Dixie Boyle doesn’t get paid to be the unofficial historian for the Town of Mountainair, about 70 miles southeast of Albuquerque. Everyone just calls her when they have a question about the town’s storied past. The writer, retired park ranger, and former schoolteacher has taken it upon herself to research and document the highs and lows of what once was the Pinto Bean Capital of the World, at the southern end of the Manzano Mountains.

The town’s story reaches back to three ancestral pueblos inhabited until the late 1600s: Abó, Quarai, and Gran Quivira. Today, their remnants collectively form the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument and provide a fascinating exploration into the ghosts of a vast pueblo region anchored by salt mines and a onetime outpost of the Spanish Inquisition. The visitor’s center (in town), provides information and directions to each site.

Even before Mountainair’s founding in 1903 as a farming community, railroad town, and the first incorporated town in Torrance County, homesteaders William and Clara Corbin sought the ancient treasure of Eldorado at Gran Quivira’s abandoned ruins. Today, the treasure that visitors to Mountainair seek is its collection of historic buildings, eclectic art scene, and annual Sunflower Festival, jointly sponsored by the town and the active Manzano Mountain Art Council. The council spurred creation of colorful mosaic tile murals that cover the walls of nine downtown buildings and provides a creative space for art exhibitions, classes, live performances, and artist studios. 

The artistic draw of Mountainair began almost as soon as the town did, says Boyle. “One of the original town founders, John Corbett, wanted to make the area a cultural center,” she says. “He brought the first Chautauqua educational series to the state in 1908, the biggest in the Southwest. People came from all over for lectures and workshops by well-known speakers, artists, and dignitaries. Corbett himself would meet visitors at the depot.” 

The series ran until 1917 when Corbett died and the country entered World War I. The original Santa Fe Railway depot is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the art council resurrected the lecture series to continue Corbett’s legacy.

One of the historic buildings that makes Mountainair a destination is the purportedly haunted Shaffer Hotel, also on the National Register. Built by Clem “Pop” Shaffer in 1924, the building bears elaborate folk art motifs inside and out, some of which appear to be swastikas. Considered an element of Pueblo Deco design, these “whirling log” symbols are actually Navajo in origin and represent health and healing. Recently purchased and renovated, the hotel also houses La Galeria, a busy retail and online outlet for regional artists. The hotel’s restaurant attracts locals for morning coffee.

Pop’s eccentric taste can be seen in the rock mosaics of the fences, garden walls, and sidewalks of the hotel, as well as those of his old residence, Rancho Bonito, a short walk away. (Although privately owned, tours are sometimes offered.)

Given its setting, Mountainair boasts breathtaking views and a climate conducive to outdoor activities, including popular hiking and mountain biking trails, areas to camp, and the well-stocked Manzano Lake for fishermen.

Boyle considers Mountainair a quintessential small town, with cozy restaurants like the Mustang Diner and a great grocery store and deli at B Street Market, whose owner takes reservations for the popular gourmet dinners on Fridays (takeout always available).

“When I left after high school, I couldn’t wait to get away,” she says. “But since I returned in the early 2000s, I’ve seen people work together for the good of the town, fixing up the buildings and bringing back the arts and culture scene. Mountainair is a community worth visiting.”