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Cultural ambassador: Erna Fergusson left her mark on New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Erna Fergusson Library, just north of Comanche on San Mateo, serves as a gateway to a large city park and a public pool.

Thousands of city dwellers drive by it every day, but a swift encounter offers very little in the way of history. The library pays tribute to native New Mexican Erna Fergusson, an internationally known writer who shed light on cultures around the world and gave readers a peek into the state’s unique cultural makeup. Clark Powell dubbed Fergusson the “First Lady of New Mexico Letters” in a 1962 New Mexico Magazine article he wrote about her.

Erna Fergusson Library in Northeast Albuquerque. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Born into privilege, Fergusson began appearing in society columns at a young age. Her grandfather was Franz Huning, an adventurous man who immigrated to the United States from Germany. He was a successful merchant and developer who helped bring the railroad to Albuquerque and platted Huning Highland, the city’s first subdivision. Her father was Alabama native Harvey Fergusson who became a prominent New Mexico attorney and was selected as the New Mexico territorial delegate to Congress. He became New Mexico’s first congressman when it became a state in 1912. Good friends with Franz Huning, Fergusson married Huning’s daughter Clara Mary in 1887.bright spot

Erna Fergusson was born in Old Town a year later on Jan. 10, 1888.

She spent her childhood traveling, attending birthday parties of prominent Albuquerque families and visiting her grandfather’s mansion, Huning Castle, which sat on 700 sprawling acres along Central Avenue. She traveled to Washington, D.C., with her father when she was just 9 years old. At the age of 18, she left New Mexico and spent a year touring Europe with her grandmother Ernestine Huning.

Erna Fergusson dressed in costume for a George Washington birthday party, 1898.

Despite her charmed life, Fergusson did not rest on her privilege. Her time was used either in the service of others or trying to bring a better understanding of the state’s cultural nuances. She was fluent in Spanish and shortly before her death she lamented the loss of the language amongst the more recent generations. Her 1931 book “Dancing Gods” offered a look at the history, ceremonies, rituals and dances of Native American communities in New Mexico and Arizona. She wrote the book after experiencing those things first-hand as she traveled and explored her home state.

Fergusson started her career as a teacher with Albuquerque Public Schools in 1907, and would go on to earn bachelor’s degree in pedagogy in 1912 from the University of New Mexico followed by a master’s in history from Columbia University in 1913. She continued to teach until World War I, which diverted the course of her life. She worked locally for both the Red Cross and Salvation Army, traveling the state assisting families of soldiers. After the war, she spent a year as a reporter at the Albuquerque Herald and started a “dude wrangling” business named Koshare Tours with Ethel Hickey, a faculty member from UNM. The women offered guided tours of local pueblos and the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and Arizona. They sold the business to the legendary Fred Harvey but it was this period that is believed to have ignited her desire to research the different heritages of New Mexico.

Her book “New Mexico: A Pageant of Three Peoples” was written in 1951 and explored the Spanish, Anglo and Native traditions in New Mexico. She even claimed that her Native American friends named her Shikya-wa-nim, Beautiful Swift Fox, after her footrace victory during an annual Snake Dance at Hopi Pueblo.

She would write several books in her lifetime and UNM granted her a doctorate of letters in 1943, the first woman ever to receive that honor from the institution. She would also help found the Albuquerque Historical Society, known as the Old Town Historical Society, in 1947.

Erna Fergusson in front of the Franciscan Hotel at Sixth Street and Central Ave. during 1940 Coronado Cuarto Centennial parade.

Erna Fergusson was actually the first name I wrote on my list when I started compiling ideas for my column. I only had a vague awareness of who she was. One of the great things my Mom did was take us to the library on a regular basis. We spent a lot of time at the main library Downtown, but the one closest to where we lived, and the one we visited the most, was the Erna Fergusson branch. My elementary brain had no idea what an Erna Fergusson was but I thought it was fancy sounding. I moved from the neighborhood by middle school but that name always stuck with me.

Her grandfather’s opulent mansion was demolished in 1955, but Fergusson’s historic home, La Glorieta, which was across the street from Huning Castle, still stands and is now part of the Manzano Day School campus. La Glorieta was Franz Huning’s first home but he gifted it to Fergusson’s mom, Clara Mary, when she married Harvey Fergusson.

Erna Fergusson on a balcony, most likely in Mexico. Unspecified date. (Courtesy of Center For Southwest Research, University Of New Mexico)

Fergusson died on July 30, 1964. The following day the Albuquerque Journal noted: “New Mexico has suffered a deep loss in the death of Miss Erna Fergusson, dean of women authors in this area … Miss Fergusson’s literary talents had carried her fame – and authoritative knowledge of this state – throughout the nation.”

Two years later, the city opened its sixth library location and named it after her. The library was remodeled in 2003 and stands not only as a monument to a pioneering New Mexican, but it’s a symbol of her impassioned pursuit of knowledge and the desire to share it with others.

Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email staff writer Elaine Briseño at or 505-823-3965 as she continues the monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?”


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