Folklore of Lincoln County Post Offices

Location of an early day Lincoln County post office - in Lincoln. Photo by Phyllis Eileen Banks
Location of an early day Lincoln County post office

Lincoln County at one time encompassed almost one-fourth of New Mexico and was the largest county in the United States. It was created January 16, 1869, by an act of the Territorial Legislature, and subsequently other counties were wrested from it. They were Chaves, Eddy, and Roosevelt, and portions of Curry, Guadalupe, Otero and Torrance. With a current population of 14,184 and covering 4,859 square miles, Carrizozo is the county seat, changed from Lincoln in 1909. Since its origin, the county has had a total of 70 post offices.

Some are still viable, others long gone, but the folklore around these pivotal places in the early days are a part of our history, whether true or apocryphal.

General John J. Pershing began his career at Ft. Stanton after graduating from West Point. The postal records indicate he sent a $2.50 money order to a G. L. Scott at Ft. Stanton. A Mr. S. Gray received a money order for $10.44 from someone in White Oaks. The recipient was Seaborn Gray, who homesteaded the town of Capitan.

The Ft. Stanton post office was the center of much socializing. A stage came daily from White Oaks bringing the mail and carrying passengers. Another stage brought mail twice a week from Mesilla, then Capital of Arizona and New Mexico territories.

Many Civil War veterans settled in New Mexico, farming small areas and trapping for their livelihood. Some could read and write but many could not. It was the Postmasters’ duty to write their letters and read to them any mail they received. Some, however, didn’t want that much public knowledge of their business. One A. A. McSween, of Lincoln fame, requested his mail be placed in a special bag at the Roswell post office (a part of Lincoln County at that time) so it wouldn’t have to pass through the Lincoln post office. The postmaster charged McSween $1.50 per week for the service. Someone has suggested he was the first to inaugurate "curb service mail." McSween, however, didn’t pay his bills and Marshall A. Upton, postmaster at the "hamlet of Roswell" filed a claim against McSween’s estate for "$68.89 to be paid to the post office for private mail sack service August 20, 1877 to August 27, 1878 @ $1.50 a week and for 400 postage stamps, etc." The outcome of the suit is unknown.

Many celebrities chose San Patricio in the beautiful Hondo Valley as residences, and received their mail there. Among them were Helen Hayes and her husband, Charles MacArthur, Paul Horgan, Linda Darnell, Teresa Wright, Nevin Bush, Henriette Wyeth and Peter Hurd. Currently, actor Richard Farnsworth is a Lincoln County resident. 

The story is told that when Peter Hurd called at the post office for an insured package, the postmaster said "Here, Pete, draw your picture and I’ll give you your package." Hurd promptly sketched a likeness of himself in the space provided for signature. This treasure was later lost in a fire.

The White Oaks gold rush in 1880 was happenstance. A traveler to California stopped to visit with two prospectors who were camped at White Oaks. He walked away from camp to a high ridge. On his return he picked up some rocks he thought were pretty and showed them to his camp friends. They recognized them as gold ore and asked where he found them. The visitor went on his way and the two prospectors staked their claims. Thus began the White Oaks gold rush, and on June 4, 1880, the post office was established.

The Old Dowlin Mill in Ruidoso was once the home of its post office. Other post offices were often in a home or in a dry goods and grocery store. One story concerns a woman postmaster whose post office was in her parlor. A stranger came in and said he was the postal inspector. She replied she was busy with the mail and would he please help her. Evidently, authority didn’t faze her.

Former residents often drop into the Alto post office to reminisce. One husband and wife from Oklahoma stopped so he could show where he mailed his love letters to her.

Mail carriers traveled on horseback and led a pack horse if the mail was heavy. When automobiles were first used for postal service, it was still a slow process because the roads hadn’t caught up with the times. Roads and automobiles have improved and now planes, trucks, buses and trains are used to carry the load; but it is still the post offices, with their dedicated postmasters and carriers, that really deliver the mail.

About Phyllis Eileen Banks