If you go
What: Organ Mercantile Museum
When: Open 11 a.m. - 2 p.m., 4 - 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 4 - 7 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.- 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: 16140 Old Organ Main Street, next to Thai Delight, off East Highway 70, Organ, N.M.
Info: e-mail email@example.com or call (575) 382-5614
By S. Derrickson Moore
ORGAN, N.M.— For nearly four decades, Nancy and Bud Abernathy have been quietly working to restore the historic little village at the foot of San Augustin Pass, just a few minutes east of Las Cruces.
In 1973, they bought a compound that included buildings dating to the 1800s. As their restoration efforts continued, they unearthed documents and artifacts and dreamed of housing their finds in a small museum and documenting Organ’s colorful past.
Now, despite economic tough times and health issues, their dreams are being realized. The L.B. Bentley General Merchandise property was officially entered in the National Register of Historic Places on March 22, 2006, in a compound that includes their home, and the couple have just opened a small museum across the street in a building that includes Thai Delight restaurant.
“Organ was once a bustling mining town, bigger than Las Cruces, and some say it had the second largest population in the state of New Mexico. These buildings have been mercantiles, a post office, an assay office, saloons, stage and hack stops, and a telephone company,” Nancy Abernathy said, leading a tour of a museum and gift shop that has a large collection of old mercantile and general store furnishings, an antique cash register, vintage garments and mining equipment and lots of photographs.
“On July 1, 1903, Louis B. Bentley and his wife Harriet rode horseback following the wagons carrying their belongings and reached Organ in a driving rain to set up the mercantile. Mr. Bentley was a photographer who left us with great documentation. We’d given most of the photos to the Rio Grande Archive at NMSU, so we got some prints for the opening of the museum,” she said.
She is convinced the site that now houses the museum was one of the final stops on the last day in the life of Pat Garrett, the sheriff famous for shooting Billy the Kid.
“In 2005, we purchased the building which now holds the museum. In the process of remodeling, we sandblasted and found the name Organ Mercantile painted over the door. This discovery would clear up the destination of Pat Garrett and Jesse Wayne Brazel on one fateful day. Mrs. Bentley told the story of the two men getting into an argument and Mr. Bentley kicking them out. They went across to the ‘other mercantile’ (now the museum site) and we had never known where it was. That was the same day that Pat Garrett was bushwhacked on his way to Las Cruces. Amazingly, Brazel confessed to the murder, was tried but never found guilty,” she said.
In a short chronology, she has traced Organ’s history back to 1849, when the area previously known as Camp San Augustin began to be called Camp Organ, and into its heyday as a “wild and woolly” mining boomtown.
“In 1875, the Kansas City Star wrote that Camp Organ was one of the five roughest places to live in the United States,” she reports.
By 1907, the Bentley Mercantile was reportedly grossing $50,000 annually and the Bentleys stayed on “through the boom and bust of Organ” as mines declined and closed after World War I. Eventually, the arrival of White Sands Missile Range workers perked things up.
Bentley died in 1955 and his wife “stayed until 1963 when she sold the property to Bob and Bonny Smith. Bud and I bought the Bentley Mercantile compound in 1973,” she said.
In 2005, the Abernathys purchased the building that houses the new museum and café, at a site that welcomed visitors of yesteryear as Ace's Bar, Ace's Place, Charlie’s Place and the Triangle.
“It was the best watering hole in the area for many, many years. You could get a quick beer after work and some memorable socializing,” she said.
The Abernathys are pleased to be “custodians of an almost-lost history that few Las Cruces residents know about,” but Bud admits he’s not thrilled about the urban sprawl that brought suburbia to the foothills and now is nipping at the ankles and shins of the Organ Mountains.
“Some days, I’d just like to finish the restoration, put a geodesic dome over (Organ) and stop the development,” he quipped.
The couple themselves are hard-pressed to count exactly how many buildings are in the compound of properties they own, which in addition to their home and the old mercantile housing the café and museum, includes some rental houses, a barn and a popular fenced vacation rental which attracts fans from throughout the U.S. There are also a couple of mobile homes and surprises, like a treehouse. They share the premises with resident critters, Cowgirl the dog, cats Alberta and Felix, horses Happy the Appy and Mustang Sally, parrot Mr. Bill, three unnamed peacocks and wild visitors that include roadrunners and the occasional mountain lion.
Nancy has worked with historians Marty Davenport and the late Herman Weisner to assemble a brief history of Organ, and she’s working on a map of sites of interest, including private areas like their home compound, the old Organ school house which another resident has restored, and ranches, ruins of an old Catholic church and the Torpedo, Modoc and Memphis mine areas.
“The Bentley Mercantile is also on the New Mexico State Historic Registry and Mr. Bentley is listed as a person of historical interest for the state of New Mexico. I’d love to get an NMSU graduate student to help us work on assembling a history and if anyone out there has items, information or articles relating to Organ’s past, please let us know,” she said.
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (575) 382-5614 .
The Organ Mercantile Museum is located at 16140 Old Organ Main Street, next to Thai Delight, off East Highway 70, in Organ. It’s open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.
S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at email@example.com, (575) 541-5450