The Smallest of Small Towns

As of 2007, almost two million people live in New Mexico.  Almost 500,000 of these live in Albuquerque.  And more than 300,000 live in Las Cruces, Santa Fe, Rio Rancho, Roswell, and Farmington. 

As a result of so many people gathered in so few places, these cities have come to provide a near-majority of New Mexicans with their visual definitions of what New Mexico is, and have become the face this state shows the world.  Tourists recalling New Mexico likely think of Santa Fe, with its cottonwood-shaded plazas, adobe churches, and stuccoed Wal-Marts.  They might picture Kodachrome balloons wafting over downtown Albuquerque and its dusty suburbs.  And they probably won’t call to mind the tiny desert towns that freckle the state, that punctuate its roads, and that offer travelers a relief from driving and residents a place to call home. 

One such little town is Grenville, in New Mexico’s extreme northeast corner.  Grenville is New Mexico’s smallest incorporated village—a ranching and dairy community of twenty-five people, all Caucasian.  The land around Grenville is grassy and relatively lush, and the town’s more notable buildings include a picturesque wooden edifice that was once a Baptist church, and a historic post office where Grenville’s mayor sells stamps and envelopes. 

Grenville came to life in 1880, when the Colorado and Southern Railroad made it a station, naming the stop after Grenville M. Dodge, a pioneering railroad official.  Eager settlers rode the train here in search of free land, the post office opened in 1888, and in 1919, thanks to a nearby oil well dubbed “the Snorty Gobbler,” the town boomed.  By 1921, 700 people lived in Grenville, but in 1925 the Snorty Gobbler dried up, and the town’s population began a decline that has yet to reverse itself. 

Little more than halfway down the far eastern edge of the state lies another, even smaller New Mexico town—the ranchland community of Pep.  Pep, with a population of four, is home to a grocery store, two gas pumps, a now-defunct post office, a feed shed, a well-house, and an imposing 500-gallon propane tank.  Pep sits as a lonely collection of buildings along a minor highway, surrounded by the wide desert plains of the New Mexico-Texas border.  Researchers have theorized that the town got its name from Kellogg’s PEP cereal, from local coffee drinkers, or from the town of Pep, Texas—but most likely it was given its name in the fall of 1925, by a man named Edward Cox who chose the site to move his home and store to from nearby Richland. 

“Way I heard it was that when Mr. Cox moved the store here, a Mr. Hightower owned the water and a Mr. Bates the land,” said former Pep resident N. C. Cathey, in Toby Smith’s excellent Dateline: New Mexico.  “Each feared hurting the other’s feelings by naming the town after himself.  That’s when Mr. Cox looked out at Highway 18, which even then was a graded road, and predicted it would one day be busy, you know, peppy.” 

During the Great Depression, numerous families lived in and around the area, and by 1936 Pep had its own post office.  The entire town was sold for $25,000 in the early-1980s, and today, although a single family owns and operates Pep itself, more than a dozen ranchers live in what could be considered its suburbs. 

Even smaller than Pep is Nutt, in southwestern New Mexico’s Luna County.  Nutt boats a population of two—a husband and wife.  Slumping comfortably at the base of a long and low ridge, and within sight of a conical hill, Nutt is simply a couple of trailers, the Middle of Nowhere Bar and Café, and the Nutt Gift Shop.  

Founded in 1881 as a depot and water stop on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, Nutt took its name from Colonel Nutt—a prominent railroad stockholder—got its own post office the same year it was founded, and served as a valuable trading point for area miners until 1884, when the railroad extended its line to someplace more interesting and almost everyone in Nutt ran to get out. 

Legendary train robber “Black Jack Ketchum” and his gang committed their group’s first major train robbery just outside of Nutt in 1901, escaping unpunished with $20,000 of the local miners’ promised wages.  As Ketchum and his men stopped the train and shoved their guns into the faces of the train’s crew, a conductor snuck away to Nutt, where he telegraphed a posse for back-up. 

A Mr. Bridges purchased the entire town in the mid-1900s, and lived there with only his family. 

“He was the mayor, the sheriff, and the town drunk,” recalled Bridges’ son Jim in a 1998 interview. “My mother was the judge.” 

Today, some books and websites consider Nutt a ghost town, but residents Janet and Terry Cosgrove aren’t ghosts. 

Like Grenville and Pep, Nutt may be a place many New Mexicans have never even heard of, but it is still just as much New Mexico as the trendiest Santa Fe nightspot or the busiest stretch of Albuquerque’s Central Avenue—and just as worthy of a visit. 

Just make sure you bring a book. 

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