August 2018

History Lessons

Taking a Look Back column by John McVey Middagh

See also: At the Museum

Menu of this month's listings, stories and columns



Southwest Chapter of Railway & Locomotive Historical Society — The society meets at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 8, at El Sarape Restaurant. Program is “The History of the Caboose” by Steven Heetland. All train enthusiasts welcome. Information: 591-2326.

Fort Bayard Birthday — Fort Bayard Historic Preservation Society celebrates the fort’s 152nd birthday Saturday, Aug. 18, at the Fort Bayard Museum, on the west side of the Parade Ground in Fort Bayard, N.M. (6 miles east of Silver City off U.S. 180). Information: (575) 388-4477 or (575) 574-8779. 
  Flag ceremony is 9 a.m.; museum opens at 9:15 a.m. In addition to the fort’s regular walking tour and old-fashioned games, rancher Mr. Deily Crumley, whose family’s ranch adjoins Fort Bayard, will speak on “Supplying Fort Bayard with Beef” at 10:45 a.m. followed by cake and ice cream at 11:30 a.m. 
  Dinner and evening musical performance “The West: Singing its Story” by Ramblin’ Ralph Estes is 6 p.m. in the New Deal Theater. Reservations: (575) 574-2576 or (573) 388-4862.
  The Society host walking tours of the historic fort beginning at 9:30 a.m. Saturdays (Aug. 4, 11, 18 and 25), beginning at the 1910 Commanding Officer’s Quarter and museum (House 26). Museum is open 9:15 to 1 p.m. every Saturday. Tour takes about 90 minutes. Admission is free, but donations appreciated. 
  Fort Bayard served as an army post from 1866 to 1899 and army tuberculosis hospital from 1899 to 1920.

El Paso Archaeological Society — The society’s monthly meeting is 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 18, at El Paso Museum of Archaeology, 4301 Transmountain. Rudy Avila will speak on “Origins of Cowboy Culture.” Admission is free; the public is invited. Seating is limited. Information: 449-9075 or
  Avila, a volunteer with Texas A & M Agri-Live Extension in El Paso, will discuss the linguistic origins and environmental timeline of ranching and demonstrate the tools of the trade. He will also show saddles, spurs, horse tack and other equipment used by cowboys in the Americas.

Hotel Paso Del Norte submissions — The Hotel Paso Del Norte wants people from the El Paso area, former guests and visitors to be part of the hotel’s future and celebrating its past by submitting photos of historic events, receptions, parties and other happenings from the hotel’s 106-year history. Selected photos will be a part of the renovated décor. People whose photos are selected and used for display in the hotel will win a one-night stay at the Hotel Paso Del Norte after it opens later this year. Submissions may be made by visiting

Old Fort Bliss — Building 5054, corner of Pershing and Pleasanton Roads, Fort Bliss. The Old West days of the “Soldiers of the Pass” are relived through replicas of the original adobe fort buildings and military artifacts of the Magoffinsville Post, 1854 to 1868. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; by appointment only Saturday. Admission is free. Information: 568-4518 or 588-8482 or on Facebook at Old Fort Bliss.

Chamizal National Memorial — 800 S. San Marcial. The National Park Service operates the memorial on land once claimed by Mexico as part of a decades-long dispute over the international boundary. The visitor center has an exhibit on the history of the Chamizal dispute, including a video presentation. Park grounds and picnic area open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily for both foot traffic and vehicles; visitor’s center hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturday. Admission is free. Information: 532-7273 or on Facebook at ChamizalNationalMemorial. 
  “Tales, Tails and Tots” stories and visits with park mascot Chami are 11 to 11:30 a.m. for ages 3-6 the fourth Saturday of each month.

El Paso History Radio Show — The show runs 10:05 a.m. to noon Saturdays on KTSM AM 690 (and streamed at Documentary filmmaker Jackson Polk hosts the show with reenactor and historian Melissa Sargent. Details of each upcoming show, plus podcasts of previous programs, are at Information: 833-8700.

El Paso Mission Trail Visitor Center — El Paso Mission Trail Association’s center supporting the three historic churches in the Mission Valley — Ysleta Mission, Socorro Mission and San Elizario Chapel — is at 6095 Alameda (at Zaragoza). Hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Admission is free. Information 790-0661, 851-9997 or

EPCC Archive Collection donations — El Paso Community College will celebrate its 50th Anniversary in 2019, and is documenting the history of the college by establishing the EPCC Archive Collection. Anyone with memorabilia to donate to the collection such as posters, awards, photographs, brochures, programs, college publications, architectural records, documents on the beginning of the college or more are invited to share. Information: Antonio Rodarte at 831-4052; or Gale Sanchez at 831-4458,
  The community is also invited to share their favorite experiences, funny stories, memories of campuses and colleagues. Information:

Fort Bliss Historical Association — The group meets at 1 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month at the Fort Bliss museum complex, 1735 Marshall. Information: 269-4831. Dues are $25 a year ($10 students and junior enlisted soldiers).

Los Portales Museum and Visitor Center — 1521 San Elizario Road. The museum is operated by the San Elizario Genealogy and Historical Society, and is housed in an 1850s Territorial-style building across from the San Elizario church. It offers gifts, family trees, historical artifacts as well as information on the “First Thanksgiving” and the Salt War of 1877. Hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. Information: 851-1682.

San Elizario Veterans Museum and Memorial Walk — The museum, operated and managed by the non-profit San Elizario Veterans Committee of the San Elizario Genealogy and Historical Society, is at 1501-B Main Street in San Elizario. Hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. Information: Ann Lara, 345-3741 or Ray Borrego, 383-8529.

San Elizario walking tours — The San Elizario Historic District hosts free guided walking tours of its nationally recognized historic district at noon and 3 p.m. the fourth Sunday of the month starting at Main Street Mercantile, 1501 Main Street. Learn about the 17 historic sites of San Elizario, about the arrival of Don Juan de Onate to the area in 1598 and the First Thanksgiving Celebration, the Presidio de San Elizario and the San Elcear Chapel on the Mission Trail. Information: 851-0093 or
  To get there: Take Loop 375 to Socorro Road then go east seven miles to San Elizario. District is on the right. Look for the brown signs.

Scottish Rite Temple tour — The Downtown El Paso historic landmark, 301 W. Missouri, is open to the public for a free walking tour at 9 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. Learn about El Paso’s Masonic history, the design and architecture of the theater. Information: 533-4409.

Fort Selden State Monument — The monument, 1280 Fort Selden Road in Radium Springs, 13 miles north of Las Cruces, is open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday (Monday and closed Tuesday). Admission is $5; (ages 16 and under free). Admission for New Mexico residents with ID is free the first Sunday of each month; and for seniors with ID each Wednesday. Information: (575) 526-8911 or
  Fort Selden was a 19th century adobe fort established to protect early settlers. The monument seeks to preserve the remaining ruins and has a visitor’s center with exhibits of military life at the post. From Las Cruces, take I-25 north to Exit 19.

Fort Stanton — The fort was established and built in 1855 by troopers of the 1st Dragoon Regiment to serve as a base of operations against the Mescalero Apache Indians. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday (Hours may be shorter in winter — call for schedule). Admission is free. Information: (575) 354-0341,

Mission Trail — Three historic churches lie within eight miles of each other in El Paso County’s Mission Valley.
• Mission Ysleta — Spanish and Tigua Indian refugees from northern New Mexico founded the community in the 1680s. The first mission was built in 1692 and rebuilt completely in both the 18th and 19th centuries. The current structure was built in 1851. It’s near Zaragoza and Alameda on the Tigua Reservation. Information: 851-9997 (El Paso Mission Trail Association).
• Mission Socorro — The first adobe structure in Socorro was built in 1692, and like nearby Mission Ysleta, was destroyed by floods in later centuries. The current structure dates back to 1843, with additions completed in 1873. It’s off Socorro Road two miles southeast of Ysleta.
• San Elizario Chapel — Established in 1789 as a Spanish presidio, or fort, to protect the Camino Real, San Elizario was the first county seat of El Paso. The church was built in 1877, replacing a church built about 25 years earlier. Technically, San Elizario Chapel is a presidio church, not a mission. It’s on the San Elizario plaza, off Socorro Road, 5.5 miles southeast of Socorro Mission. Nearby is the famous jail that Billy the Kid reportedly broke into to rescue a friend. Group tours are available. For San Elizario tour information, call 851-1682.

Shakespeare Ghost Town — The small pioneer settlement and mining town on the trail to California is just south of Lordsburg, N.M. A 1½-hour tour at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday on the second weekend of the month; call to confirm. Cost is $4 ($3 ages 6-12). Information: (575) 542-9034 or
  To get there: From Lordsburg, take the Main Street exit (Exit 22) from Interstate 10 and turn south. Follow signs to Shakespeare

Taking a Look Back column by John McVey Middagh

1884 ‘Giant’ hoax almost ended in saloon shooting


The Cardiff Giant, one of the biggest hoaxes pulled on the American people, almost resulted in a shooting in El Paso back in 1884.
The real Giant was supposed to have been a petrified prehistoric man, 10 feet 4 inches in height, weighing 2,900 pounds with shoulders 3 feet wide. He was dug up at a farm in New York in 1869. Turns out, of course, that he had been planted by a practical joker who had no idea how far the giant would range.
The entire business started over an argument about religion. An Easterner, George Hull, got into a biblical discussion with a revivalist minster while visiting family in Iowa. The preacher kept saying there were giants back in those days, referring to Genesis 6:4, where it states, “There were giants on the earth in those days.” (That’s in the King James Version — later versions refer to the giants as “Nephilim.”)
The Easterner was an agnostic and the argument got a little out of hand. As the Easterner was returning home, the argument still fresh in his mind, he thought, “I’ll show that preacher and maybe make some money on the side.” It made him a fortune.
So, taking in a few friends in the strictest confidence, they had a giant sculpture cut out of a five-ton block of gypsum and buried it on a farm in Cardiff, New York. They let the old giant remain there for a year, until he was “accidentally” dug up when the farmer hired two men to dig a well. The farmer, who was in on the hoax, showed them the exact spot where to dig. The workmen did as directed, soon making that startling discovery.
Of course, the uncovering of this “prehistoric giant” caused a tremendous furor, not only in Cardiff, but all around the country. Reporters and archaeologists went to view the find of the century. Soon arguments arose over its nationality, in what period the giant had lived, and the way he had been preserved.
Publicity raged to the point that P.T. Barnum, the circus owner, offered $60,000 just to lease the giant for three months. The offer was refused so Barnum had a copy made to be exhibited in New York City. It was finally determined that the entire thing was a hoax, but nevertheless copies of the Cardiff Giant went on tour all over the country. That’s how the giant almost caused a killing here in El Paso.
How he got here is lost in the pages of time. Reports by the El Paso Times suspected an owner of one of the finer saloons, Si Ryan, and a prominent businessman, Robert Lightbody, arranged to have the giant brought to town as a prank.

Anyway, rumors ran through the streets and saloons of El Paso in 1884 that a “giant of a man,” who was awful mean and fast with a gun, had made his headquarters at the Ryan saloon on Overland Street, and he planned to take over the town.
With the prank in place, Lightbody started telling everyone he’d heard the big man was threatening to run some of the big names out of town, and one of his main targets was Judge T. A. Falvey, one of El Paso’s most respected lawyers. The rumor started was that the stranger was telling everyone that the judge had fleeced a widow out of $400 before coming to El Paso.
Judge Falvey went ballistic when he heard that a stranger was making big talk about him in Ryan’s saloon. The judge grabbed a friend’s pistol and charged down to the saloon, intending to confront the big man. All this time the replica of the giant was lying in the back room of the bar.
A few friends who were in on the joke followed the judge to the saloon. When they got there the barkeep told the entourage that they had just missed the big man. Well, as circumstances would have it, a very large man, a stranger to everyone, walked into the saloon just as the judge was turning to leave.
The stranger was completely unaware of all the goings-on. But to the judge here was the “big man” who had been lying about him. He lifts his pistol when one of his friends grabs his arm. Watching from the sidelines, Ryan hollers, “Hold it, Judge! That’s not the man. Your man is in the back room.”
The judge, with his friends, stormed into the room and there stretched out in a box was the Cardiff Giant replica. Everyone almost died from laughter seeing the look on Falvey’s face. With Ryan blurting out, “There’s the man who’s been spreading those rumors. He’s the trouble maker.” Still laughing they all went back to the bar where the judge ordered a round of drinks for the house.
The replica left El Paso after giving all a big Texas laugh. The “real” fake Cardiff Giant may still be seen in the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. A replica that was created much later is on display at the Fort Museum in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

John McVey Middagh is a former
saddle shop owner. You can reach
him at

El Paso Scene MONTHLY
This month's listings, stories and columns

Feature story
Here's the Ticket
Program Notes
On Stage
Southwest Art Scene
At the Museum
History Lessons
Film Scene
Keep on Bookin'
Liner Notes
Stage Talk
Gallery Talk


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