Eugene Manlove Rhodes had movies made from the books, countless articles, and published short stories yet never rose to the financial prosperity or popularity that many western writers have. However, it can be said that he is to New Mexico as Louis L’Amour is to the rest of the world, timeless. Readers of L’Amour’s work understood that his characters were fictional. The characters that Rhodes introduced into his writing were real; they were men from the wild west. Rhodes often used fictitious names with real-life scenarios that happened right here in New Mexico. Rhodes would change the names of the towns without changing their apparent characteristics. For example, in the 1916 book, The Desire of the Moth and the Come On, the town Las Uvas has the Organ Mountains in its background and other familiar Las Cruces scenes. The significant difference between Rhodes and other western writers is that he walked the walk and talked the talk his whole life.
Rhodes was born in Nebraska in 1869, and by the time he was twelve years old, he was homesteading with his father in Engle, New Mexico. Occupations on Eugene’s New Mexico resume included horse wrangler, well-digger, miner, army scout, pursuer of Geronimo, teacher, freighter, and most of all, cowboy.
Rhodes was not the beloved poet and western author when his name first appears in New Mexico’s May 20, 1892, Rio Grande Republican newspaper. He appeared before Judge J.R. McFie in “Territory vs. Eugene Rhodes drawing a deadly weapon; case tried on Wednesday, and a verdict of guilty verdict returned.” At the time that news made the press, an appeal was already in motion. Thus, begins the written documentation of the life of Eugene Manlove Rhodes. He was a fighter and often found trouble before it found him. His son, Alan, recounts in a typed memoir that Eugene was injured in a gunfight with five assailants while ranching in the San Andres (before his marriage). He managed to fight them off but sustained a head injury from the butt of a six-shooter. As a result, bone fragments had pressed into his brain. Alan believed that the head injury was responsible for the hasty and violent attitude and often irrational behavior that seemed to make Eugene well known.
Alan is quick to add that his anecdotes were not meant to disrespect his father, whom he considered to be as fine a father as any man could have had. With his colorful use of words and his manner of behavior, it is no wonder he attracted the company of many famous past New Mexicans and even a few persons of questionable integrity along the way. L.G. Murphy, Albert Fall, Oliver Lee, the Dalton Gang, Pat Garrett, Agnes Morley Cleveland, and Elfelgo Baca are some who crossed paths and even became lifelong friends. A collection of correspondence between Fall and Rhodes can be found in the Albert B. Fall family papers, 1885-1951. Alan’s typed memoir is include d in the Eugene Manlove Rhodes papers. Eugene died in California in 1934. At his request, Eugene was buried in the San Andres Mountains. Until recently, every year in October, a pilgrimage is made to his grave. Find out more about the pilgrimage at the Alamogordo Public Library, which also houses an extensive collection of Eugene Manlove Rhodes works.
Pauline and Elizabeth Garrett were lifelong friends of Eugene and May Rhodes. In fact, May Rhodes visited New Mexico, for the last time, in 1941, when NMSU’s Rhodes Hall was dedicated, and she made a trip with the Garrett sisters to visit the dugout memorial with Paso Por Aqui sign. Named after his most famous tale of the west, the memorial stands in the White Sands Missile Range. Worth mentioning is that seven years later, Garrett was added to the name of the second wing and later a third wing named after Flora Hamiel to finalize the building as Rhodes Garret Hamiel Hall for the women’s dormitory.
In contrast to his father, Alan’s written memoirs are short and to the point, amounting to a few typed pages. Eugene had been described as a lover of words. He could take the descriptive verse to a whole new level. In 1911, he published A Number of Things, a story in which he described the Socorro area as “A land of mighty mountains, far seen, gloriously tinted, misty opal, blue and amethyst; a land of enchantment and mystery. Those same opalescent hills, seen closer, are decked with barbaric colors—reds, yellows or pinks, brown or green or gray; but, from afar, shapes and colors ebb and flow, altered daily, hourly, by subtle sorcery of atmosphere, distance, and angle; deepening, fading combining into new and fantastic forms and hues—to melt again as swiftly into others yet more bewildering.“
It was Eugene Rhodes who coined the phrase “Land of Enchantment” for New Mexico. Later in 1937, the New Mexico Tourist bureau would use that phrase on their state brochure, and the State Highway would follow suit with a map. Before then, the subtitle Sunshine State was used. Eugene’s wife, May Davidson Purple, also a noted author, wrote a short piece for Readers Digest and stated that Rhodes proposed to her the first day he met her. After a nearly two-year correspondence, Gene left New Mexico to visit and marry her. He showed up with a swollen eye and his ear torn, describing it as a “slight altercation.” He brought her two gifts, a silk scarf and a lady’s pearl handle revolver. Gene, as she called him in her memoirs, would jump into fights uninvited. He was proud of his reputation as a cowboy, more so than his reputation as a writer. Rhodes would often carry a pencil and a pad of paper. If someone said something interesting, he would tell them he would jot it down to use in a story later and usually did. One phrase that he used in his book was one May took to her grave, literally when she passed away in 1957. “She was wild and sweet and witty; let’s not say dull things about her.”