Book looks at the 'Hidden History' of the New Mexico town - Albuquerque Journal

Book looks at the ‘Hidden History’ of the New Mexico town

“Datil: A Hidden History of an Historic New Mexico Town” by Jim Wagner

Datil may be one of the smallest towns in New Mexico, but for Jim Wagner it has a big, sprawling history, a history that takes more than 550 pages to tell.

Wagner is the author of the recently self-published “Datil: A Hidden History of an Historic New Mexico Town.” Datil is located on U.S. 60 between Magdalena and Pie Town in west central New Mexico.

To help the reader better grasp the plethora of information, Wagner divided the book into two volumes. An author-provided reader’s advisory is that the subject of one chapter is presented independent of the subjects of the others. In other words, there’s no continuity of chronology or of topics.

“I’m a reporter, so I think of each of the 40-some chapters as a separate newspaper article. It’s not like a novel, where what happens at the end of the book is related to what happens at the beginning of the book,” said Wagner, an Albuquerque resident.

Jim Wagner

He worked as a newspaper reporter and editor, including 28 years at the Albuquerque Tribune.

Even before the reader arrives at the first chapter of the first volume, a preface poses five questions, the answers of which presumably can be found inside. This is the first question: Did the second version of Datil’s Navajo Lodge indeed double as a brothel?

That question will go unanswered here. Suffice it to say, there were three iterations of the Navajo Lodge. The first iteration was at one time a landmark. According to the book, it had been described as “one of the great lodges of the American West, a marvel of hand-hewn construction.”

Wagner writes that the lodge became an icon in the region: “A guest could enjoy a meal, pay for a room for the night, visit with friends and strangers, and have a grand ol’ time.” He also quotes an article written for the Federal Writers’ Project in 1935 about the lodge. It stated that hogans were erected on site and Navajos wove and sold blankets of wool harvested from their sheep herds.

The lodge was one of two popular places in Datil that served travelers.

The other was the Eagle Guest Ranch.

The first Navajo Lodge burned down in 1944, Wagner writes. The second lodge was apparently built later in the ’40s though it bore no resemblance to the original lodge. Wagner writes that the third version of the Navajo Lodge “began to show a faint pulse of life in late 2019,” though there’s no explanation of what that means.

Navajo Lodge in its three iterations is the subject of one chapter.

Eagle Guest Ranch is the subject of another, also in the first volume.

Other chapter titles in the volume include “Camp Datil, the Military, and Indian Threats,” “Magdalena Livestock Driveway,” and “The Vanished American,” the last-mentioned is about Agnes Morley Cleaveland’s essay on the cowboy. Mentioned in other chapters and in the volume two preface are Wagner’s references to Cleaveland’s 1941 bestselling autobiography “No Life for a Lady,” about life on the frontier in Datil.

“Some said it was the best book of life on the frontier by a woman. Others said by it was the best by any author, male or female,” Wagner said.

Both volumes have lists of names on various topics. For example, volume two has a chapter containing the surnames of some of the people buried in Datil Cemetery, another chapter on the author’s rough ride in search of remote Greens Gap Cemetery. There’s a chapter on what had been Datil National Forest; its name was discontinued when its acreage was transferred to the Gila National Forest. There’s a chapter on a series of missile tests from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s that triggered military-ordered evacuations of Datil.

And there’s a chapter about the community’s Baldwin Cabin Public Library, started in 1999, and located just west of Datil. Wagner credits Linn Kennedy, a library co-founder, for providing him with materials that sparked his interest in writing the first history of Datil.

“Very little, in my opinion, in those two (volumes) is significant. It’s just a collection of hundreds of pieces of information that this retired newspaper reporter thought could be a book,” Wagner said. “Readers tell me it is significant.”

Furthermore, he writes, he did not fact-check the accounts and recollections he quoted. Rather, he trusted they were truthful and accurate.

The tireless Wagner is still gathering random facts and information about Datil and environs. What could be considered volume three exists in his computer, though he’s unsure if it will be printed. “I’m still collecting content for book three. I don’t know. It’s like a locomotive that won’t stop running with an endless supply of coal,” he said.

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