Deming — a fast growing rest stop

The Luna County Courthouse in Deming, New Mexico
The Luna County Courthouse in Deming, New Mexico

Red-brick monuments to Deming’s past as a turn-of-the-century western outpost still stand sentinel in the downtown area. These sturdy buildings figure as prominently into business, life and politics now as they did in their heyday. By enduring two world wars and major changes in transportation and communication, the structures affirm Deming’s historical continuity in the Southwest:  a dominant place of respite on the trail to elsewhere that never outgrows its usefulness.

From cable networks to Interstate 10, from the railroad to the Butterfield Trail, and from Apache roaming grounds to the ancient Mimbres-Paquime Indian trading connection,  Deming is a vital and lasting rest stop.

Of those who have stayed, many have turned Luna County into an important farming and ranching community. Others have built businesses catering to tourists and retirees. More acres of green chile are grown in the county than anywhere in the state, much of it processed at Deming’s Border Foods, the largest green chile processor in the U.S. Country Club Estates, an adult subdivision catering to snowbirds who decide to roost in a small town setting, was recently named to Where to Retire Magazine’s list of America’s 100 Best Master Planned Communities.

Deming is the fastest growing city in the state, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. The population increased by 3,000 people between 1990 and 1998, a growth rate of 27 percent. Growth is coming from a diverse combination of new people moving into the area:  retirees from the Midwest, Border Patrol and government employees, and medical personnel and teachers, says real estate agent Rena Bulsterbaum of Suncrest Realty, Inc.

Cotton fields against the backdrop of the Florida Mountains in Luna County
Cotton fields against the backdrop of the Florida Mountains in Luna County

Growth is having a positive effect on the town, Bulsterbaum said, because it’s forcing the community to increase services and upgrade their quality. “Deming has always been a place for new people,” city administrator John Strand said. “Look at the old Harvey House.”

The Harvey House was an upscale restaurant chain built by the Santa Fe Railroad at important depots, said Art Roman, archivist with the Deming Luna Mimbres Museum. The young women who worked there, known as the Harvey Girls, lived in a section of the house for employees. “There was no hanky-panky with the girls,” Roman said. Built in 1881, just after the silver spike was placed near Deming connecting the second transcontinental railroad, the house is now used as the train depot.

“Deming is rich in heritage tourism,” says Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Dorothy Victor. “It has a good mix of ingredients. The buildings tell the story of the late 1880s.” A walk through downtown Deming is a living historical tribute to turn-of-the-century architecture and Deming’s heyday as an important stop on the railroad. Many buildings are on the register and house stops, plus they hide a secret labyrinth of underground tunnels.

One building with an abundance of stories to tell is the Deming Luna Mimbres Museum, a former National Guard Armory built during World War I. “It’s a museum within a historical site,” Victor said. Fittingly, the museum itself is staffed by an army of 70 volunteers who are mostly retirees, RVers and snowbirds.

The museum boasts the world’s largest permanent collection of Mimbres pottery. Much of the collection was contributed by Jim King, who dug up the ancient treasures in southwestern New Mexico. “This is what put us on the map,” said Garrett, who helped arrange and display the pottery.

Deming Luna Mimbres Museum volunteer Andy Anderson points to a display of classic Mimbres pottery remakes.
Deming Luna Mimbres Museum volunteer Andy Anderson points to a display of classic Mimbres pottery remakes.

The Mimbreno people lived along the Mimbres River between 950 and 1200 A.D. and are named after the desert willows which still grow along the banks of the ephemeral river. Many pottery designs contain mirror images, thought to reflect the river lifestyle of the people.

It is believed the Mimbreno Indians traded with a group of Indians called the Paquime in what is now the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Ancient pottery and modern replications serve as the basis of an international tour loop, the Mimbres-Paquime Connection, which promotes the cultures of the two groups. Deming and its pottery collection rest between the anchors of the tour, the Gila Cliff Dwellings near Silver City and the Paquime ruins near Casas Grandes, Mexico.

Although digging for Mimbres pottery in old gravesites in no longer allowed, there is a state park near Deming where digging and taking souvenirs is not only allowed, but encouraged. Rockhound State Park, at the base of the Little Florida Mountains, attracts rockhounds who often travel from one gem and mineral show to another. Deming has much to offer rock enthusiasts, including at least three gem and mineral shows, rockhound organizations, mining and collecting experiences, and a display of more than 10,000 geodes, also called Thunder Eggs, donated by local amateur geologist Paul “The Geode Kid” Colburn.

“I recognized early on that each deposit has unique thunder eggs,” he said. “You could mix up thunder eggs from a hundred different locations and I’d be able to tell where they came from.” Of the deposits he’s staked claims to and named, his favorite is the Baker Egg Mine, 35 miles southwest of Deming. Colburn offers guided tours of local mines in the fall and winter for a small fee.

While volcanic conditions were right to create geodes and thunder eggs 20 to 40 million years ago near Deming, now they are perfect for wine grapes. “Both water and soil are conducive for growing grapes and plenty of sunshine helps too,” said Florent Lescombes, vice president of St. Clair Winery and New Mexico Vineyards. The winery, which also offers tours and a tasting room, is owned by a family of sixth-generation French grape growers and wine makers. New Mexico became attractive to the family, Florent said, because of its abundance of cheap land and a climate similar to Algeria, where the business started. After trying a couple of other locations, the Lescombes family settled in Deming and took over the bankrupt St. Clair winery. At any given time 200,000 gallons of wine are aging on the premises. During the peak season the winery makes 100,000 gallons of wine; 25,000 bottles are filled a day.

Deming’s premier event, however, is the Great American Duck Race, which boasts “Pure Water, Fast Ducks.” Held each year on the last weekend in August, not only can participants race a live duck, personally trained by former Demingite, Robert Duck (that’s really his name) of Bosque Farms, but they can also compete in a tortilla toss or outhouse race.

“Deming’s future success will lie in its ability to balance growth with industry and economic development,” Bulsterbaum says. On the horizon is a community effort to do that through a federal government designation as an enterprise community. Another source of economic growth might be the development of maquiladoras (border town assemby plants) with neighboring Palomas, Mexico, that would attract suppliers and supporters to the town, said Sam Coleman, Executive Director of the Border Authority.

In the meantime, Deming waits as an oasis within the Chihuahuan Desert for visitors old and new to find comfort in her gates.