Mesilla, set on the southwestern edge of metropolitan Las Cruces in southern New Mexico, is a time-capsule town where no one has ever been able to close the lid—or wanted to. Take town trustee Stephanie Johnson-Burick’s family. Her great-great-great-grandfather was Col. Albert Jennings Fountain, a politician, newspaper publisher, and one-time defense attorney for Billy the Kid. When unknown murderers killed Fountain and his little boy, Henry, in 1896 and their bodies disappeared, legendary sheriff Pat Garrett came to town to investigate.
Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett are two bold-face names from New Mexico history that left their marks on Mesilla. Visitors can visit the spot where the Kid stood trial for the assassination of Sheriff William Brady in 1881, the former Mesilla courthouse, now the Billy the Kid Gift Shop, on the southeast corner of the town plaza. And at the Gadsden Museum, they can peep the jail cell doors that held the Kid during his trial.
Like other founding families of Mesilla, Johnson-Burick’s clan remained in the town and claim roots around every corner. As a child, she went to movies at the Fountain Theatre, which her great-great grandfather founded in 1905. The Mesilla Valley Film Society now runs the Mission-style adobe theater, screening indie, foreign, art, and documentary films. Johnson-Burick also has fond memories of sipping Shirley Temples at El Patio Cantina, which her grandfather established and her cousin runs today. “Mesilla is a step back in time,” she says. “The residents all want to protect what we have and preserve it for future generations.”
Much of the history is chronicled in the titles at Mesilla Book Center, on the plaza. Johnson-Burick likes to sit in the shade of the landmark Basilica of San Albino Roman Catholic Church and enjoy the peaceful ambiance. She also chats with anyone who stops by. “Everyone is so friendly here. We may not be blood-related, but everyone with homes surrounding me is family,” she says.
The neighborhood feel is part of what lends Mesilla its historic feel. Travelers won’t spot apartment buildings or mobile-home parks here, and that’s intentional. Historic preservation ordinances dictate the type of architecture allowed, the colors buildings may be painted, and the style and height of fences. Any new development or renovations must blend with the existing environment. Many of the homes date to before the 1854 Gadsden Purchase, when the United States acquired nearly 30,000 square miles of present-day New Mexico and Arizona from Mexico. The deed of Johnson-Burick’s family home originates when New Mexico was a territory, not a state.
Neighborhood residents enjoy walking to nearby restaurants, like local institution La Posta de Mesilla, which recently marked its 80th year of serving classic New Mexican cuisine. Taco Tuesdays (or any day) are a hit with locals at Andele Restaurant, as is the laid-back patio at Andele’s Dog House.
Residents have also protected the greenbelt along the Río Grande as a key element of the town’s character. Visitors can experience the vibe at Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park, where self-guided nature trails wind along the river and through wetlands, unfolding to views of local wildlife and particularly birds. The landscape is starkly different from Las Cruces, the state’s second largest city, just a couple miles away.
“There’s a difference when you drive from Las Cruces into Mesilla,” Johnson-Burick says. “You’ve crossed from one era in time to another. The plaza looks like it did decades ago. You think about Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, and you can picture them walking down Mesilla’s streets today.”