Ft. Sumner — pride of the pecos

Billy the Kid Grave. Photo by Phyllis Eileen Banks.
Billy the Kid Grave.

The Fort Sumner Chamber of Commerce brochure that touts the community as the Pride of the Pecos contains another item not often seen on such brochures: "Attitude Friendly." Those words beckon you, inviting a visit.

Located on U. S. Highway 60 halfway between Albuquerque and Lubbock, Texas, 160 miles each way, old Fort Sumner was built in 1862. General James H. Carleton built the fort seven miles southeast of the present town at the Bosque Redondo (round wood or grove) as an Indian reservation for the Navajos and Apaches. These Native Americans were forced to leave their homes and walk 400 miles to the Fort, an episode in our history known as the "Long Walk." The post was named for General Edwin Vose Sumner who died as the new fort was being built. It is now a state monument, one of five in New Mexico.

This site was abandoned in 1868 and the old buildings and some of the land were sold to Lucian B. Maxwell. With the coming of the railroad in 1905 - 1907 the town moved north and merged with the settlement of Sunnyside, marking the beginning of the modern Fort Sumner.

DeBaca County’s seat, the town has a population of 1,269 with 2,252 in the County according to the 1990 census. At an elevation of 4,030 feet, the climate is mild with winter temperatures in the 30s-40s and summers in the 80s-90s.

The economy consists of irrigated agriculture, with a six-month growing season; ranching, small businesses, gas and oil.

Water sports are plentiful with nearby Sumner Lake State Park and the Pecos River.

The infamous Billy the Kid is buried behind the old Fort Sumner Museum in the Ft. Sumner Military Cemetery. The Museum is located four miles east on U.S. Highway 60/84 and south three miles on Billy The Kid Road.

Another historical attraction in Fort Sumner is the murals in the Court House. They were painted in the 1930s under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) by a young Texico, New Mexico, artist Russell Vernon Hunter. He was also the WPA director for the State.The scenes depict the old fort, Billy the Kid, farming, ranching and the coming of the railroad. Twice a year the Physical Sciences Laboratory of New Mexico State University uses the Fort Sumner Air Park as a base for launching balloons for scientific research, operating there twice a year.

In mid-June the four-day Old Fort Days Festival is celebrated. There is a Wild West Shoot-Out, a Camp Meeting, an Arts and Crafts Show, the Great American Cow Plop, Horse Shoe Games, Mud Tug of War, Sourdough Biscuit Toss, a Living History Demonstration at Fort Sumner State Monument, a rodeo, a dance, Little Britches Games for 12 year-olds and under, and a Cowbelles’ Barbeque.

If that isn’t enough there is the World’s Richest Tombstone Race. Because Billy the Kid’s tombstone has been stolen three times, event planners dreamed up this race. Each entrant is given a replica of the tombstone, some as heavy as 80 pounds. The object is to carry it, throw it over the obstacle, jump the hurdle, pick up the tombstone, turn and come back. Many fall by the wayside but the winner receives $1000 cash.

To sum it up, Fort Sumner is a small-town place where you can take a pleasant stroll or a walking tour of the historic buildings. Wherever you go you will be greeted with a wave and a smile.

About Phyllis Eileen Banks