By Dixie Boyle • Black and white photos courtesy of Dorothy Cole Collection
Countless stories have been written about Pop Shaffer, the Shaffer Hotel, and Rancho Bonito, Shaffer’s art-deco-style guest ranch south of Mountainair. Yet, the contributions of his wife, Lena Shaffer, have been largely overlooked or briefly mentioned. She not only suggested the construction of the hotel but volunteered to run it as well. It was largely due to Lena Shaffer’s innovative ideas, friendly personality, and hard work that the Shaffer Hotel and its dining room became a popular destination for those looking for food and lodging during Mountainair’s early years.
Lena Shaffer was born Lena Imboden in Missouri in 1892, but her family moved soon afterward to a homestead near Bloom, Kansas, where she spent her childhood. By 1900, the Imbodens had filed on a homestead claim six miles north of Mountainair, where they settled into a life of pinto bean farming during the boom years when Mountainair was known as the Pinto Bean Capital of the World. Lena would later settle on her own homestead, where she lived alone for part of the year in order to receive legal claim to the land.
Lena’s future husband, Clem Shaffer, left Lawton, Oklahoma, in 1903, citing one too many tornadoes as the reason for the move. He had a friend in Mountainair who wanted to sell his blacksmith shop, and Shaffer decided to travel to New Mexico Territory and look over the town and business. He later sent for his first wife, Pearl, and their two children, Mildred and Donald, who had stayed behind in Oklahoma. Three years later, Pearl became ill with pneumonia and passed away.
When she was young, Lena was known as a “country belle” and had more than one young man interested in marrying her. She had accepted the proposal of a local boy, but he passed away during an influenza epidemic. A year later, she and Clem Shaffer were courting. At first, they would meet at one of the local dances held each week in Mountainair or at one of the surrounding towns. Later, the couple was seen taking buggy rides on Sunday afternoons. In the beginning, Lena, still in mourning over her deceased fiancé, was not overly interested in starting a relationship with Shaffer, but he eventually won her affections. The couple was married in July 1912 and had a son named Martin the following year. Martin would go on to become a well-known professional artist, who settled in Taos and opened Shaffer Studios there in the 1940s. Clem Shaffer was often heard saying that Lena was the best mother he could have ever found for his children.
As was the case with many frontier communities, Mountainair had more than its share of fires, and Clem Shaffer’s Blacksmith Shop burned to the ground in 1922. He decided to rebuild in the same location and add a hardware store and implement house to the property. Lena Shaffer suggested he also open a hotel on the second floor and add a dining room on the ground floor to accommodate their guests. The hotel was completed in 1923 and the dining room in 1929. It quickly became one of the most popular locations to dine and stay the night in Torrance County.
Lena Shaffer was described by those who knew her as a friendly, outgoing woman who made everyone feel comfortable and welcome. When she was not working at the hotel or café she tended a vast flower garden she had planted on the west side of the hotel. She took friends and neighbors bouquets of flowers when they were not feeling well or had lost a loved one.
She was an energetic person who turned the hotel and restaurant into a thriving business. She did all the cleaning and cooking, and sold T-bone steaks for 50 cents and two eggs cooked any way for 15 cents. All types of bean dishes were found on the menu, including bean pie and bean casserole. The dining room also offered a family-style special at 65 cents for adults and 40 cents for children. The establishment became so popular at times that if guests did not arrive early, they had to find lodging elsewhere.
To make extra money after dinner had been served, Lena Shaffer rented out the dining room, including the piano and phonograph, for $2 a night. Many times, musicians staying at the hotel played for guests. The most famous musician to play for the group was Harmon Nelson, Jr., actress Bette Davis’s first husband and high school sweetheart. He stopped at the hotel in 1930 while on his way to Boston to marry Davis. Lena Shaffer prepared breakfast for his group in the wee hours of the morning. Eventually, the hotel started holding Saturday evening dances, which were popular and well attended.
Clem Shaffer might have been the life of those parties, but he was not the easiest man to live with. He enjoyed drinking whiskey, carousing with his friends, and even going on drinking sprees to distant cities for weeks at a time, leaving Lena behind to run the business. More than once, she locked him into a downstairs room until he sobered up and stopped disturbing the guests. One story tells of an intoxicated Shaffer shooting a bullet into the roof of the hotel lobby before Lena could wrestle the gun from him.
After Shaffer built his colorful guest ranch, which he named Rancho Bonito, he spent most of his time there, greeting tourists and creating his unique style of animal artwork, which he made from found wood. He vowed he would create at least 1,000 pieces before his death. Reportedly, Lena didn’t appreciate her husband’s talent and sold most of his collection to a roadside attraction in southern Arizona after his death.
Lena Shaffer has never received the credit and appreciation she deserves for the development, success, and management of Mountainair’s Shaffer Hotel. Not only was she loyal to her wandering husband in spite of his vices, she was also dedicated to running a top-notch hotel and ensuring the satisfaction of her guests. She was always busy and was fondly remembered and loved by those who knew her. She was not one to complain and was always willing to lend a hand or make the hotel and café more inviting for guests.
Lena passed away in 1978 in Mountainair, at the age of 86. She is buried in the Mountainair Cemetery next to Clem. That the hotel remains a beloved piece of both local and national history is due in large part to her efforts, as well as to the love and devotion of the people of Mountainair and Torrance County.
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