At the time Mesilla was founded, the population of the town was concentrated around the Plaza for defence against Apache Raiders who were a constant threat to the settlement. In November 1854 the Plaza was the site for a major historical event, when the Gadsden Purchase declared the town officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza on November 16, 1854. With increased stability came increased trade, and Mesilla found itself in a prime location. It became an important stop on two stagecoach, mail and trade routes – the El Camino Real, from Chihuahua to Santa Fe, and the Butterfield stage route, from San Antonio to San Diego.
Thanks to its major role in the history of the state and of the US, the Mesilla Plaza was declared a New Mexico state monument on September 10th 1957. It was listed on the National Register in January 1982, as a National Historic landmark, and the entire Historic district added in February, 1985.
The Plaza and the gazebo at its centre were refurbished in 1978 to suit the growing status of the town as a tourist destination. It is the focal point for any celebration in the town such as Cinco de Mayo and Dia de Los Muertos. It is also home to a Farmers Market on Thursdays and Sundays, but we were only here on a Friday-Saturday. However we did come across a couple of local musicians playing very enthusiastically by the gazebo – we weren’t sure if they were there officially to entertain the tourists or were busking. I was also not quite sure of the reason for the paper flowers which decorated part of the gazebo; maybe they are always there, or maybe they were left over from some special celebration? Either way, they were rather pretty!
Strolling the streets around the Plaza is the number one activity here. Many of the adobe buildings built during the colonial era remain today, and most have been converted into interesting shops, galleries and restaurants, but the district retains a lot of its character and although popular with tourists seemed to us much less busy than somewhat similar (though larger) Santa Fe and Taos.
Among the shops we liked were
~ Galeria on the Plaza, on the west side of the Plaza, with some interesting folk art
~ Los Artesanos Galeria, on Calle de Parian just off the Plaza – a co-operative of four local artists
~ Scentchips, on Calle de Guadalupe (behind La Posta) – you can mix your own combination of scented wax chips to use as potpourri or in a burner; the owner was most informative and even gave me a small free sample!
~ The Chocolate Lady, on the east side of the Plaza – great ice cream and good coffee (take out only, but there are seats nearby on the Plaza)
You should also pop inside the Billy the Kid Gift Shop on the south east corner of the Plaza. Although we found the items on sale to be not really to our taste, the building itself is worth seeing. It was the former capitol of Arizona and New Mexico and later became the courthouse in which Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang. You can pick up a free leaflet here and in some of the other local shops that details the Kid’s connections to Mesilla. This was to be the last of our several encounters with him on this trip; one on which he had seemed to be with us for much of our journey through the state where he grew up, lived his short and ignominious life, and was shot.
The north side of the Plaza is dominated by the Basilica of San Albino. The first church in the town had been a small log and mud construction on the south side, but when the town was transferred from Mexico to the United States as part of the Gadsden Purchase, it began to grow and a new church was needed. This church was built in adobe in 1855, but soon acquired a more European style, thanks no doubt to the influence of Bishop Lamy who was so averse to adobe architecture (see my tip on Santa Fe’s San Francisco Cathedral for more on Lamy’s dubious views on traditional worship practices in New Mexico).
The church was completely rebuilt in its present form in 1906 and dedicated in 1908. It did however keep its old bells, cast in the latter half of the 19th century. These include two, named Sagrado Corazon de Jesus and Maria Albina, which were cast in 1886 and the largest of them all, Campana Grande, cast a year later. The church’s website says that, “In keeping with Catholic tradition the bells, including Sagrado Corazon de Jesus were christened and given godparents to care for them.” I have never heard of that tradition elsewhere but it sounds a lovely one.
In November 2008 the church was granted minor basilica status by the Vatican, an event commemorated by a plaque on the wall outside.
The basilica is advertised as being open from 1.00-3.00 pm daily, but unfortunately was closed when I tried to get in – a shame, as it appears to have some lovely stained glass windows (I found this picture on Wikipedia). It is also hard to get a good photo of the church as there are usually cars parked immediately in front of it.
The Fountain Theater was built in 1905 for Albert Jennings Fountain and is the oldest movie thetaer in New Mexico. In those days, in addition to films the theater offered vaudeville performances often including Fountain and his family. Fountain is also known for his famous fued with Albert Fall from the Teapot Dome Scandal.
Another building of significance on the old plaza is the old courthouse building. Billy the Kid stood trial here in 1881 and was sentenced to hang. He escpaed and killed his jailers though while en route back to Lincoln County. The building now houses the Billy the Kid Gift Shop. Other old buildings around the plaza include El Patio Cantina and La Posta de Mesilla. I have more information and photos about them in the Restaurant Category.
The most important and most noticable building around the square is the San Albino Basilica which was built in 1851. San Albino just achieved basilica status in November 2008. Basilica status means San Albino is of historical and spiritual significance.
The Mesilla Valley, which includes Mesilla, has a long history of habitation by man. Hunter/gatherers came here 9000 years ago. More recently, in 1598 the Spaniards came here and established the Camino Real (Royal Highway). The first real permanent settlers came in 1848 after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-Ametican War. Because of boundary disputes, Mesilla was in a kind of "no man's land: between both countries. When the strip of land stretching from Texas through California was purchased in the "Gadsden Purchase" in 1854, Mesilla became part of the United States. The US flag was raised in Old Mesilla Plaza on 4 July 1854 to to confirm the treaty. The central plaza in the town has been preserved as close as possible to the way it was in the 1800s. Although the buildings now house art galleries, gift shops and other stores, the buildings are much the same as they were when the Butterfield Stage came through here and Billy the Kid spent time here. The plaza is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Your first stop in Mesilla should be the large, new Visitors Center. Here you will find brochures, maps and other information so you can decide what you want to see and make your trip more enjoyable. The staff was knowledgeable and friendly.
The Gadsden Museum is fairly well known and is publicized; but I had never heard of the Casasola Museum and did not even know it existed. I spotted it as I came out of the Visitors Center. The museum was having a special exhibition of old photographs from the time of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. If you go to Mesilla check this place out!
The Gadsden Museum is named for the Gadsden Purchase which made the town part of the United States after it had been a part of Mexico for a number of years. The museum is located in the old A. J. Fountain home and contains Native American and Spanish artifacts from the early days of the town along with items about the Gadsden Purchase and other significant events from the history of Mesilla. The museum is open by appointment only.
The main trail lead you by two constructed wetlands created through a restoration project run by the Southwest Environmental Center and the city of Las Cruces. These wetlands were then replanted with plants native to the area, and provide both open water and marsh habitats. This attracts lots of wildlife. The trail takes two routes from here; the Recasa Trail and the Upland Trail.
You will mostly just hear the bullfrogs and some of the birds, other birds you will see at a distance and you would need a better camera than mine to photograph them. You may get a better view of the birds if you sit on the bench for a while. Mostly I just saw them at a distance and saw this rabbit.
The long slender body of water you find at the beginning of the trail is the Picacho Drain. The Picacho Drain serves two main functions: it keeps the farmers fields from becoming too saturated and salty and it provides a habitat for the wildlife and vegetation in the park. The cattails along the drain provide an ideal place for bullfrogs and a variety of birds.
Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park is the newest state park in New Mexico. It just opened in December 2008. Unlike most of its neighboring parks the main emphasis for the park is the reclamation and conservation of the habitat along the Rio Grande. The secondary function is educational. The park is just getting started and they have big plans for it in the future. "Bosque" is a Spanish word for a forest, in this case the habitat near a consistant source of water making it similar to a riparian area. The park offers a pretty nice visitors center with some educational displays, a relaxing plaza area, a small cactus garden, the Picacho Drain, some manmade water areas which are good for watching wildlife, and two main hiking trails. The park ranger on duty when I visited was very knowledgeable and helpful. This park is day use only, no camping. Admission is $5.
As you first leave the Visitors Center going towards the trails you will see a small cactus garden set up to show the typical types of cacti growing in the area.