Ross Woods picked a bad morning to order eggs for breakfast.
In 1879, in the southwestern New Mexico town of Shakespeare, Woods was eating his eggs at the Stratford Hotel owned by his mother. Bean Belly Smith (you can’t make up nicknames like that) also wanted eggs, but Woods had gotten the last one.
Smith, noted for his hot temper, cussed out the egg man (in fairness, Woods was reportedly hanky-pankying with Mrs. Bean Belly). Woods took umbrage and got a gun from his room upstairs. His shot from the restaurant doorway missed; Smith’s return fire didn’t, leaving Woods to take up residence in the local cemetery.
Just another day’s action in Shakespeare. The town, which never got bigger than around 3,000 people since its founding in 1856, is Wild West all the way. Shakespeare was a stop on the Butterfield Stage line, a mining town and a small cattle and merchandise center.
It attracted the famous and infamous, such as future Tombstone cowboys Curly Bill Brocius, the Clantons and John Ringo. Billy the Kid was a temporary resident, as was lawman “Dangerous” Dan Tucker, a quick-on-the-draw artist who had at least six notches on his gun. The stories and characters associated with the town go on and on. Shakespeare almost didn’t.
In the 1880s, the railroad bypassed the town by a couple of miles, allowing the metropolis of Lordsburg to crop up. Shakespeare’s mines closed in 1893, speeding up the exodus.
Thankfully, in 1935, Frank and Rita Hill bought a plot of land for a ranch, which included the ghost town. Given their appreciation of history, the Hills did their best to preserve Shakespeare.
They found some help with their efforts when the town was declared a National Historic Site in 1970—but Frank died that year. His daughter Janaloo, who’d spent time on the coasts as a dancer, model and actress, returned home to help keep her father’s legacy going. In 1983, she married Manny Hough, who possessed no experience in ghost town preservation and tourism.
He learned—and he stayed at it, even after Rita died in 1985 and Janaloo died in 2005. A fire in 1997 destroyed the General Merchandise building, taking with it artifacts, papers and most of Manny and Janaloo’s possessions. Manny still lives in Shakespeare, surrounded by a handful of buildings dating back to the early 19th century.
Tourism has been down, about three quarters of late, to 1,000 visitors over each of the past couple of years. Admissions never did bring in much money. The Friends of Shakespeare group, about 160 strong, contributes most of the operating funds. When Manny requires bigger infusions of cash for construction or repair, he sells sections of the old ranch. The new Visitor’s Center—a $180,000 project—was financed that way. He hopes that additional funds will someday rebuild the General Merchandise.
But time may be getting short. Manny successfully fought cancer a couple of years ago, yet he’s in his mid-70s. He has no children or other kin ready to take on the challenge of Shakespeare. “I’ve gotta plan ahead. I’m not going to be here forever,” he acknowledges.
Manny has built a small apartment, hoping to find a retired couple to live there, rent-free, and assume the tourism duties and handle the odd jobs around the place. He also wants to give the rights to his property—free of charge—to a nonprofit organization with a track record of preserving and running historic sites like Shakespeare.
Whoever steps up to the plate will get a remarkable piece of history, still alive and looking something like it did on that day in 1879. For Ross Woods, the Shakespeare egg meant “good night, sweet prince.” For somebody today, the town just might be a golden egg.