Old Lincoln Days and folk pageant, “The Last escape of Billy the Kid,” celebrate New Mexico’s most notorious legend
By Christina Stock
Once a year, historic Lincoln returns to a time where there was a fine line between law and outlaws. The Lincoln Days and the pageant, “The Last Escape of Billy the Kid,” preserves New Mexico’s most violent time, when the Lincoln County War almost cost the territory its statehood.
There were even blunt spokesmen who went so far as to suggest that the United States had made a bad bargain in annexing New Mexico. Some years after the Civil War, Gen. William T. Sherman, who heartily disliked the arid country and the people of the Southwest, was quoted as saying that “the United States ought to declare war on Mexico and make it take back New Mexico.”
Fortunately, cooler heads showed common sense and in 1912, New Mexico became a state. Today, the descendants of families who lived through the Lincoln County War — and those who didn’t — still live on the ranches in the county, those who moved out-of-state return and everybody joins in celebrating their rich history.
“I’ve been doing this for over 40 years,” organizer and spokesperson Kent McInnis said on the phone. “For us, it’s like a family reunion. We’ll have entertainment before the actual daily shows, about an hour before the show begins. We have bleachers, but you are welcome to bring your camping chairs.”
McInnis and the families and history fans founded the Lincoln Pageant and Festivals, Inc., (LPAF) as a nonprofit, 501(c)3, all volunteer New Mexico corporation, which exists solely to preserve the history of the town and its most notorious resident, William H. Bonney, a.k.a. Billy the Kid, the most colorful character in the Lincoln County War.
If you ask locals in Roswell or Lincoln, whose families go back to the pioneer days, you still find that some side with Billy the Kid who they think was wronged. As legend has it, Gov. Lee Wallace made a promise to the Kid in 1879 to grant him amnesty if he testified before a grand jury about another murder case in Lincoln County. Billy the Kid was in jail at the time for having killed then-Sheriff William Brady. The Kid allegedly ambushed Brady and his deputy George Hindman with his gang. The Kid was convicted by a territorial court in April, 1881, and sentenced to death — this led to the Kid’s last escape from the Lincoln County jail and as a result, getting killed by his former friend then-Sheriff Pat Garret in Fort Sumner.
Brady had a large family and one of his relatives today, Bob Torres, comes all the way from California to be part of the pageant.
The historic buildings of Lincoln have been carefully preserved and give a glimpse into the way of life in the 1880s. Some of the historic sites are part of the museum, others are owned by artists and shop keepers. The historic Dolan House is now a restaurant decorated with items the new owners found while renovating. Beverly Strauser, who had bought The Dolan House, told me when they started renovating the run-down building, that they found bullets every time they dug in the soil to put in a garden.
The public is invited to the Old Lincoln Days with a variety of entertainment, food, living history and artisan demonstrations, special guided tours and programs throughout the weekend.
Each year since 1940, LPAF has sponsored and performed the folk pageant “The Last Escape of Billy the Kid.” The performances are scheduled to coincide with the Old Lincoln Days celebration, which occurs annually on the first full weekend in August.
This year, the festival falls on Aug. 2 to 4, with the folk pageant happening on Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and a matinee on Sunday at 3 p.m. There will be entertainment starting in the outdoor theater an hour earlier and according to McInnis, the ticket booth will be open daily already at 10 a.m. “That way nobody needs to stand in line,” he said.
Many of the players are descendants of the original pageant participants. The first person to portrait Billy the Kid was none other than artist Peter Hurd, who lived nearby in Hondo Valley. Today, the volunteer actors still live the Western life they portray in the pageant.
“We are the last folk show in the U.S. to my knowledge, which means we have somebody in his booth telling the story and the guys on stage just act,” McInnis said. “You don’t find that anywhere anymore. We’ve been working on it intensely for the last three weeks.” The rest of the year, they meet monthly, taking a break in November and December.
One of the highlights for children is seeing the animals, from cow dogs to dozens of horses with cowboys and cowgirls, everybody is bringing their own horses.
McInnis said that due to bad connections, the pageant did away with its webpage. “Once we’re out at Lincoln, there is absolutely no service, so it’s hard for us to get anything in or out,” he said. “We were having a ton of trouble with tickets and anything else. We tried to jump on Facebook this year instead of our website.”
The public can look up the Old Lincoln Days on its website at newmexicohistoricsites.org/lincoln or call 575-653-4025.