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Lingering in old Mesilla; near Las Cruces, it was a Mexican frontier town.

Old Mesilla and the nearby Organ Mountains offer plenty of good reasons to linger a day or more at the outskirts of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Mesilla was a Mexican frontier town until the 1853 Gadsden Purchase secured from

Mexico the 45,000-square-mile tract of land that is now southern Arizona and New Mexico. Many of the town's original flat-roofed, fortress-like adobe buildings now house popular restaurants, galleries, and shops, yet Mesilla remains uncrowded and unhurried.

For observant visitors, Mesilla's role in history is evident everywhere. The date the Gadsden Purchase was celebrated here-November 16, 1854 is blazoned on the town square's kiosk. Descendants still tell how the bell rang that day and "everyone within earshot" instantly became an American citizen - ironic in a town founded by Mexicans fleeing American rule after the Mexican War.

Billy the Kid's image is painted outside the old court building now a tourist shop where the infamous outlaw was tried and sentenced to hang in 1881. And other historic photographs and memorabilia hang on the walls of La Posta Restaurant, in the building that was regional headquarters in the 1850s for the 2,800-mile Butterfield-Overland mail route. Dine under a tin ceiling, taste local wines, shop for art Free maps can help you streamline your visit. There's usually a good supply at the Mesilla Book Center, in the 1856 mercantile building.

Here are some attractions. Note that Monday is a slow day, when about a third of the businesses are closed.

Blue Teal Winery. At the 1891 Old Fountain Theater, you can taste locally grown wines I to 5 Mondays through Saturdays; (505) 524-0390. The building doubles as Mesilla's only movie theater. Classic and foreign films are shown at 7:30 and 9:45 Wednesdays through Saturdays and at 2:30, 5, and 7:30 Sundays; 524-8287.

Double Eagle Restaurant. This 1849 residence was converted to a restaurant and filled with antiques 18 years ago by Robert 0. Anderson, former CEO of Atlantic Richfield. Dine under the tin ceiling from the Old Sherman House Hotel in Chicago. For dessert, try the banana enchilada. The restaurant is open 11 to 10 daily, with brunch at 11 and 1:30 Sundays; 523-6700.

Gadsden Museum. The museum is dedicated to Union Col. Albert J. Fountain, a Mesilla Republican lawyer for cattle barons who mysteriously disappeared in 1896 (legend has it he was done in by Democrats serving small cattle-ranch interests). Fountain's great-granddaughter, Mary Alexander, conducts hour-long tours between 9 and 11 and 1 and 5 daily. Cost is $2, $1 ages 6 through 12; 526-6293.

Meson de Mesilla. This modern country-style inn with 13 rooms is just 1/2 mile north of the plaza, at 1803 Avenida de Mesilla. Rooms cost $45 to $75 a night, including full breakfast. Lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch are served; 525-9212 or 525-2380. Inn of the Arts. The 1905 hacienda-style home of Col. William Henry Harrison Llewellyn, southern New Mexico's first Indian agent, is in Las Cruces, 3 miles northeast of Mesilla, at 618 S. Alameda Boulevard.

It's attached to an art gallery and a school teaching week-long Indian craft classes. Each of the inn's 14 rooms ($45 to $90 for two with full breakfast) features works by local artists; 526-3327, 526-3355.

From I-10, take the Mesilla exit (140) south 1 mile. From I-25, take I-10 west to the same exit.

Dripping Springs Natural Area appeals to hikers, history lovers

The newest attraction in the jagged Organ Mountains, 15 miles east of Mesilla, is the 2,852-acre Dripping Springs Natural Area. To reach it from I-25, follow University Boulevard east 9 miles; University becomes Dripping Springs Road. A number of hiking trails are planned at the 5,000-foot elevation; three are open now. (You'll want to take water with you; it's available at the visitor center.)

A 1/2-mile-long high-desert trail leads to La Cueva volcanic cave, former home to hermit Giovanni Maria de Agustino, found pierced through the heart by an Apache lance in 1869.

The second trail is a gentle 1 1/2-mile climb through desert terrain to Dripping Springs, a lush oasis and perennial rocky spring. Ruins remain of a 19th-century adobe resort whose guests included Pancho Villa and Sheriff Pat Garrett (he shot Billy the Kid). Part of a 1920s tuberculosis sanitorium also remains.

The newest path, 3-mile Crawford Trail connects the others and offers grand views of the mountains and Mesilla Valley. Saved from potential development by what the New Mexico Nature Conservancy calls the "most complicated negotiations in this agency's history," the area contains nearly half of some 24 rare or endemic plants found in the Organs, seven species of state-listed endangered birds, and two extremely rare mollusks. Visitor center hours are 9 to 5 Fridays through Mondays; hiking those days is from 8 to 3 on the Dripping Springs trail, until 8 Pm. on La Cueva. (The entire area closes at 6 from October 1 through March 31.) Call 522-1219 about guided hikes.

For information about hiking or camping elsewhere in the Organ Mountains, write or call the Bureau of Land Management, 1800 Marquess St., Las Cruces 88005; 525-8228.
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Date:Oct 1, 1990
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