Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
WINSTON – “It’s a religious experience,” the man said as he handed over his money to Deana Ortega, cashier at the Winston General Store.
If you had any doubts that you can buy almost anything you need at this picturesque retail outlet in rural Sierra County, overhearing that transaction on a recent weekday afternoon might well have dispelled your reservations.
The Winston General Store sells fuel, feed for livestock, lumber, leather goods, groceries, snacks, cigarettes, rifles, toiletries, bandages, bows and arrows, hunting knives and pocket knives, propane, a pulled-pork sandwich, soft drinks, handguns, silverware, cookware, cowboy hats, dish towels, throw pillows, sweatshirts, socks, coffee mugs and much more, including, apparently, spiritual encounters.
Actually, the customer at the cash register was paying for an $8.50 baptism in one of the store’s clean, roomy and handsomely-appointed shower facilities. If you have just spent four days hunting elk in the nearby mountains, cleaning up as best you can with nothing more than bottled water and a old sock, a hot shower at the Winston General Store might seem like divine intervention.
Not just retro
Winston is a community of five dozen people. Measured in driving distance, it is 38 miles northwest of Truth or Consequences, 107 miles southeast of Reserve, 80 miles southwest of Magdalena and 124 miles northeast of Silver City.
That makes the Winston General Store – depending on if you are an area rancher, a weekend sightseer or a hiker, camper or hunter – a daily necessity, a last chance or an oasis in the wide-open spaces.
“We always stop for something, whether it is the bathroom or a soda,” said Pablo Herrera, 30, of Las Cruces, who had been hunting elk near Winston with three friends. “We are glad they are here.”
Owner Tessa Lack said the Winston General Store dates back to the 1930s in its present location and back to the 1880s before that. In a lot of places, the store might seem like a throwback to the days before supermarkets, convenience stores and Walmart. But in Sierra County, which has only 11,000 residents and a population density of less than three persons per square mile, the store is not just some retro curiosity. It is an integral part of community life. Lack said that on a busy day, 150 people will pass through the store.
Brandon Muniz, 25, a cowboy on a ranch five miles north of Winston, said he is at the store more days than not.
“I’ve bought guns, knives, snacks, dishes and hunting stuff,” Muniz said. “We get salt and cake (for cattle), lumber, everything here. Even if there was another store nearby, this place would do good because it has everything you need.”
Can’t be closed
Founded as a mining community called Fairview in the early 1880s, Winston was renamed in 1929 in tribute to local mercantile business owner Frank Winston.
Today Winston and its general store sit on NM 52. Unfenced cattle graze along the shoulders of the two-lane highway, which turns to dirt just northwest of Winston and mostly stays that way for about 60 miles before intersecting with US 60 near the Very Large Array observatory.
For motorists unfamiliar with the area, the long distances between essential needs and services and the rugged road conditions, it’s not unusual to get in a bind – especially during bad weather.
“People don’t take into consideration food and fuel when they go for a weekend drive,” Lack, 55, said.
That’s one reason why – except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and Easter – the Winston General Store is open daily, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. June 1 to Nov. 15, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 16 to May 31.
Lack’s husband, Randy, 60, said they considered closing one day a week.
“But what day do you close,” he said. “You don’t want to leave people stranded.”
“When people rely on you, you can’t be closed,” Tessa said.
Tessa, who is from Luna in Catron County, and her late husband, Rick Carr, bought the store nearly 25 years ago.
“My husband knew the man who owned the store,” she said. “He was going to sell it, and we came to look at it.” She said she got a good feeling about the place.
“God just gave me a peace,” she said. “Sometimes you just feel like you are meant to be somewhere. Some people search all their life for a place they feel comfortable in. I always felt this was the place for me. It’s the area. It’s the people. I like knowing everybody.”
Winston, which backs up to the mountains of the Black Range, is touted as the “Gateway to the Gila National Forest,” and the influence of the great outdoors is apparent in the general store. Open any of the three doors leading into the place and instead of a bell chime you’ll hear the sound of a bull elk bugling. The magnificent heads of elk and deer, all of them taken either by Tessa or by Randy, hang on the store’s walls.
Hunting season is a busy time at the Winston General Store, which does its best to meet the needs of hunters. In addition to showers, soap and linens included, the store provides a walk-in cooler for hanging game meat for $15 a day, has a coin-operated laundromat and rents out a rustically regal cabin with sleeping room for five, a bathroom and fully-equipped kitchen.
Angel Baquera, 56, of Arrey, his wife, Yvette, and some friends were staying at the cabin on a recent Monday night. Yvette had a tag for an elk and only until Wednesday to take the animal.
“This is our only stop,” Angel said. “We get fuel, propane and ice, and we are staying in the cabin just one night.”
Because it’s here
Mike Maher, 70, of Vernon, Arizona, and his wife, Dutch, 69, were hiking the area around Winston when they discovered the Winston General Store. Mike bought a cap.
“We just looked at the map and said ‘Let’s try (Highway) 52,'” Mike said. “We just wing it. That’s the best way to travel. And we just stopped here because it is here.”
Just being here is what the Winston General Store is all about.