By Dixie Boyle • Photos courtesy Dixie Boyle
The small village of Willard, NM, located about 13 miles east of Mountainair on Highway 60, was the first railroad town to boom in Torrance County. Thanks to its source of abundant fresh water, in 1903 the Santa Fe Central Railroad, later renamed the New Mexico Central Railway, designated Willard as a water stop to fill its steam engines and soon built a depot at the site. When the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (AT&SF) Railway built track from east to west, causing the two lines to intersect in Willard and guaranteeing transport in all four directions, the town’s population exploded, with railroad workers, homesteaders, and speculators arriving daily.
According to several local history sources, one of the railroad tycoons who brokered the juncture of the two lines named the town after his son, Willard S. Hopewell. Another excellent source of information on the village is Ferroll Clark Hanlon, who moved to Willard from Illinois in 1910 with her family. She eventually married Henry Hanlon, son to Earl Hanlon, who arrived in the New Mexico Territory in 1907. The Hanlons and Clarks are considered two of Willard’s most notable founding families.
Ferroll Clark Hanlon writes extensively about the boomtown in her book Life on the Range and other Memories: The Early Years in the Estancia Valley and Taos. “When we arrived in Willard,” she notes, “it was a flourishing community. There were three hotels, a restaurant or two, two general stores, a newspaper, drugstore, bakery, blacksmith shop, a livery stable, a couple dance halls, and two or three saloons.” Willard was also home to the first banking institution in the county.
Torrance County was organized in March of 1903 out of the eastern half of Valencia County and portions of Bernalillo and Lincoln Counties. Progresso, located a few miles southeast of Willard, was the first county seat. The Santa Fe Central Railroad sent a passenger car to the location to serve as the courthouse, where the first county officials were sworn in on January 1, 1905. Little has survived at Progresso today, as Willard quickly overtook it as the area’s boomtown. Progresso faded away, and Estancia became the county seat.
Willard was also the site of one of the first Torrance County Fairs, which, as Hanlon describes, did not sit well with the rest of the county: “Willard obtained the state charter for the Torrance County Fair, much to the chagrin of the other towns. The towns of Mountainair and Estancia were so jealous of Willard having the charter, they made fun of it. They called it the Willard Fair and made no effort to participate.”
Regardless, the fair was well-attended and would continue to attract large numbers of attendees. The first county fair sponsored a parade and contest for the best decorated horse and rider, and subsequent fairs would feature foot races, bronc riding, baseball games, and dances. Later, a carnival and circus were included in the agenda. The Santa Fe Central Railroad ran a special train from Santa Fe so people could attend the event, and the First Artillery Band of New Mexico provided the music.
Willard also had a few brushes with history, including with Charles Lindbergh, who rose to fame in 1927 as the first pilot to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1928, Lindbergh was assigned to TAT (Transcontinental Air Transport), one of the first organized airlines and a precursor to TWA, to establish an east–west route across the country and find locations for beacon light towers to guide the pilots on their flights. One of these locations was to be in the Estancia Valley.
When he encountered engine problems near Lucy, a railroad town east of Willard, Lindbergh made an emergency landing. Several people who lived in the area heard the plane go down, and they quickly drove to Lucy to see if they could be of assistance. Lindbergh visited with the homesteaders while repairing the plane. It seems his flight was all anyone could discuss for months afterward, according to Hanlon.
But the boom was not destined to last. First came the Great Deparession, followed by the Dust Bowl. Farms failed and the railroads downsized. For a while, the railroads provided their steady customers with another form of transport to make up for the decrease in service. “They ran a gasoline motorcar over the rails,” Hanlon writes, “and we made some trips to Santa Fe on it, as well as to other places in between. Of course, after the advent of autos, we frequently went by car.”
That was another nail in Willard’s coffin. Not only did automobiles supplant train travel, they also caused problems with horses and livestock when the two met on trails now being used as roadways. “We got out and held the horses by their bridles to keep them from running away in fright,” Hanlon writes. “Sometimes this proved difficult, as they would rear up, whinny and snort, and try to jump forward.” As this new technology supplanted the old, the traditional farming way of life eventually disappeared.
As a result, Willard, like many once booming railroad towns across the country, went bust. As its population declined, it left behind not only abandoned homes, businesses, and farming equipment but also broken dreams. Many residents remained and tried to wait out the drought years, but most left and never returned.
As Willard continued to decline, those remaining in town attempted a comeback by reviving the historic salt trade that had been organized by the Tompiro Indians centuries earlier. An ancient salt lake located a few miles southeast of Willard had been owned by several different homestead families over the years, but none had been able to develop a successful business because, Hanlon writes, “It was a coarse type of salt, fit only for livestock.” Eventually, the Willard Mercantile Store and others relocated to Mountainair, as did much of the remaining population.
Still, Willard has not yet been classified as a ghost town. Although its population currently stands at just 253 and most of its original buildings have been lost, the community continues to support a village government, fire department, and post office. Willard’s Cantina, now reopened as Pack’s Café, continues to thrive, providing locals and travelers with a place to stop, eat, socialize, and enjoy the small-town atmosphere. The café also provides live music on Friday nights, along with a popular catfish dinner. Furthermore, six years ago, Willard residents David Dean and Yolanda Gallegos resurrected a little of Willard’s past by converting the historic Mourfield Mercantile building into a mini-mart and renaming it The Store. Not only does the establishment provide food and other items but it also displays memorabilia from Willard’s past and is an interesting place to take a break from the road.
Could this spell a revitalization of this once-thriving railroad town? Only time will tell.
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