Mesilla Plaza history full of twists, turns

Bowlins Mesilla Book
Bowlin’s Mesilla Book Center occupies a part of the Reynolds-Griggs complex, within which people bought animal feed and groceries. The original vigas and latillas comprise the ceilings.
Most of us have shopped in Mesilla or taken guests to explore the plaza. In other places, like Colonial Williamsburg, Mesilla could be considered a living museum. But we know it more for its gift shops, restaurants, and St. Albino’s basilica. Still each building owns a historically rich story. If you don’t know them, pay attention. You’re about to learn.

Mesilla’s life story would satisfy any historian. Suffice it to say, people have lived here for centuries — early agriculturalists in pit houses, Spanish settlers, people thriving from commerce along El Camino Real. After the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, those who wished to remain Mexican migrated to Mesilla. Those who chose to be Americans remained in Doña Ana and newly established Las Cruces. Of course, the Rio Grande has its own plans and, after a flood, had changed course, bringing Mesilla into the United States. The Gadsden Purchased sealed the deal, and Mesilla has remained part of New Mexico.

So, what about the buildings around the plaza? Stand facing south, with your back to St. Albino’s basilica, looking along Calle Principal to your right. The buildings house the Galeria, La Zia, and Del Sol, followed by the zaguan — the covered entrance — to the residence of J. Paul Taylor, and the Reynolds-Griggs store with its unusual pressed-tin facade. All of these belong to Taylor, who told this story about them.

Anastacio Barela, who traded whisky to the Apache for buckskins, amassing wealth, built the adobe home and store in the 1850s. The property was deeded to his wife, Rafaela, as part of a separation agreement when, in 1862, Barela had been forced to leave Mesilla because of his Confederate sympathies. In time, the property on the plaza was sold to J. Edgar Griggs and Charles Reynolds.

The new owners made improvements, including the Italianate Bracketed stamped-metal store front, ordered from a mail order catalog. Its unique facade was the only one in Mesilla and one of few remaining in New Mexico.

Mesilla Plaza
(Top) Buy a sweet in The Chocolate Lady, a building where once you could get a haircut. (Left) Thunderbird gift shop occupies the oldest documented brick building in New Mexico. (Right) Within the bookstore are several of the original fireplaces. When this one was renovated in the 1950s, the owners used decorative tiles around the fireplace. The hearth is constructed of brick from Fort Filmore. (Bottom) Reynolds-Griggs store sports a pressedtin facade, one of the few remaining in New Mexico.
The Reynolds-Griggs store — today home to New Mexico Pecan Company — occupied two adjoining buildings, with a feed and grocery department in the southernmost portion and a dry goods and notions department to the north. When Griggs died in 1877, Reynolds continued to operate the business, eventually passing it down to his son, Charles. In 1903, Charles purchased the Barela store and home, which eventually featured a Territorial-style triangular parapet and pedimented windows and doors.

“Reynolds lost the property through a loan default,” Taylor says. It was acquired in 1913 as a rectory by Father Jean Grange, who hired Valentina McCunniff as housekeeper. She and her daughter, Perla, had fled Mexico during the revolution to oust President Porfirio Diaz.

Eventually, Perla inherited the property and lived there with her husband, a Syrian named Alidib, who left her for another woman. Perla divided the house into five apartments to earn money. Then, in a fit of rage, one of her tenants beat her, dragged her outside, and left her unconscious. Perla survived but never again felt safe in her home.

Taylor explains, “One day she asked us to buy her house, and we decided to do it.” It was a better fit for the growing Taylor family. Perla built a smaller house to the north — now the site of the Galeria and La Zia — and, years later when she decided to rejoin relatives in Mexico, sold that to the Taylors.

Next to the tin-front building is an adobe occupied by Bowlin’s Bookstore. It was part of the Reynolds-Griggs property. The zaguan — blue doorway — to the south leads to a patio surrounded with rooms. Behind it was a barn and a carriage house, where the Barelas managed their stage and freight businesses. The interior of the bookstore, which the Bowlins have operated for more than 30 years, features original fireplaces and vigas and latilla ceilings.

At the end of the block is the Thunderbird gift shop. Between 1860 and 1863, Augustin Maurin, a French emigre and Mesilla merchant, used hand-fired bricks from his own kiln to construct his store. It is the oldest documented brick building in New Mexico. He had planned to add a second story but, in 1866, was murdered in the rear of his store, presumably over money he kept there. Along the roof line, you can see the bricked in partial windows that would have been part of the addition.

Augustin’s heir, Cesar Maurin, inherited the store but wouldn’t own it much longer than Augustin did. Cesar died of natural causes in 1868. Then, another Frenchman, Pedro Duhalde acquired the building. He was a saloon keeper and merchant who was also murdered in the same spot. His wife, Josefa Lucero, operated the business until 1917.

Across Calle de Parien is El Patio Cantina. It was constructed in 1854 and housed the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach office. Following Butterfield’s demise, the building became a saloon owned and operated by Sam Bean and his brother, Roy. While Sam, who besides a businessman was sheriff, was off on business, Roy emptied the safe and fled Mesilla, along with the defeated Texas Confederates in 1862. This is the same Roy Bean who became the “hanging” judge in Langtry, Texas, declaring himself “All the law west of the Pecos.”

Next door is Nambe. This building originally housed newspapers, including the Mesilla News and the Confederate Mesilla Times. Among the prominent publishers who worked in the building was Col. Albert Fountain. His life is well known in Las Cruces. His disappearance in 1896 — and presumed death — remains an unsolved mystery.

Across the street is the Billy the Kid Gift Shop, the pink stucco building. It was built when Mesilla was founded and originally was owned by Narcisco Valencia. He sold it in 1859 to Zanobia Madrid, who — with her husband, Ernest Angerstien — operated a store until after the Civil War.

Following the war, the building became the Doña Ana courthouse and jail. It was here Col. Fountain defended Billy the Kid for the murder of Lincoln County sheriff William Brady. When the county seat moved to Las Cruces, the Florencio Lopez family bought the property and operated a bar and billiard hall until 1913.

For chocolate lovers, any trip to Mesilla requires a stop at The Chocolate Lady. In the early 1900s, this shop was the barber shop of Don Luis Gamboa. It had originally been his father’s house. At the end of the block, where Sun Dancer is, Gamboa’s brother, Ernesto, operated a grocery store well into the 20th century.

In between the two Gamboa properties are the Double Eagle and Peppers restaurants, as well as Starad’s Jewels and Gifts. Constructed in the 1840s, the two buildings served at the capital and the governor’s mansion during Confederate occupation of southern New Mexico. The buildings have been extensively remodeled over the years, but the Ritter family, who owns them, has filled their dining rooms with eye-catching antiques and furnishings.

The next building, set back from the street, is the Freudenthal house. In the Territorial style, it has two rooms to the right and two to the left. The large rooms and high ceilings make this architecture ideal for Southwestern climate. A German immigrant, Freudenthal operated a mining supply store in the front of the house.

We’ve circled Mesilla Plaza, pointing out stories the walls could tell, if only they could talk. There are other buildings, notably La Posta, Fountain Theatre, and Josefina’s Old Gate, but their stories are better known.

Now, when you take outof- town friends and family to Mesilla, you can impress them with your command of Mesilla’s colorful history and satisfy everyone’s curiosity.