Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Zinc Town: Hanover, New Mexico

Just three miles southeast of Fierro, New Mexico, the town featured last time with back-to-back" posts, is Hanover. Hanover was named by local prospectors for the Hanover Mines near Fierro, which were, in turn, named for Hanover, Germany. Hanover was the hometown of Sofio Henkel/Henkle/Hinkel, who is credited with discovering iron and copper in the area in 1841, but he was forced out by Apaches two years later. More on that story can be found in the initial post on Fierro.

Hanover, however, wasn't known for copper or iron, but zinc. The post office opened in 1892 and operates to this day, although it has moved a few times from its original location. It’s now in the old railroad depot, beside Hanover Creek. But mining didn’t begin in earnest until decades later, and Hanover still lies in the shadow of the massive Empire Zinc Company headframe (shown above), built during the First World War. From WWI through WWII and on into the Cold War, zinc was Hanover’s bread and butter. But then, in the fall of 1950, things got volatile, bringing outside attention to the remote little town.



(Above is a store and previous location of the Hanover Post Office.)

For some time, Hispanic miners had been angry that the Empire Zinc Company, a subsidiary of the New Jersey Zinc Company, paid Anglos more for doing the same work, officially known as “dual wage rates.” Hispanics were also the only ones given the more dangerous underground duties, and were assigned the lowest quality company housing. So, on October 17, 1950, 140 miners walked off the job. These were members of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (aka Mine Mill), whose leadership was suspected of being communist. Then eight months passed.



On the eighth month the strike got even more intense. That’s when the Empire/New Jersey Zinc Company hired strikebreakers and a federal judge issued a restraining order prohibiting further picketing by miners. At that point, the miners’ wives and children took over picketing. Because they were not miners, this was technically not a violation of the restraining order. It’s said the local sheriff was quickly confronted with a “horde of screaming, singing, chanting women and children.” Sixty-two of these women and children, including a one-month-old baby, were jailed until evening on the first day.



The miners’ families continued picketing for another seven months. One wife of a miner said, “Everybody had a gun, except us. We had knitting needles. We had safety pins. We had straight pins. We had chile peppers. And we had rotten eggs.” The strike ended 15 months after it began, in January 1952, with miners receiving a modest wage increase along with life insurance, health benefits, and hot running water in their company homes.

The whole episode resulted in a movie, "Salt of the Earth," released in 1954. Hanover’s name was changed to “Zinctown,” and no filming was done in the real Hanover, although some scenes were shot in Fierro. Actual mine workers played roles similar to those they’d had in real life, carrying sidearms to protect themselves while doing so. That's because the film was written, directed, and produced by members of the Hollywood Ten, a group blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Un-american Activities Committee (HUAC). So, for many years it was almost impossible to actually see the movie due to its perceived communist associations. Now, of course, it’s not very hard at all. The entire thing is on You Tube.



It seems a little late in the day to argue about whether communism played a somehow insidious role in the strike in Hanover. Fifteen years later, the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers would merge with the United Steelworkers of America. But you can imagine that in the early 1950’s there was controversy. Nevertheless, in a shady little corner of a rarely-used bridge at the southern end of Hanover, there’s a plaque dedicated by the Board of Grant County Commissioners, Armando D Galindo, Conn W. Brown, and Zeke P. Santa Maria. It reads:

“This bridge is dedicated to the memory of the Mine Mill Women’s Auxiliary of 1951-1952. These brave women took over the picket line against the New Jersey Zinc Co. after their striking husbands were prohibited from picketing by an injunction. They were shot at, tear-gassed, run over and jailed but they stood strong in support of the International Union of Mine Mill and Smelter Workers.”



We can’t leave Hanover and Fierro without a quick mention of Villas Dry Goods Store No. 2, which used the slogan, “Shoes Ready to Wear.” The old false-front sits on a slight rise above Hanover, just before Fierro, in an area that may once have been a separate community known as Union Hill. And where was Villas Dry Goods Store No. 1, you ask? Why, 150 miles away in El Paso, naturally.



As usual, most of what's in this post was found in "New Mexico’s Best Ghost Towns," “Ghost Towns Alive,” and/or "The Place Names of New Mexico,"

Next time we’ll do one more post from this general vicinity and visit Fort Bayard, a beleaguered outpost originally manned by Buffalo Soldiers to guard against Apache attacks after the Civil War.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Postscript-Maize and the Mexican Mafia: The Graffiti of Fierro, NM



Yesterday’s post on the ghost town of Fierro, NM was heavily historical. In the introduction, I painted a portrait of Fierro as entirely vacant, quiet as a stone, a place where humans rarely tread these days. While that is relatively true, it’s not the entire picture, even aside from services at St. Anthony’s Mission Catholic Church and the occasional family reunion. Fierro does get visited and, judging by the evidence, its visitors are an interesting bunch. So, I thought it would be worth taking a look at who’s been there recently and what they’ve left behind. There might even be something here that'd be useful to know if you’re thinking of making the trip yourself.



Most of the graffiti in Fierro is in the house shown at bottom, which was last owned by the Araujo family, who also operated Araujo’s Grocery in the building next door. The Araujo’s rented the home out, but one person that probably didn’t sign a lease was whoever painted the green wall of skulls and maize set against the backdrop of a mountain shown above. The artist clearly spent some time in Fierro and, in fact, the room was swept clean and full of the evidence of a fairly prolonged stay. That evidence included some unusual reading material, such as a book about the influence of computers on society which lay open to a chapter titled, “The Human Difference.”



Judging by the stencils, it’s possible the same person wrote this stanza on the back of Araujo’s Grocery itself: Las igyanas (sic) vendrán a morder a los hombres que no sueñan. This is a slight rearranging of a line from Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem, Ciudad sin sueño (Nocturno del Brooklyn Bridge), written in 1929-1930. The translation is: “Iguanas will come to bite the men who do not dream.” Lorca’s work is often pretty surrealistic, but, to me, he is inciting his reader NOT to sleep, but to do, in which case being bitten by iguanas is, in fact, a worthy and motivating experience.

Lorca was executed by a firing squad loyal to Spanish fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1936, and appears in The Clash tune Spanish Bombs. (“Federico Lorca is dead and gone.”) The Pogues composed an entire song to him, Lorca’s Novena, in which his corpse walks away. Seeing Lorca’s words as graffiti in a ghost town is quite rare.



Other visitors to Fierro would seem to include members of Sur 13, the Sureños, a prison gang allied with the Mexican Mafia, MS-13, and the Crips. Their tag is visible in the shot above, as well as elsewhere inside the house.



So, while for many ghost towns it is their history that compels, it’s also true that these places have a present and a population of sorts, even if transient. As always, it is only the future which remains uncertain.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Iron Town: Fierro, New Mexico



I might as well stop saying that I’m going to post more often because the more I say it the less I actually post. Maybe I’ll just say that I would like to post more often and leave it at that. Could this be seen as a quality over quantity issue instead? Well, whatever the case, after a couple quiet months let’s finally pay a visit to Fierro, New Mexico, in the southwestern part of the state, a few miles due east of Pinos Altos. For a true ghost town, it’s still got a good number of buildings which, while certainly falling, aren’t completely down and out yet, and it has plenty of lonely charm. All you’re likely to hear while exploring is the occasional sound of wood scraping tin when the breeze picks up and maybe the caw of a crow or two flying overhead.

Fierro is an archaic form of hierro, the Spanish word for “iron,” and iron is the reason the town was born in the first place. The mining history goes back to 1841, when Sofio Henkle (or Hinkle), a German immigrant living in Mexico, went looking for copper deposits. He found both copper and iron on a mountain a few miles north of the big copper mine in Santa Rita and named the mountain and its new mine Hanover, after his former home. The town just a couple miles south of Fierro would also be called Hanover (we’ll go there next time).



Henkle, however, was soon driven out by Apaches and lucky to escape with his life; he’d been warned of an imminent attack by a friendly Apache woman. Henkle returned years later after New Mexico became a U.S. Territory, believing that he’d be alright now that the army was guarding mines. But then the Civil War required most Federal soldiers to head east and Apaches and Confederates started raiding. So Henkle gave up for good and lived the rest of his life in the Mesilla Valley to the south.

As the 19th century wound down, with the threat of Apache raids gone, and the railroad already having arrived at Silver City—about 15 miles southwest—by the early 1880’s, Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I) took an interest in the iron ore deposits of Fierro. A post office was established in 1899, about when the railroad reached Fierro itself, and as much as ten carloads of ore started getting shipped out each day to Pueblo, Colorado, where CF&I were based.



(Above is a home I believe was originally owned by the Bacon family and then the Drakes. Its last owners were the Araujo family, who rented it out.)

The population of Fierro was 750 in 1920 and probably never much over 1,000, even during the peak years between WWI and the start of the Great Depression, by which point six million tons of iron had come from Fierro’s mines. Seventy-eight percent of Fierro’s population was of Mexican descent in 1920, and that percentage increased, reaching the high nineties once the mines closed.

The mines shut down in 1931, although the large Continental Mine ran intermittently and, tragically, in 1947 four miners were killed near it in a “short fuse” accident. While the Cobre Mining Company resumed operations, now with an emphasis on copper, and some residents stayed at least into the 1990’s, Fierro never recovered from the economic blows of the early 1930’s, when people began to leave quickly, many for gold mines in California.



The Gilchrist and Dawson Store, Mrs. Rel’s Rooming House, Filiberto’s Variety Store, McCoy’s Store and post office, John Oglesby’s silent movie house, Sheriff Mac Minter’s pool room; these places were frequented by the miners and their families. Now they’re all gone. Some of them burned in a fire in 1923 when a miner from Mogollon went to sleep at Mrs. Rel’s following a fandango next door and kicked over a kerosene lamp in his room. Without a fire department, and with some buildings even having sidewalks made of wood, much of Fierro’s early commercial district burned fast.

(Below is the Phoenix Mercantile (aka La Tienda del Finicas), which even sold fine furniture. Later it became Araujo’s Grocery and housed the post office. Sitting on the steps waiting for the mail was a common pastime in Fierro.)



Another building of interest is the little jail by the railroad tracks, near the arroyo that runs through the town (pictured below). In Black Range Tales, James McKenna recalled visiting Fierro in the 1880’s and noted that mining towns punished wrongdoers by tying them to a thick log which had been sunk in the earth with eight feet remaining above ground. Normally prisoners would be released once they’d sobered up and/or calmed down. That could easily take all night. Fierro reportedly did away with its log in the early years, even though the sturdy concrete jail probably never held any true desperadoes.



Fierro was known for its love of baseball, with three different fields being used during the town’s history. In the late 1930’s, the team went by the seemingly unusual name “Peru Miners.” Basketball was also popular, with games being played on the school’s dirt court until it was paved in the 1930’s. Fierro even had a Boy Scout troop as late as the 1940’s.

One interesting tradition in Fierro was El dia de las Travesuras, The Day of Pranks, which was a replacement for Halloween. On that night there was no trick-or-treating in Fierro. Instead, kids played pranks, the most common of which was to tip over outhouses. One man spent a night in his outhouse with a shotgun to prevent any hi-jinks, only to have his bathroom toppled anyway when he went back to his house at 2AM for a quick cup of coffee. This never happened to the managers of CF&I as they had indoor plumbing and even electricity. Later, it’s said that a popular prank was swapping around railroad and highway signs, which might cause problems regardless of income bracket.



While Fierro is a ghost town now, two places that are very much alive are St. Anthony’s Mission Catholic Church (above), built in 1916 and later enlarged, and, ironically enough, the cemetery, which covers four acres and is lovingly maintained these days. Aside from regular services, a celebration and mass is still held each year on June 13th, the Feast of St. Anthony, and many of those for whom Fierro remains important meet to reminisce and once again walk the quiet streets of the old place.

Some information for this post came from "New Mexico’s Best Ghost Towns," “Ghost Towns Alive,” and "The Place Names of New Mexico," but the best place to learn about Fierro is “Remembering Fierro (Again) (Revised Edition)” by Frank Ramirez. It’s not very often that an out-of-the-way ghost town has an entire book dedicated to it, but I’m certainly pleased on the rare occasions when it happens. Mr. Ramirez passed away in 2011 and this post is dedicated to him.



Next time we’ll go back just a couple miles south and check out Hanover, NM. (Well, after this little POSTSCRIPT on the graffiti of Fierro.)