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Henry Boyer Ailman’s entrepreneurial spirit lives on in the stately Victorian home which houses the Silver City Museum. The boom and bust cycles he overcame and succumbed to in a region dominated by mining and ranching continue to this day.
by Lisa Jimenez
Ailman, or “H.B.” as he was known, finally became a rich man when he at last discovered silver ore in Georgetown, not far from the Santa Rita mine. But he knew many financial ups and downs in his lifetime, and struggled mightily to make his initial fortune in Grant County. Ailman’s life in many ways parallels the economic unfolding of Silver City, from the hard-scrabble mining camps, to merchandising and the gradual availability of more sophisticated goods and services.
Like many others before, Ailman left the eastern United States in 1870, seeking fortune and fame in the Wild West territories. His father was a farmer, and Ailman worked hard to earn money to become a school teacher, supplementing his earnings by unloading coal cars on the Pennsylvania Railroad. It was wartime, so he was soon working as a brakeman and later conductor. He saved his earnings, shared $1,500 of it with his father, but soon realized he wanted more than a rail worker’s life, and headed for the largely unsettled and burgeoning West.
His memoir, Pioneering in Territorial New Mexico, offers a vivid account of the tremendous physical challenges he endured, including nearly impassable terrain, blizzards, thieves, lack of sufficient food, water and supplies and too little cash. When he finally landed in Silver City on July 20, 1871, the territory seemed to offer little reason for sticking around. The Santa Rita copper mines were abandoned, primarily for lack of workers, gold mining in Pinos Altos had stalled, and small silver deposits had yet to be fully valued or exploited. Apaches, losing territory under pressure from the influx of Anglos and soldiers, ambushed prospectors and raided the helter-skelter settlements and mining camps.
Small discoveries of silver ore and the persistent prospect of striking it rich kept Ailman’s dreams alive. Claims were made by some of Silver City’s founders on Legal Tender Hill, just behind the Grant County Courthouse, known today as Boston Hill. Ailman forged ahead, determined to make his mark in the new territory, partnering with other prospectors as he could, given that “sinking a shaft” was done by hand; demanding, hard physical labor. Dangerous too.
According to his memoir, he and Frank Whitmer were encouraged when a sample from around Georgetown revealed a “value of 30 ounces to the ton.” So, they built a simple shelter and began drivinga shaft. On November 17, 1872, they reached a depth sufficient for blasting material - black powder and fuse. Ailman set the shot, cut the fuse, laid out wood shavings and struck the match - nothing. Or so they thought.
“Both of us put our hands on the windlass roller and were looking for the spit, when BANG! went the shot. I was knocked down and out, but I soon came to enough to call Frank. Receiving no answer, I called again without trying to get up; still no answer. By this time I had recovered a little, so I raised my head to look on my left where Frank had stood before the blast. Horror! One eye was a mass of blood and the other tight closed. I carried him to our cabin and stretched him out on the bed. He was unconscious and soon drew his last breath.”
Ailman held a shiny piece of tin to his face and saw that his own eye was a bloody mess. Offering a prayer for his friend, he grabbed his gun and headed for Silver City. He came upon Sherriff H.H. Whitehill, who took him to the town doctor, M.H. Carson, who patched him up. Once recovered, Ailman began working for other prospectors in the Mimbres Mining District, which became Georgetown in 1874. He soon met Hartford “Henry” M. Meredith, “heavy-set, bald and with a mild disposition.” The two became fast friends.
Ailman, Meredith and others continued to work the Georgetown claims. One day, H.B.’s experience, hard work and sacrifice at last paid off.
“Working as hard as I could, I sent up bucket after bucket, breaking everything with a sledge. Finally, a little bump struck out in the lime. “That’s not lime,” I told myself. “I believe that’s ore.” He quickly showed the lump to Meredith, who exclaimed, “My God. That looks good.” With the help of a mining company manager, they quickly shut down the shaft, and started a rumor that Ailman was out of money, so as to conceal the strike until he and Meredith could determine that it was legal under existing mining laws. It was, and the Naiad Queen Mine became one of the most abundant in Grant County, employing 20 men at its height of production. Meredith and Ailman eventually sold the mine for $160,000, a very handsome sum indeed. They were rich men.
By this time the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads were nearing Silver City, now a substantial banking and shipping center. Ailman and Meredith decided to build homes in town and go into business, first buying out merchant Joseph Reynolds who was retiring. They remodeled the store at the northwest corner of Bullard and Broadway, adding a second story, and began work on their identical Mansard- roofed homes, built by contractor Robert Black.
The early 1880s were boomtimes in Silver City, and Ailman and Meredith soon expanded their mercantile trade and opened a bank in the north room of their store. But by 1883 two other banks had failed in Grant County, and though the Meredith and Ailman bank remained solvent, a combination of heavy investments in overstocked cattle at a time of severe drought, silver prices propped up by the federal government for coin making, and a run on the bank resulted in its failure in 1887.
This period marked the beginning of the end for H.B. Ailman’s boom cycle in Grant County. It took five years for the courts to settle his estate, then in 1892 the Ailman family relocated to Long Beach, California, where Henry tried his hand in the oil business with modest success. He kept his hand in mining for the remainder of his career, and died in Long Beach in 1938 at the age of 94.
For more information about the economic development of Grant County, visit the museum’s latest exhibit, Booms and Busts: Small Business in Grant County, 1880 - 1950. You can purchase Pioneering in Territorial New Mexico: The Memoirs of H.B. Ailman in the museum’s gift shop and online bookstore.