Where is Frank?
Immigrated from Parts Unknown to White Oaks, New Mexico 1884
Diane A. writes how challenging it is to know the reasons why her great-great grandfather left his home and family behind in Germany and why he chose to come to Wisconsin and then Iowa in the American Midwest. “What forces pushed Christian to brave a long ocean voyage and pulled him to a strange place to make a new life?”
I asked the same questions about my great-grandfather (and namesake), a mining engineer in White Oaks, New Mexico, from 1884 to 1896. Where did he come from? How did he become a miner? Why did he end up in White Oaks? In 2020 my wife and I visited White Oaks to try to find out. That Frank’s trail was as elusive as Joachim’s. But in looking for it we found something else, just as valuable.
In the 1880’s and 1890’s White Oaks was a gold boomtown. There my great-grandfather managed the North Homestake mine. He married my great grandmother, Kate Henry, there. Their first child, born in 1889, died in 1890 and was buried in White Oaks. My living family did not know about this child. Their second son, also named Frank, was the oldest, but, as it turns out, not the first born as we always assumed.
By 1896, Kate and Frank had four living children, and they relocated to El Oro Mexico, a mining community west of Mexico City. Frank took a job there as the superintendent of the Oro Nolan mine. Within a year, though, he died in a tragic accident. He and one of his workmen were lowered in a closed cage to mark the water level in a shaft at the start of a pumping operation. When they reached the water level, they were to pull a bell cord to signal an engineer on the surface to stop the descent. However, the bell cord had been misplaced, and there was no way to signal. The engineer continued to lower the cage into the water, and the two men drowned.
When we visited, White Oaks had become known as a ghost town. We did not find my great-grandfather there, and there was no trace of his first-born son in the cemetery. But we did not find a ghost town either. Eleven people lived there. They are preserving its heritage as a mining boomtown, creating a community, connecting people, and helping one another. A potter has a studio there. The owner of a saloon called “No Scum Allowed” attracts people from all over the county. She is building a concert stage and starting a bed and breakfast. A woman who lives in a restored Victorian home on a hill is refreshing the old schoolhouse museum and using it as an event space for groups from as far away as El Paso. She also sells real estate. Another woman helps her with the Old Schoolhouse. She converted a miner’s cottage into another museum. A man is making over wagon ruts and rusting machinery into viable ranch land. Someone has started a church that meets in two converted Tuff Shed buildings on Sundays. There are recent graves in the cemetery.
These people welcomed me and my wife and generously helped us search for the earlier Frank and his little son that is lost to my family. We felt more of a connection with these living people than with the ghosts of my ancestors. In breathing life into the old boomtown they exhibit the same courage, determination, and resourcefulness that propelled Christian to make a new life in another place, far away.
Frank L. Dallas, Texas