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In Texas for work and play, we see the scorched mesquite remaining from their wildfires.
Hundreds of miles of dead trees guarantee more fires to come. But the icy fingers of the recession haven’t chilled Texas as they have New Mexico.
As usual, I can’t resist studying how Texas does things – in this case, tourism.
I’m here to see Fort Griffin, or what’s left of it, perched above the Clear Fork of the Brazos.
The grounds are spacious and even include a small herd of Texas longhorns.
“They’re just big puppy dogs,” says the visitor center staffer, who assures us we can just walk around them.
Every fort has a story to tell, but they’re not just a history lesson.
They have a lot to say about economies. Forts in their day were the military bases and posts of today, created to meet a threat and sustained beyond their useful life because they fed the local economy.
By the late 1800s, we had fended off the British, whupped Mexico, and penned up the nation’s tribes on reservations. With no serious threats on the horizon, most of the forts were closed without ceremony or BRAC.
Oh, there was great protest in some cases. Yesterday’s defense contractors – suppliers of hay and beef – saw their livelihood ride away.
Today the military can declare it no longer needs Cannon Air Force Base, and with the right amount of political maneuvering and pressure, it can be saved and given new work.
(Multiply this scenario a few thousand times throughout the bureaucracy and you begin to understand why we can’t control the deficit.)
These forts seeded some otherwise lonesome places with settlers because soldiers scouting for war parties had a lot of time to identify promising agricultural lands.
When the forts closed, many soldiers stayed, and the adjacent town changed gears to serve new economic masters.
A lot of these old forts have gotten a new life as tourist attractions because many visitors still want to feel a bit of the Old West, and history buffs want to see the places they’ve read about. Texas understands this. New Mexico doesn’t.
As ruins go, New Mexico’s Fort Union on the northeastern plains is more impressive than Fort Griffin, as is Fort Craig, near Socorro. Our crown jewel, Fort Stanton, compares with their similarly well preserved Fort Duncan. But we’re allowing Fort Cummings, the adobe anchor of the Apache wars, to simply melt into the desert.
The Fort Griffin Visitors Center has brochures on all the Texas forts, plus a special promotion called “Texas Forts Trail: Exploring the Heritage of West Central Texas.”
It’s a handsome, thorough 24-page booklet that describes the region’s forts and directs travelers to these places and their communities.
You will find nothing like this in New Mexico, and our forts and historical sites are as worthy as theirs.
On the one boring page of the New Mexico Tourism Department website that touts the True West in New Mexico, you’ll find a list, in tiny type, of museums and a couple of forts.
Bulletin: History isn’t just Geronimo and Billy the Kid. Texas describes its sites with interest and enthusiasm. And accuracy.
Later on, we visit Marfa, a little town in the West Texas desert that’s become the unlikely magnet to artists and urban refugees. The elegant, restored hotel, El Paisano, which resembles the unrestored Valverde Hotel in Socorro, is booked solid.
Marfa is also a playground for El Paso, now awash in government money from Fort Bliss, one of the surviving posts from yesteryear.
It isn’t just money. Texans are proud of their heritage and support their attractions.
The same can be said for New Mexicans, but I think we could do a better job of being tourists in our own state, and we can certainly show some imagination in promoting our historical assets.
© 2011 New Mexico News Services