The small town of Artesia, New Mexico, has a unique history tied closely to cattle ranching, farming and dairy, oil and gas, water, the railroad and more—each of which is represented in artifacts, statues, and murals around town. In fact, Artesia was designated a New Mexico Arts and Cultural District by the New Mexico Arts Commission in November 2013.
Nestled in the southeast corner of the state, Artesia’s history starts back in the 1880s when homesteaders came to the area attracted by the promise of a bountiful water system. Until then, the mostly unpopulated area was part of John Chisum’s cattle empire. When the railroad arrived in the 1890s, the fledgling town was briefly named Miller after a railroad employee. The name then changed to Stegman, after the town’s first postmistress and unofficial First Lady of Artesia Sallie Chisum, whose second husband was Baldwin Stegman.
It wasn’t until 1903 that the city was finally named Artesia because of the city’s plentiful water supply with the Artesian wells. But water isn’t Artesia’s only claim to fame. Oil drilling became a wildly successful enterprise of the town in the early 1920s and has helped support the town through the Great Depression, periods of drought, and periods of growth. The town now boasts a thriving economy, a strong school system, and a federal law-enforcement training center.
Today, Artesia keeps its history alive in many ways, most notably with a series of magnificent bronze statues. Each statue tells a story of the region’s origin or character, so take some time to check them out the next time you’re in town. We’ve put together this list with some fun facts about each statue and don’t forget to take advantage of a photo opportunity at each stop!
A Self-Guided Tour of The Bronze Sculptures in Downtown Artesia
The Trail Boss
This statue was the first of the three sculptures in the Cattle Drive series, unveiled in March 2007 and created by Vic Payne. A trail boss was the man in charge during a cattle drive and bosses were often hired to push herds for others. In the statue, the trail boss is springing into action to help the vaquero.
Spanish for cowboy (and also the origin of the word buckaroo), vaqueros in the region were known for their skills and many words used for cowboy equipment have Spanish roots. This statue was created by Mike Hamby (unveiled in May 2008) and it depicts a vaquero that is about to go after a rustler attempting to steal cattle.
During the days of the Wild West, a rustler was a cattle thief. One of the most famous rustlers was Billy the Kid, who frequented the area. Once a rustler stole a cow, he would change the brand and then try to sell the animal as his own. This statue depicts a rustler that is about to brand a calf that he has stolen, but then realizes he has been spotted. This statue was created by Robert Summers and unveiled in July 2009.
Located at Sixth and Main Street, Mack Chase and Johnny Gray are leaning on the hood of a pick-up, which locals will tell you is how they made many of their deals. Born and raised in Artesia, the pair went into the oil and gas business together in the early 1970s and operated a successful business for 20 years.
First Lady of Artesia
Sallie Chisum settled in Artesia in 1890, and became known posthumously as the First Lady of Artesia due to her many accomplishments as an entrepreneur, developer, and businesswoman. Her statue was unveiled in July 2003.
The Derrick Floor
Located at Sixth and Main Street, this bronze representation of a four-man crew on a drilling rig is designed to impress. The rig is true to size, measuring 34 feet in height, but the focus of this piece is the “men and women who take the risks and do the work to find, produce and refine New Mexico oil and gas.” As such, the four men in the statue are 125 percent life size. This statue was built by Vic Payne and dedicated in April 2004.
Born in 1880 in a log cabin on an oil lease, you could say Van Stratton Welch was destined for a life in the oil industry, as he was considered a pioneer in oilfield drilling before he even made it to New Mexico in 1923. He was part of the crew responsible for the Illinois #3 oil well, which was the beginning of a lucrative oil industry in the southeastern corner of the state. You can find his statue at Sixth and Main Street.
Sometimes a second option really does make all the difference—and this statue is a representation of that very thought. Martin Yates was part of the partnership that was responsible for the Illinois #3 oil well. After two unsuccessful attempts to drill in 1924, Marvin asked his wife, Mary, for her advice on the third drill site. The place she chose was an immediate success. The rest is history.
This larger-than-life bronze statue is located in front of the Artesia Public Library and includes a variety of classic novels as well as others chosen by several Artesia Public Schools students. The district held an essay contest to determine the rest of the books, and the children in the statue represent the students with the winning essays. Mark Ashley, a volunteer and design committee member for Artesia Main Street, came up with the idea. Unveiled in July 2015, this is the newest sculpture in downtown.
The Peter Hurd Mural at Artesia Public Library
After you’ve visited the bronze statues, step into the Artesia Public Library for one final delight—a spectacular and brightly colored mural by famed artist, Peter Hurd.
Using fresco-secco techniques, Hurd originally painted the mural on a windowed lobby wall in a building in downtown Houston, Texas in 1952. When the building was condemned to be torn down, the mural was removed and transported to Artesia for permanent display. The mural is approximately 15 feet tall and 47 feet long, elevated nine feet from the library floor. Look closely for the quote near the mural that says, “The Future Belongs to Those Who Prepare for It.”
Artesia is the perfect getaway for art-lovers. Besides the bronze statues and Peter Hurd mural, there are plenty of activities, restaurants, and accommodations in town, making for a truly unique vacation in the Land of Enchantment.
Written by Sarah Strohl for Matcha in partnership with New Mexico Tourism Department.