Imagine a place where Clyde Tombaugh, Mark Medoff, Fabian Garcia, Josephine Armijo, Pat Garrett, Clara Bell Williams, Martín and Refugio Amador, and many others — famous, infamous, and little known — come together to tell the incredible stories of how their dreams and passions, spectacular triumphs and heart-breaking tragedies, monumental successes and everyday lives helped to shape and enrich Las Cruces, the state, and the Southwest.
The Archives and Special Collections Department in Branson Library on the campus of New Mexico State University is that place. And, with just a few clicks on your computer keyboard, you can begin to explore those resources — a million photographs and 20,000 linear feet of documents, plus maps, blueprints, books, movies, and sound recordings. “There are incredible surprises everywhere, all waiting to be discovered,” said Archives and Special Collections Department Head Dennis Daily.
Dennis has been NMSU Library Archives and Special Collections department head since August 2016. He also worked in the archives from 1997 – 2007, primarily with the photograph collections and on microfilming projects in Durango, Mexico. And, Dennis is an Aggie; he received a journalism undergraduate degree at NMSU in 1995 with a focus on photography, and then a master’s degree in library and information science from the University of North Texas in 2006.
The archive includes four units: the University Archives, which preserves the permanent records of the university going back to its founding in 1888; the Rio Grande Historical Collections, including manuscripts, letters, personal papers, and other records from the Southern New Mexico–Northern Mexico border region; the Political Collections started in 2007 when NMSU became the repository of the papers of U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, and also includes papers from many other local, state, and federal elected officials; and Special Collections, which contains rare books, newspapers, maps, periodicals, and other published materials.
You might ponder the fate of Col. Albert J. Fountain as you gaze at his signature on a 19th-century hotel register; or think about quarterback (and former NMSU Chemistry Department head) Charley Johnson as you read about the Aggies’ perfect 1960 NCAA football season and Top 20 ranking; or share the priceless memories of Las Cruces’ historic Mesquite neighborhood in the pages of author Denise Chavez’s award-winning novels; or sit with Hiram Hadley, Judge John McFie, Martin Lohman, Phoebus Freudenthal, and the other members of the founding board of trustees of Las Cruces College as they open the doors to what has become one of the nation’s great land grant universities.
Here is more than 150 years of history stretching from our region’s indigenous roots to the Space Age, from the early Mexican settlements to the edge of the solar system.
This is home to the original drafts of Mark Medoff’s Tony-winning play, Children of a Lesser God; glass-plate photos of early Las Cruces; the coded telegram sent to one of New Mexico’s first U.S. senators, Albert Fall, from the man with whom Fall would later be implicated in the Teapot Dome Scandal that destroyed an American presidency; reel-to-reel recordings of people who knew Pat Garrett; and even a 4,000-year-old clay cuneiform tablet from the Middle East.
What Else You Can Find
In the archives, you will find the papers of Wendell Chino, who led the Mescalero Apache for more than 50 years and stands as one of the most influential American Indian leaders of the 20th century. Here also are the papers of U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, Gov. Garrey Carruthers, J. Paul Taylor, a state representative who turned 100 last August, and other political leaders dating back to New Mexico’s territorial period. You’ll also find the correspondence, writings, technical drawings, photographs, and astronomical charts of Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto; the papers of historian Lee C. Myers, cataloging his interest in Buffalo Soldiers, judges, ranchers, and churches; and the work of contemporary social justice activist and civic leader Frances Williams.
Looking through historical materials at the archives, “You get intimate, first-person details about the people that have lived in this community and the events, both big and small, that have led us to where we are today,” Dennis said. “There’s also plenty of obscure stuff that can be discovered. For instance, we have a book from the Amador mercantile store with tracings of foot outlines that were used for making custom boots and shoes. Some fairly prominent ‘feet’ are in there, like Sen. Albert Fall, author Eugene Manlove Rhodes, Albert Fountain, and Sam Bean.”
One recent acquisition is a scrapbook put together by Howell A. Smith, a student at the college 1916 – 19. “The scrapbook documents his time here in amazing detail, with photographs, invitations, letters and cards exchanged with friends, event programs, athletic scores, ROTC activities, just about everything you can imagine reflecting college life during World War I,” Dennis said. “An interesting thing about this album is that it was donated by a local couple who had picked it up in an antique store in El Paso — no relation to Howell Smith. I wrote a post about the album for our online blog, and within a couple weeks was contacted by a young woman who was the great-granddaughter of Mr. Smith. She was doing family history work and stumbled across the blog post. She was so thrilled to have found it, as the family had no idea that it existed. Her great aunt, Howell Smith’s daughter, is still living and is anxious to see the scrapbook once we get it digitized.”
Dennis said another recent acquisition is the papers of the Penfield family from Lincoln, New Mexico. He explains, “John Penfield bought the store that was the former Tunstall store, of Lincoln County War fame. The family operated the store from about 1900 to the mid-1950s. So, there’s a direct connection in those papers to the well-known events and characters of that part of New Mexico history. We also just received a collection of original photographic negatives and prints made by an Otero County sheriff and federal Prohibition agent in the 1920s and ‘30s named Howard Beacham. The photographs and papers document bootlegging cases he worked.”
The archives are usually open to everyone, Dennis said, but the pandemic has forced NMSU to limit access. “Currently we’re open by appointment only to those with an Aggie ID — students, faculty, and staff,” Dennis said. “Like everyone else, we’re looking forward to the day when the virus is behind us and we can resume welcoming everyone in to use the collections. In the meantime, we continue helping folks with their research remotely, through email and telephone. We’ve been doing a lot of digitization lately in order to supply researchers with access to our materials.”
The Open Stacks (https://openstacks.nmsu.edu) blog includes a weekly post about archives collections, what archivists are working on, and regional history. “It’s a great place to start learning about our resources,” Dennis said.
The archives website (http://lib.nmsu.edu/archives/) includes links to descriptive guides to collections, a photo database with about 50,000 images, a form to send in questions, and information about archive services. Call 575-646-1508 for more information.
Dangerous Question To Ask and Archivist
A message from NMSU Archives and Special Collections Department Head Dennis Daily to the readers of Neighbors magazine:
Asking an archivist to point out a favorite item from their collection is akin to asking a parent to point out their favorite child. Except parents usually just have a couple kids! But the parent analogy is apt because as archivists we do dote over our collections. We protect them — some might say we overprotect them — to ensure they will thrive for many years to come. We love to show them off and see other people appreciate them. And we certainly grow emotionally attached to them.
However, there is an item I’ve discovered recently that certainly is one of my current favorites. It’s a letter dated March 31, 1902, from a young woman in Carlsbad writing to her aunt, who was living near Alma, New Mexico, to inquire about the fare from Silver City to Alma. She has gotten herself in trouble by marrying a man of “bad disposition” and she’s trying to secure a divorce to get free of him. Her wish is to come see her mother and be with her family in Alma. Although she’s alone and desperate, with no relations near, she doesn’t want her mother to know of her troubles because she’s afraid “she will worry herself to death about me.” The letter is beautiful, simple, and heartbreaking. It allows us to really identify with her on a personal level and it definitely puts a human face on the history of our region.
With a background in photography, I’ve always been drawn to our photograph collections. We have more than one million historical photographs, ranging from daguerreotypes, glass negatives, and stereographs of the 19th century, to color and black and white prints, negative and slides of the 20th century, and now digital photography in the 21st century. Nearly all of these depict people, places, and events of Southern New Mexico and the border region. They are endlessly fascinating in their variety and style. We’re continually digitizing these resources and about 50,000 can be searched and viewed on our website.
We all stay very busy here assisting researchers, processing collections, doing preservation work, digitizing materials and the like, so there is seldom time to just wander among the materials and marvel at them. However, we do have intimate contact with the collections, for instance when we help researchers dig deep to find relevant information or when we process a collection. On those rare occasions when there is nothing pressing, I will wander the “stacks” and look into boxes that I know nothing about, maybe pull out some old correspondence and read through it or turn the pages of an old photograph album.
Written by Mike Cook • Photos courtesy NMSU Archives and Dennis Daily
Originally published in Neighbors magazine | 2021
Posted by LasCruces.com