Writer: Kevin Robinson-Avila
SANTA ROSA - Interest in Billy the Kid has grown since a teenage Victor Flores dug one of the outlaw's alleged bullets from a porch post at the family inn at Puerto de Luna and sold it to a tourist for $5 back in 1942.
Tourism promoters at New Mexico State University are banking on Billy the Kid stories like Flores's to attract tourists to small Pecos River communities such as Puerto de Luna, south of Santa Rosa, 126 years after the notorious outlaw's death.
"Everybody in town always said the Kid came out of the bar drunk and shot the hat off a cowboy standing on the porch at the inn," said Flores, now 79. "The bullet was lodged in that wooden post for decades. I dug it out when I was 16 years old and my dad sold it for $5. That was a lot of money back then."
Flores' story, part of the colorful Billy the Kid lore rampant in these parts, helped inspire a travel writers tour Aug. 17-19 in Guadalupe and De Baca counties, organized by NMSU's Rural Economic Development Through Tourism (REDTT) project.
"Billy the Kid spent a lot of time in Puerto de Luna and all along the Pecos River," said Gino Lujan, program director for NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service in Guadalupe County. "With help from REDTT, we want to promote life along the Pecos as Billy the Kid saw it in his day. Billy's a big draw for tourists, and places like Puerto de Luna still look a lot like they did when Billy the Kid was alive."
The REDTT program, which began in 1992, aims to boost economic development in rural areas by promoting local tourist attractions. Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, REDTT offers technical assistance, training and grants to 17 New Mexico counties to encourage tourism in those areas.
Guadalupe and De Baca counties teamed up to apply for a grant that's funding the travel writers tour.
"Writers from New Mexico and other states will tour historic landmarks, museums and outdoor recreation areas for three days in the Ft. Sumner and Santa Rosa areas," said Nancy Cordero, a REDTT program coordinator. "We organized the tour against the backdrop of Billy the Kid because the folklore inspires vivid images of the Old West that come to life through historic monuments that dot the landscape."
Participants will visit Puerto de Luna and the Grzelachowski House -– the inn now owned by Flores where Billy the Kid frequently stayed before his death in 1881. The inn, which the Polish immigrant Alexander Grzelachowski built in 1870, included a general store and cantina when Billy the Kid was alive.
"Billy was legend here," said Flores, who inherited the Grzelachowski House when his father died in 1965. "My dad said he saw Billy at the general store when he was a kid. Billy had a lot of friends here and when things got too hot in Lincoln, he would come here to hide out and cool off."
Grzelachowski was a good friend of the Kid. In fact, on Christmas Day 1880, Grzelachowski served Billy his last Christmas dinner there, along with Sheriff Pat Garrett and his posse, who were taking Billy to trial in Las Vegas.
Although its authenticity is not formally documented, Flores proudly shows visitors the hole where Billy's alleged bullet was lodged. And, until recently, Flores hosted an annual reenactment of Billy's last Christmas dinner at the inn –- a historical gem that state officials have nominated for the National Register of Historic Places. Four of the original 10 rooms have collapsed, but the remaining rooms remain in good shape and are stocked with antique furniture and Old West paraphernalia.
Tour participants will also visit the Rt. 66 Car Museum, Santa Rosa Lake and the "Blue Hole," one of a dozen deep-water, spring-fed lakes in the area.
In Ft. Sumner, where Sheriff Garrett killed the Kid, writers will tour the local Billy the Kid Museum and the Kid's gravesite, said Rex Buchman, Extension program director in DeBaca County. Ft. Sumner hosts an annual Old Fort Days festival in June, which features "tombstone races" where people carry headstones to compete for cash prizes -– a tradition started by frequent thefts of Billy the Kid's tombstone in past decades.
Writers will visit Ft. Sumner State Monument and Bosque Redondo, and tour Ft. Sumner Lake by boat. Johnny Boggs, a nationally known historical fiction writer and contributor to True West Magazine, will offer a history talk about Billy's adventures along the Pecos River.
"Billy helps tourists relive history," Buchman said. "Billy's the one thing that's internationally known about our area. He's a great vehicle to bring in tourists and get people of all ages interested in history."
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