Being Well-Known in Lincoln County
Fame. Being well-known. It’s something that many in this country seems to crave. Some actively pursue it, making it into a career. Some have it thrust upon them by events out of their control. Some try to avoid it altogether, preferring to be peacefully anonymous. Fame or being well-known is like a lightening bolt. One never knows where – or who – it will strike next. And the little enclave of Ruidoso and Lincoln County has it’s (admittedly small) share of famous events and people.
Possibly the most famous person to have ever spent time in Lincoln County was Henry McCarty, a.k.a William Bonney, a.k.a. the notorious Billy The Kid. The Kid was one of those that had fame thrust upon him, and most of it happened after his death.
After the Lincoln County War, in which the Regulators killed Sheriff William Brady and a deputy, the Kid was arrested for that murder and convicted in 1881 – three years after the crime.
It was the Kid’s escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse that truly made him a legend, and his death from a bullet fired by Sheriff Pat Garrett – who is pretty famous himself – ironically served to make the Kid immortal.
Garrett collaborated with journalist Marshall Upson to write the book The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, published in 1882. From there, the Kid’s fame grew beyond Lincoln County and the state of New Mexico until he was truly world-famous.
The courthouse from which he escaped is still there in Lincoln – about 11 miles northwest of Hondo on a highway now known as the Billy The Kid Trail. There’s a pageant held there every year, “The Last Escape of Billy The Kid,” performed outdoors in an arena built next door to the courthouse.
Each August, the population of Lincoln swells as people come from around the world to witness this folk play, which has run since the 1940s.Peter Hurd was the first to portray Billy, and Hurd is pretty famous himself, having married Henriette Wyeth, daughter of legendary painter N.C. Wyeth. Hurd was a pretty good painter himself, having studied under N.C. and served as a war correspondent for Life magazine during World War II.
His most famous work is likely the portrait he made for President Lyndon Johnson. It was meant to be the official portrait, but Johnson didn’t like it. Still, it now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Hurd’s ranch and studio is in San Patricio on Highway 70. Prints of his work and tours of the studio are offered to the public.
You don’t even have to be a human being to be famous. Capitan is home to the Smokey Bear Historical Park, dedicated to the memory of a bear cub that was found clinging to a burned tree – his paws singed – following the Capitan Gap fire in 1950. He was first called Hotfoot Teddy, but later took the moniker Smokey, named after the mascot that had been created by the U.S. Forest Service in 1944 to promote forest fire prevention.
Smokey Bear became a genuine phenomenon, eventually flown across the country to live at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. He lived there for 26 years and eventually got so much mail the U.S. Postal service had to create a zip code just for him.
After his death in 1976, he was brought back to New Mexico and now lies at rest in Capitan. The Smokey Bear Museum and Gift Shop near his final resting place chronicles the bear’s life story and details the impact he had on popular culture.
Not all fame in Lincoln County is restricted to the past. Actor Neil Patrick Harris made his home in Ruidoso, having moved there with his family as a child from Albuquerque. He stayed in Ruidoso through middle school before moving back to Albuquerque and graduating from La Cueva High. By that point, he had already made a name for himself as Doogie Howser, M.D., and has gone on to a busy and successful career in Hollywood.
• Smokey Bear Museum and Gift Shop: 102 Smokey Bear Blvd., Capitan, NM. 575-354-2298. Winter hours 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day.
• Old Lincoln Days and Billy The Kid Pageant: Held the first weekend of August, featuring a parade, gunfighting demonstrations, wagon rides, and – of course – The Last Escape of Billy The Kid. http://billythekidpageant.com.
• Hurd La Rinconada Gallery and Guest Homes: 105 La Rinconada Lane off Highway 70 (Mile Marker 281) in San Patricio, NM. 1-800-658-6912. Mon-Sat 9 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Sundays.