past from the days to dinosaurs to when homesteaders struck black gold in 1927. Founded by Lea County rancher and professional roper Dale “Tuffy” Cooper, the Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame celebrates in photos, bios, and mementos (like saddles and spurs), the county’s outsized rodeo successes. An animatronic cowboy greets visitors ‘round the campfire and answers questions about cowboying—from cattle drives to life on the range.
1 Thunderbird Circle, Hobbs
The Old West exhibits don’t stop here.
Visit LasCrucesMagazine.com/OldWestMuseums to discover more museums in the area you won’t want to miss including the Silver City Museum and the Pancho Villa State Park and Railroad Depot Museum in Columbus, NM.