Early History & Settlers Of Ruidoso | History Of Ruidoso | Ruidoso.com
Old Downs Mill at Fallstead

Ruidoso is a rough gem cut and polished over time . . . until it sparkles

This is a tale about people who’ve lived in this area for centuries. Read on. You might learn something you didn’t know about Ruidoso. 

You might find a place that interests you for a visit. Or you might just want bragging rights when you tell your kids what you know. No one would fault you for not revealing your source!

Early History

We don’t know much about the first people who wandered over this land, although you could probably find the beautifully crafted spear points they made as long as 12,000 years ago at the archaeological site in Folsom.

More recently — perhaps 500 years ago — people living here called themselves Nde. The men hunted antelope, deer, and bison, while women gathered plants, fruits, nuts, and seeds. 

Because the Nde used the mescal plant as a major food source, the Spanish called them Mescalero. That’s the name we know them by today. The Zuni called them ápachu, a word in their language meaning enemy, that became Apache in English. 

The Mescalero lived in and around Sierra Blanca. At 11,981 feet in elevation, it’s the highest mountain in Southern New Mexico. The Mescalero call it the mountain with snow on top, and it’s sacred to them. 

In their creation story, it’s where White Pained Woman gave birth, and all life began. It is also home to their protectors — the Mountain Gods.


The Spanish arrived with Juan Oñate in 1599. Fortunately for the Mescalero, Spanish travelers pretty much confined themselves to the Rio Grande Valley. Still, there was contact — trading and raiding by both — but the Mescalero mountain sanctuary was little disturbed until the Mexican-American War ended in 1848. That’s when settlers began ranching and farming in the area. 

In 1869, Captain Saturnino Baca sponsored a bill creating Lincoln County, designating Placita del Rio Bonito — renamed Lincoln — as the county seat. The torréon, a stone defensive structure constructed by settlers to defend against raiders, is the oldest structure remaining in Lincoln.

San Patricio in Hondo Valley — where Peter Hurd later lived and painted — was originally known as Ruidoso. Its name was changed in 1875 to honor the wishes of a Catholic priest for it to be named for his patron saint.

Early settlers called the nearby creek Rio Ruidoso, meaning “noisy river.” It was there Paul Dowlin, a retired army captain, built a mill to grind wheat into flour for both the community and nearby Fort Stanton.

He also operated a general store and dance hall. You can see Old Dowlin Mill today. It’s Ruidoso’s oldest building — although a recent fire destroyed much of the interior and machinery used for grinding.

Dowlin was shot dead in his front yard by Jerry Dalton, a disgruntled employee. Dowlin’s brother, Will, took over operating the mill, along with Frank Lesnett, who’d bought a half interest. Lesnett’s wife, Annie, claimed to have entertained Geronimo and Billy the Kid. 

She fed Billy several times, despite warnings from her husband about helping one side in the Lincoln County War, and the Apache warrior once brought her a wild turkey and basket. She often gave donuts to visiting Mescalero whom she befriended.


By 1885, in addition to buildings housing the general store, a blacksmith, post office, and cabins — many of which are still used today — the town had grown and assumed theGarden at Wingfield Park name Ruidoso. Some attribute its growth, in part, to the proximity of John Chisum’s cattle trail. 

At that time, Charles Wingfield came to Ruidoso with his wife, Mary. They lived in Dowlin Mill from 1886 to 1893 and built a house at 2813 Sudderth, where it remains to this day. The Wingfields operated the general store, a dairy, and ran the post office.

Charles and Mary had four children, one of whom was Isaac, nicknamed Ike. Oral histories say while Ike ran the general store and mills, his wife, Lula, ran the dairy until the 1930s. Their daughter, Della, continued the dairy until 1950.

In 1918, W.R. White and his wife, Chloe, built a sawmill near Upper Canyon. Some years later, a swimming pool was dug, its water heated using steam piped from the nearby mill.

During the 1920s, Ike Wingfield and his family operated the only grocery store, selling everything from sugar, flour, meat, and dairy products to horseshoes, nails, gasoline, and oil. They also operated a roller-skating rink. People could skate daily, except for Wednesday and Saturday nights when the rink was reserved for dances.

The Southwest Children’s Home was an orphanage Ike and Lula helped found in 1925. It was a home for orphans as well as a refuge for children fleeing polio.

The orphanage operated until 1975. It was razed in 1993, and the land was repurposed as Wingfield Park. It was on this land Lulu Wingfield started a garden of perennials that still beautifies the park.

In 1926, the first Delco light plant electrified the town.


Not long after people started arriving by automobile, enduring travel over primitive roads. New Mexico’s highways remained unpaved until the 1930s. But the desire to escape the summer heat in the cool mountain air of Ruidoso proved irresistible. Mining and timber had been Ruidoso’s economic mainstay, but that gave way to the tourism that sustains the city today.

Cabins and lodges were built, and businesses occupied newly constructed buildings, many of which are still in use. For example, The Covered Wagon Curio Shop has occupied the same space on Sudderth Drive since the 1930s. Brunell’s, also on Sudderth, has been remodeled since it opened as Brunell’s Dry Goods in 1936. Michelle’s, a clothing store, and artist Teri Sodd’s Mountain Arts Gallery may have once been gas stations, but you’d never know it today. 

Dreamcatcher Café & Coffee House occupies a former 1940s motor court. And the town’s first electric company had its office in what is now The Back Door, an antique and home furnishings shop.

Horse races were first held in a meadow south of Ruidoso. A formal track was built in 1947. The area came to be known as Ruidoso Downs, home of the All American Futurity, the world’s richest quarter horse race. 

The first futurity was run on Labor Day 1959. The All American Futurity, Kansas Futurity, and Rainbow Futurity make up the Quarter Horse Triple Crown.

Ski Apache and Inn of the Mountain Gods

In 1938, skiing first began in a meadow near Cedar Creek. Skiers and other winter fun seekers could hike to the summit or buy a lift ticket for the gasoline-powered rope tow. After the U.S. Forest Service granted permission to construct a ski area on Sierra Blanca, the new resort set a state record for the number of visitors.

The Mescalero purchased the resort in 1963 and renamed it Ski Apache in 1985. Non-skiers and summer visitors can purchase a ticket to ride the gondola to the top. After Ski Apache Snowy Mountainenjoying the view of White Sands and the black lava fields of the Valley of Fires, they get to ride back down the mountain.

The Mescalero have also developed The Inn of the Mountain Gods. The resort and casino are one of New Mexico’s premier mountain resorts, offering hunting and fishing, skeet shooting, and horseback riding, as well as casino games.

Ruidoso’s more recent history includes a devastating flash flood in 2008. What remained of Hurricane Dolly flooded Rio Ruidoso, damaging almost 500 structures, and killing one person.

People awake from nightmares and catch their breath. So did Ruidoso, recovering from the flood with the purpose to make the city even better for visitors.

Come to absorb the natural beauty — imagine alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers like a Seurat pointillist painting, babbling brooks, and lofty, evergreen-covered mountains. Immerse yourself in history at Fort Stanton and the Lincoln Historic Site

Wander afar to Carrizozo to see its heritage museum and the Valley of Fires lava field. Explore White Oaks to learn about its gold mining. See if you can find out why John Winters’ grave in Cedarvale Cemetery is 90 degrees out of line with all the others. It’s quite a story.

Or just sit with your feet up and soak in the cool air a mile and a quarter above sea level . . . until dinner time. Then take yourself and your family to one of Ruidoso’s outstanding restaurants for a perfect ending to a perfect day.

History may be in the mind of the teller, but you can make your own history in Ruidoso.

Story by Bud Russo

Posted by Ruidoso.com

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