Photos Courtesy Mike Sinnwell August 2015
Folsom Area History - as written by Mike Schoonover November 2010
Folsom has an incredibly rich history which is preserved in the buildings, people, and the wonderful Museum.
Originally, a town named Madison was established where the Granada to Fort Union Military Route crossed the Dry Cimarron river. When the railroad track was laid through the area, it bypassed Madison. The townspeople threw together a tent city where the tracks met the river -- it was called Rag Town because of all the canvas structures.
Some time later the bride-elect of President Grover Cleveland, Francis Folsom, stepped off the train to explore the little town during a whistle stop. The townspeople were smitten by her charms and chose her maiden name with which to christen the little village by the river.
The little town eventually grew to be 1,000 strong and once vied to be the county seat. In its heyday, Folsom boasted the largest stockyards west of Fort Worth. At the time, the countryside was filled with homesteaders who relied on the town for supplies and a taste of civilization. Slowly, the homesteaders gave up as the weather turned drier. The remaining farmers accumulated the abandoned land into larger plots; eventually those holdouts gave up as well. The farmland all returned to pasture and was once again used mainly for ranching. The resulting decrease in population eventually strangled the small railroad towns of Folsom, Des Moines, Capulin, Grenville, and Mount Dora -- all are mere wisps of their former selves.
Through its time, the town had several businesses: hotels, restaurants, supply stores, doctors, newspapers, and, of course, more than its fair share of bars.
Three school houses have been built in Folsom, the first two having burned to the ground. The last school closed in 1958 and the students were transferred to Des Moines. The school still stands and is used today for community events.
Several newspapers called Folsom home at one time or another. They poked fun at other towns, especially Clayton. One editor spent the night there and complained about the gunfire piercing his sleep, and expressed thanks that Folsom was not such a lawless place. The editor in Clayton complained equally about Folsom. At one point, the editors sold their respective papers to each other and switched towns. They then began attacking the towns they had just left!
One of New Mexico's most notorious bandits, Black Jack Ketchum, robbed his last train just outside Folsom. He was captured and hanged in Clayton, during which hanging he was decapitated. He is the only man to be hanged for train robbery in the United States.
In 188?, two Dallas investors put together nearly $50,000, a huge sum in those days, to build a majestic hotel just east of town. They were hoping to make it into a mineral springs resort, much like Hot Springs, NM. The hotel was built on the edge of a gorge, and they planned to build a dam to create a small lake for fishing and canoeing. The building was absolutely incredible and would have been an eye catcher even in the biggest of cities. Two weeks from completion, the investors began to feud with each other and dropped the project altogether.
They never sent another dime nor did they visit the town again. People held parties in the abandoned structure, newcomers lived in it while their houses were being finished, and vagrants called it home. To add to the indignation, bits and pieces were stolen for use on houses in the area. The hotel was slowly deconstructed in this manner and fell victim to the occasional fire. The flood of 1908 finally washed away what was left. If the hotel had survived to the present day, Folsom might be an entirely different town altogether.
Folsom was built in a valley next to the Dry Cimarron. Except after a rain, the river is usually dry but for isolated spots fed by underground springs. Near Folsom, the river is more of a trench -- 10 to 15 feet across and 10 feet or so deep. The town was periodically victimized by flooding, filling the main street three to four feet deep with water. The head waters of the Dry Cimarron start eight miles west of Folsom at the edge of the Johnson Mesa, providing the drainage for a large area of that mesa and the surrounding lowlands.
In 1908, the hay had been cut and the leftover stalks littered the fields. A cloudburst settled above the river's headwaters and dumped an unusually large amount of rain. The waters collected the hay stalks and other debris and carried them along until they began to block the small railroad bridges. When these impromptu dams gave way, the resulting surge added to the already swelling river.
Residents up the river realized that the town was in danger and called ahead to warn them. Sarah J. "Sally" Rooke, the Folsom telephone operator, stayed at her station to call as many residents as possible to alert them to the impending flood. Ms. Rooke was washed away and died along with 17 other people.
Most of the buildings which were not built on foundations were washed away. The displaced residents never returned to rebuild. From that point on, the town dwindled away to its present population of about eighty souls. The last store closed in the seventies. The infamous Folsom Inn & Bar was opened around that time and operated until 2007.
In 2009, the state of New Mexico honored Sarah Rooke as one of the Heroines of New Mexico and erected a monument in her honor next to the Folsom Museum. Not much is known about Ms. Rooke other than she arrived in Folsom later in life and was unmarried at the time of her death. She arrived in the little town probably expecting to live out her life and die in obscurity, only to be immortalized on that terrible night.