Book looks at the ‘hidden history’ of the city of New Mexico

“Datil: A Hidden History of a Historic New Mexico City” by Jim Wagner

Datil may be one of the smallest towns in New Mexico, but for Jim Wagner it has a big, sprawling history, one that spans over 550 pages.

Wagner is the author of the recently self-published book Datil: A Hidden History of an Historic New Mexico Town. Datil is located on US 60 between Magdalena and Pie Town in west central New Mexico.

To help the reader better understand the abundance of information, Wagner divided the book into two parts. The advice of a reader provided by the author is that the topic of one chapter be presented independently of the topics of another. In other words, there is no continuity of chronology or of subjects.

“I’m a reporter, so I think of each of the 40 chapters as a separate newspaper article. It’s not like a novel, where what happens at the end of the book is related to what happens at the beginning of the book,” said Wagner, an Albuquerque resident.

Jim Wagner

He worked as a newspaper reporter and editor, including 28 years at the Albuquerque Tribune.

Even before the reader arrives at the first chapter of the first volume, a preface poses five questions, the answers of which are presumably to be found within. Here’s the first question: Did the second version of Datil’s Navajo Lodge actually serve as a brothel?

That question will remain unanswered here. Suffice it to say, there were three reruns of the Navajo Lodge. The first iteration was once a milestone. According to the book, it had been described as “one of the great lodges of the American West, a marvel of hand-hewn construction.”

Wagner writes that the lodge became an icon in the region: “A guest could enjoy a meal, pay for a room for the night, visit friends and strangers and have a great time.” He also cites an article written in 1935 for the Federal Writers’ Project about the lodge. It stated that hogans were established on the spot and that Navajos wove and sold blankets from wool harvested from their sheep herds.

The lodge was one of two popular places in Datil that served travelers.

The other was the Eagle Guest Ranch.

The first Navajo Lodge burned down in 1944, Wagner writes. The second lodge was apparently built later in the 1940’s, although it bore no resemblance to the original lodge. Wagner writes that the third version of the Navajo Lodge “started to show a faint heartbeat in late 2019,” although there’s no explanation for what that means.

Navajo Lodge in its three iterations is the subject of one chapter.

Eagle Guest Ranch is the subject of another, also in the first part.

Other chapter titles in the book include “Camp Datil, the Military, and Indian Threats,” “Magdalena Livestock Driveway,” and “The Vanished American,” the latter about Agnes Morley Cleaveland’s essay on the cowboy. In other chapters and in the preface to part two, Wagner’s references to Cleaveland’s 1941 bestselling autobiography “No Life for a Lady” about life on the border in Datil are mentioned.

“Some said it was the best book of Life on the Frontier by a woman. Others said it was the best of any author, male or female,” Wagner said.

Both volumes contain lists of names on various topics. Volume two, for example, has a chapter on the surnames of some of the people buried in Datil’s cemetery, another chapter on the author’s rough drive in search of the remote Greens Gap cemetery. There is a chapter on what Datil National Forest used to be; the name was discontinued when the acreage was transferred to the Gila National Forest. There is a chapter on a series of missile tests from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s that led to the military-ordered evacuations of Datil.

And there’s a chapter on the community’s Baldwin Cabin Public Library, started in 1999, just west of Datil. Wagner thanks Linn Kennedy, a co-founder of the library, for providing material that sparked his interest in writing Datil’s first history.

“Very little, in my opinion, in those two (volumes) is significant. It’s just a collection of hundreds of bits of information that this retired newspaper reporter thought could be a book,” Wagner said. “Readers tell me it’s important.”

Moreover, he writes, he has not checked the reports and memories he quoted for fact. Instead, he trusted them to be truthful and accurate.

The tireless Wagner continues to collect random facts and information about Datil and the surrounding area. What could be considered part three is on his computer, although he’s not sure if it will be printed. “I’m still collecting content for book three. I don’t know. It’s like a locomotive that doesn’t stop running with an endless supply of coal,” he said.

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