Blaze at New Mexico Ghost Town Haunts Remaining 2 Residents


Janaloo Hill did not go up the slope to her parents' graves for the two weeks after the fire.

Too early to visit, the pain too fresh, the guilt too intense.

It was nobody's fault. Still, she couldn't shake the feeling that she had let her parents down.

How could she climb that slope and tell her mother and father that a rich chunk of the New Mexico history they had put so much of their lives into preserving--that she had put so much of her own life into preserving--was gone?

"In a way, it's like losing my parents all over again," she said. "Because I lost so many of the things that meant so much to them."

On April 10, a fire destroyed several buildings in this historic ghost town and cattle ranch near Lordsburg in southwestern New Mexico.

Among the losses: a general merchandise store that dated back to the late 1800s and housed a wealth of books, articles, tapes, research materials, antiques, pictures, paintings and maps--things Hill and her parents had devoted years to collecting and keeping.

Hill saved three boxes before she was barred from dashing back into the inferno. Almost everything else in the building was lost.

"I felt like I could have gotten one more load," she said.

"I felt somehow I should have prevented it," said Hill, her words stumbling over her sobs. "I'm not sure how. But when you're resting, trying to sleep, your mind keeps going over it, 'If only, if only, if only.' "

Hill's earliest memories are of playing in the store's big room, scant on furniture, but beautiful anyway, and of riding horses and working cattle on the Shakespeare ranch.

Her parents, Frank and Rita Hill, bought the mining town in 1935 after the Depression choked off their small cattle-ranching operation in Separ, 25 miles east.

At first, they were too busy trying to scratch out a living to concern themselves with Shakespeare's history.

But as they settled in, people started coming around and telling them about their home.

"They'd say, 'This happened when I was a little kid,' or, 'When I was freighting through here in the '60s, there were soldiers in that building,' " Hill said.

Shakespeare started off in the 1850s as Mexican Springs, a stage and water stop along the trail to California. Its name was changed to Grant in the 1860s to honor the Union's Civil War hero, but after a big silver strike in the 1870s, it became Ralston City in tribute to the California banker who capitalized on the silver rush.

It would still be Ralston City if there had been as much silver as there was talk. But there wasn't, and the town went from boom to bust, a scenario that would recur through the years.

In 1879, two English brothers, believing there were still minerals worth looking for, moved in. They changed the name to Shakespeare, the main street to Avon Avenue, the hotel to the Stratford.

Shakespeare got a post office that year, so the name stuck.

Its name is as elegant as the town gets. Shakespeare is a rough, no-frills place, a town that once boasted as many as 3,000 residents and perhaps as many as 200 buildings--not one of them a church, a law enforcement office or a newspaper. There were, however, more than a few saloons.

"As my parents found out about the history, they felt it should be preserved," Hill said. "And they felt they should do it because they were in the right place at the right time."

So it started, the accumulating, the restoring, the tours, the reenactments of some of the town's more colorful events.

The Hills did what they could to keep Shakespeare and its stories alive, but only up to a point. They drew the line at fancy souvenir shops or restaurants.

The town has had electricity for only six years and television has yet to arrive.

"So many ghost towns have either disappeared totally or they have been touristed to death," Hill said. "We worked at keeping it honest, keeping it so the ghosts will feel at home."

After her father died in 1970, she and her mother stuck it out, raising cattle and saving history. Her mother died in 1985. Now Shakespeare's only residents are Hill, her husband, Manny Hough, and the ghosts.

Two weeks after the fire, Hill stared over the charred remnants of the merchandise building's walls and down into the ash and debris in the basement where she and her husband had made their home.

"We had just finished a nice apartment with running water for the first time," she said. "We got to enjoy it about six months."

The fire started in the blacksmith shop, a replica of an 1800s building. It might have been confined to that building if not for 40-50 mph winds. Flames spread to the merchandise building.

Hough suffered burns to his hands and face while fighting the fire with extinguishers. Hill managed a 911 call just before the intense heat killed the phone.

"That blacksmith shop was fully engulfed when we got here," said John Hill, chief of the Lordsburg Volunteer Fire Department. "Smoke was coming out of all the corners of the building. We knew there was no hope."

The blacksmith shop, the hay shed, the merchandise building and invaluable records, manuscripts, books and artifacts were lost.

The Grant House survives, along with the Stratford Hotel.

Flames licked at the walls of the old assay office, but it too survived. So did the saloon next to the Grant House, the old Army mail station and the ranch's corrals.

Nothing was insured.

Hough figures it will cost $385,000 to rebuild, but they're planning to do it anyway.

Friends, such as the fire chief, have been coming out in groups of 20 to 30 to clean up and look for anything of value that might have been spared.

Neighbors are willing to do whatever it takes because Shakespeare is almost as important to them as it is to Hill.

"I was married in that building," the fire chief said, pointing to the burned-out store. "My great-great grandparents were married here. My grandparents met here."

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