Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Writer, A Saloon, and A Famous Town: Robert E. Howard in Lincoln, NM by Todd B. Vick

On June 19th of 1935 Robert E. Howard and his good friend Truett Vinson set off on a road trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. During that same trip they visited the historic town of Lincoln, New Mexico. Howard had always been fascinated with Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County Wars, so when Truett needed to take a trip to Santa Fe, Howard certainly took the opportunity to go with him. Fortunately, for us today, Howard detailed this trip in a letter to his long-time correspondent and fellow writer friend, H.P. Lovecraft.

I can’t help but wonder if Howard plotted this trip in such a way that passing through Lincoln on their journey to Santa Fe would be inevitable. According to Howard, the day he and Vinson left, they drove over 500 miles and made it all the way to Roswell, NM. About that town Howard declares, “Roswell is a neat, spotless modern town, with the usual streams of tourists pouring through continually.” (Howard  3: 344) The next morning they loaded up the car and made their way into Lincoln.

The Old Courthouse (Murphy's Shop) ca 1930s
In June of 1935, Lincoln, NM was virtually the same as it was 55 years earlier during the Lincoln County Wars. The roads were still unpaved and none of the buildings were yet owned by the State. In fact, the County of Lincoln obtained the Murphy house (a.k.a “The House”)—what later became the old courthouse where Billy the Kid made his notorious escape— on December 15th, 1880 for $15,000. It wasn’t until 1937 that the State of New Mexico bought this building, and in 1949 other buildings and sites were purchased and transferred to the Old Lincoln County Memorial Commission. Additionally, in 1977 the town officially became an historical site fully owned by the State of New Mexico. So when Howard and Vinson visited Lincoln, the Murphy House (courthouse) was empty and used as a storage building.

When Howard and Vinson entered from the East into Lincoln they had their minds set on finding that one particular building . . .
“[T]he old courthouse whence Billy made the most dramatic escape ever made in the Southwest. We rounded a crook in the meandering street and it burst upon us like the impact of a physical blow. There was no mistaking it.” (Howard  3: 346)

They parked the car and explored the exterior of the courthouse for some time. Since the building was not being used for anything other than storage, it was locked. Looking around, Howard described that they noticed, across the street, the La Paloma Saloon[1] “which bears a sign that claims existence in the Kid’s day.” (Howard  3: 346)

Evening at the La Paloma Bar, Lincoln, NM ca 1945.
Roman Maes inside of bar leaning on screen door
(Picture by Walt Wiggins)
It was in this establishment where Howard and Vinson met a man named Roman Maes. In his letter to H.P. Lovecraft, Howard describes not only meeting Mr. Maes but also gives Lovecraft a brief history about one of Maes’ relatives who fought in the Lincoln County Wars. Here is how Howard details it,
“The owner [of the La Paloma] is one Ramon [sic] Maes[2], grandson of Lucio Montoya, ‘Murphy’s Sharpshooter’ as he told us with pride—a supple well built man, tall for a Mexican and broadshouldered, with a thin-nostrilled Mountain Indian look about his face. The name of Montoya is woven into the Kid’s saga. He took part in the three-day fight in which McSween was killed; he lay on the mountain that commanded the Montana House, with Crawford, firing from behind a boulder.[3]” (Howard  3: 346)

Howard and Maes talked for some time, probably about Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County Wars. In his letter to Lovecraft Howard declares,
“He [Roman Maes] was very courteous and eager to point out interesting spots, and answer our questions,
 [. . .]
 Maes gave us the key to the old courthouse, which was once Murphy’s store. It is used as a storeplace for junk now, and there is talk, we were told, of tearing it down to build a community hall. It should be preserved.” (Howard  3: 347)

(L to R) Roman Maes & Robert E. Howard
ca June 1935
Howard and Vinson spent some time in the courthouse, wandering around, walking through the rooms, and imagining everything that happened that infamous day when Billy made his notorious escape.[4] Sometime between getting the key from Roman Maes and spending time in the old courthouse, Robert E. Howard and Roman Maes posed for a picture, now popular in Howard fandom (The actual picture is above, taken in front of the old courthouse). In the past it had only been speculated that the man to the left of Howard in the photo was Roman Maes. Thanks to several Lincoln, NM park rangers I was able, through social media, to track down the granddaughter of Roman Maes. She confirmed for me that the man in the photograph with Robert E. Howard was, in fact, her grandfather.

According to the Maes family, Roman Maes lived in Lincoln, NM his whole life. He acquired the La Paloma in 1935 and operated it until the mid-1980s when his wife became ill (cancer) and was forced to shut down operations. During World War II, Maes could not get liquor for the bar so he turned the La Paloma into a small grocery store and later sold Indian curios.[5] Roman Maes’ daughter, Priscilla Maes, would have been 6 years old when Robert E. Howard visited Lincoln, NM. She stated that she remembered people would stop in town at the bar, talk with her father, and he would show them around, but she never remembered anyone’s name. So, it's quite possible that she could have met Robert E. Howard when she was a child. Both Roman Maes and his wife, Theodora, are buried in the old cemetery of Lincoln on the East side of town.

I took a picture with a zoom lens of the
peak where Maes climbed.
During my visit to Lincoln, NM[6] I spoke with several park rangers. While discussing the La Paloma and Roman Maes, one of the park rangers told me that back in the 1940s, Maes, with a donkey, climbed the mountain on the southern side of town in order to place a cross on its peak. When he and the donkey neared the peak of the mountain, the donkey lost its footing, tumbled and slid all the way back down the mountainside. Concerned for the animal, Maes worked his way back down to find the donkey was uninjured. He took this as a sign from God, loaded the wood back on the donkey, and proceeded to climb the mountain again. This time he reached the peak, built a wooden cross on the mountain top, and slowly worked his way back down the mountainside. Today, Maes’ cross has been replaced with PVC pipe, but it still stands on the peak of the southern mountain. 

After spending a few hours in Lincoln, Howard and Vinson traveled toward Carrizozo, then up to Albuquerque, and northward reaching Santa Fe by nightfall. The following day, June 20th 1935, in Santa Fe, NM, Howard mailed a postcard to fellow writer and friend, August Derleth, with this handwritten message on the back of the postcard:
“This card was purchased in Lincoln, NM from a descendant of a participant in the Bloody Lincoln County Wars. REH.” (Howard  3:  329)
The postcard had the famous tin photograph of Billy the Kid on the front. Howard purchased a few of them from Roman Maes at the La Paloma Bar.[7] Below is the actual postcard (Front & Back) sent to August Derleth.[8]

The Front of the Postcard sent to
August Derleth, ca June 20th 1935

The Back of the Postcard sent to August Derleth
(The Postcard is from the Wisconsin State Historical Society)

[1] Howard called the La Paloma a “Saloon” in his letter to H.P. Lovecraft. This is, in fact, what it would have been (a saloon) in Billy’s day back in the late 1870s early 1880s. However, at the time of Howard’s visit it would have been named The La Paloma Bar.
[2] In his letter Howard actually typed the name Ramon Maes. The man Howard and Vinson met was actually named Roman Maes. After corresponding with Rusty Burke (one of the editors of A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard: 1933-1936) about this, he concluded that Howard probably misheard Roman’s name. I will continue to quote Howard’s letters exactly as Robert E. Howard wrote them, but note that "Ramon Maes" is actually named Roman Maes.
[3] For a more detailed account of this event refer to Frederick Nolan’s book, The West of Billy the Kid, pages 151, 155, and especially 158.
[4] I will be writing a second article about this aspect of Robert E. Howard’s visit to Lincoln, NM.
[5] This information was provided to me by Roman Maes’ granddaughter, Roberta Maes Baker. She and her mother (Priscilla Maes)—Roman Maes’ daughter—were very helpful in providing me with facts and information for this article.
[6] I just recently took a trip to Lincoln, NM (July 25th to 26th, 2015) to research facts and information for this article and an article to soon be written.
[7] Roman Maes did in fact sell postcards from the La Paloma back in 1935, a fact confirmed by the Maes family. Maes was also the grandson of Lucio Montoya, involved in the Lincoln County Wars.
[8] Thanks to Rob Roehm for providing me scanned copies of the postcard. I would also like to thank Rusty Burke for answering several questions about the REH letters. And lastly, thank you to the Maes family and especially to Roberta Maes Baker and Priscilla Maes for providing answers to all my questions about Roman Maes and the La Paloma Bar.


Howard, Robert E. The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard. Ed. Rob Roehm. Vol. 1-3. Plano, TX: Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2007. Print.

Nolan, Frederick W. The West of Billy the Kid. Norman: U of Oklahoma, 1998. Print.


Adventuresfantastic said...

Great article, Todd. I'm looking forward to the next one. I promised my son a few months ago on his birthday that I would take him hiking in NM. We leave next week and will stop in Lincoln on the way.

Todd B. Vick said...

Thanks, Keith. I'm submitting the next one to True West magazine (and a few other journals/magazines). Have fun on your hiking trip, that sounds like a blast. Lincoln, NM, like you said, is an awesome little town. This weekend (August 7,8 & 9) they are having "Old Lincoln Days." People from all over the world come to this - much like REH Days in Cross Plains, TX every year. All the info I read about it looked very interesting. I think I'm going to attend that next year.

Unknown said...

Greetings my name is James Nesmith I am a grandson to Roman Maes my mother was Jenny Maes Roman Maes youngest daughter. I just read your article here and saw the pictures posted and I thought it was a very good article Thank You

Todd B. Vick said...

Hello, James. I'm glad you like the article. Your family was quite helpful when I was researching it. It's an interesting history. Cheers!

Unknown said...

Hello my name is Jesus Maes (Ray) i am the oldest grandson of Roman and Theorda Maes. growing up in El Paso i used to spend alot of summers with my grandparents in lincoln. Either my parents would take me to visit or my grandparents would drive to El paso to pick me up. I can remember a couple of times my parents would put me on a Greyhound bus i would get off in Tinney.NM where a mail truck would pick me up ane either drop me off at the post office or at my grandparents place in lincoln. I can remember being in a few lincoln day parades and going to school in the building next to the court house. Playing in the area where the pagent is plyed or hiking up the mountain while my grandparents would watch me to make sure i was ok. If anyone wants to talk with me can contact me at I SURE MISS MY GRANDPARENTS AND LINCOLN.