Nestled in the Kiowa National Grassland, about 12 miles north of Roy, New Mexico on Highway 39, sits the once thriving small town of Mills. Don’t blink, or you might miss what’s left as you pass by. Just off the highway, only a few buildings remain among foundations of former glory, but Mills isn’t done yet.
Situated in Harding County, the first iteration of Mills was established in 1898 by Melvin W. Mills, a homesteader who grew crops in Mills Canyon along the Canadian River. Mr. Mills would become a successful rancher, farmer, attorney, then later a Senator, Judge, and Governor. Growing a large orchard among other crops, Mills would transport fresh produce to Springer and Wagon Mound. Mills was also known for his earlier run-in with Clay Allison and his involvement in the “Colfax County War” in the 1870s.
Southern Pacific, which ran a rail line from Dawson to Tucumcari, opened a depot and the town began to grow. A post office was established that same year, with Hotel owner Henry Lebert meeting the train and taking it back to the hotel for distribution. But hardship was just around the corner as a flood took out the town in 1904.
Not to be deterred, landowners Cress and Pelphey provided 40 acres for a new townsite, and it was boosted by New York’s Wilson Company who invested in building a store, elevator, bean house, lumberyard, hotel, stockyard, and homes for their employees.
In 1913, Mills had grown enough to include five hotels, a theatre, dance hall, four doctors, a hospital, barbershop, 3 stores, a bank, two saloons, three churches, a school, boarding house and more. In the early 1920s, the original school burned down, but a new one was built next to the grain elevators in the middle of town.
At its peak, Mills boasted 3,000 residents, and had the best basketball team in the state in 1940, when the Mills Bobcats went undefeated through the season. However, an overconfident coach decided to play his second team against Springer and send the first string to the pool hall. They wouldn’t make it to the game in time as Mills second string lost by one point in the quarterfinal round.
National hardships such as the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, coupled with the closing of the railway, led to the downfall of Mills. The school closed in the early 1940s, and the two-story brick high school stood until it was torn down in the early 1980s. The Post Office eventually moved into the old bank building in 1944 and, despite only having a few residents in town, was still open and active during our visit in 2013.
Mills Canyon nearby also has a storied history as a stage stop along the route from Kansas to Santa Fe. Tales of gambling and eastern girls held hostage persist to this day. We also heard tales of how the area of Mills Canyon was used by Indians to raid wagon trains, escaping into the canyon terrain. Today Mills Canyon Recreation Area provides fishing, hunting and hiking trails along the Canadian River.
©Dave Alexander, Legends of America. Updated January 2020
Clayton to Las Vegas and Ghosts In Between (Travel Blog, July 22, 2013)
New Mexico (main page)
Harding County, New Mexico
Information from a local Sheriffs Officer who stopped during our visit.