The Story Behind New Mexico’s Living Ghost Town Will Fascinate You
Out-of-staters often have inaccurate ideas about New Mexico’s geography. They’re surprised that the Rockies extend into the Land of Enchantment and are shocked that we get snow. Many also fail to realize that northeastern New Mexico is similar to the Plains states.
In the 1930s, that was a problem because it meant that rural New Mexicans were affected by the Dust Bowl, just like the farmers in other parts of the country.
Above is a dust storm approaching the town of Mills.
Today, the living ghost town of Mills maintains a post office and is still home to a handful of people. However, most residents moved out by the 1930s.
Located off NM-39, Mills is surrounded by the western unit of the Kiowa National Grassland.
If you ever wondered what New Mexico looked like centuries ago these rolling grasslands, which cover 137,131 acres, have changed little since herds of bison roamed the area.
Mills was named after Melvin Whitson Mills (1845-1925), a Canadian-born man who was drawn to New Mexico, where he hoped to succeed in mining, ranching or lawyering - Mills had received his law degree from the University of Michigan.
He first settled in Elizabethtown, before moving to Cimarron and then Springer. He was successful as a lawyer, serving as county and then district attorney - he helped to lock up some of the most notorious gang members in the region!
Mills shifted his focus to farming. He installed a 10-mile long orchard along the banks of the Canadian River.
It contained 14,000 fruit and nut trees. Mills used the Santa Fe Railroad to send his crops to supply Harvey Houses and he became a very prosperous man. Sadly, in 1904, the Canadian River burst its banks and the ensuing flood decimated both Mills’ orchard and his finances.
The mansion he’d had constructed in Springer was foreclosed upon and, in 1925 when Mills was dying, his final request was to be brought inside the house, so he could pass away in the home he loved.
Although Mills the man was gone, the town bearing his name hung on. But then the Dust Bowl hit.
This image of Mills was taken in 1935, by which point many of the buildings in town had already been abandoned.
Farmers, who didn’t know that dryland farming techniques were best used in this area, plowed too deeply, pulling up the grasses that stopped wind from eroding the soil. This led to dust storms.
The Farm Security Administration sent photographers into rural areas to document the conditions there. Dorothea Lange visited Mills in 1935, when residents were leaving the town.
She took all of the black and white images, which reveal the realities of life in Mills at this time.
Today, you can still see Mills Canyon (also known as Canadian River Canyon) and what’s left of Melvin Whitson Mills’ Orchard Ranch scattered across the canyon floor.
There’s something haunting about these crumbling structures, surrounded by red-hued mesas, and serene scenery.
Most of our state’s ghost towns were towns built from boom and bust mining camps. Not so here. You’re unlikely to find many other people exploring this area…
…But what you will discover are hints about New Mexico’s past, Barbery sheep, and antelope.
Plenty of antelope!
To reach Mills Canyon, rather than just the town of Mills, follow
these directions from the Forest Service.
If you’re interested in the forgotten stories of New Mexico’s ghost towns, see these
other abandoned places that might be near you.
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