Last month’s drive along that breathtaking road into Mills Canyon was unforgettable, but we weren’t finished with Melvin Mills. I had read about a huge abandoned mansion Mills had built in the nearby town of Springer. I really wanted to see it. But who was Melvin Mills? And how did he ever come to own that whole canyon as well as a mansion in Springer?
Following the Civil War, the enormous number and size of land grants in northern New Mexico spelled opportunity for both eastern lawyers and moneyed interests abroad. Melvin Mills was already a lawyer when he came to New Mexico from Michigan in 1868. Before long he was representing the Maxwell Land Grant Company, which had been sold to English investors. They needed legal help as they forcefully evicted settlers — “squatters” — who were trespassers on the property, all 1.7 million acres of it, the largest private land holding in the United States. This precipitated the Colfax County War, which played out over 20 years and cost 200 lives. The war, as well as his involvement with a cadre of crooked politicians known as the Santa Fe Ring, made Mills a rich man.
In 1877 he built a mansion in Springer — a three-story, 22-room adobe house with a metal mansard roof and four protruding chimneys. The architectural style is called Second French Empire, named for the rule of French Emperor Napoleon III (1852-1870), a somewhat ironic choice stylistically since the French and English hated each other and the English had made Mills wealthy.
It might seem foolish to build a palace in a small town, but it straddled the heavily traveled Santa Fe Trail. The trail split into the Mountain Route and Cimarron Route nearby, and both routes were visible from the second story balcony. Not only that, when the railroad came to Springer it went right by the Mills Mansion.
The 1904 flood of the Canadian River in Mills Canyon wiped out Melvin Mills’ beautiful Orchard Ranch. He went broke trying to rebuild it, and lost his mansion as well. He died penniless in 1925. The mansion’s owner at the time, Thomas B. Catron, granted Mills’ request to die in his old house. Mills is buried in the Springer Cemetery in an unmarked grave.
Jon Knudsen is a freelance writer and retired educator. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.