Gold discovery in 1879 marked the beginning of the town. How gold was first discovered was probably a once-in-a-lifetime incident. According to Roadside History of New Mexico, John Wilson was an escapee from a Texas prison. On his way west, he stopped near the Jicarilla Mountains on the west side of White Oaks to visit Jack Winters and Harry Baxter, two of his friends. He headed to the top of the mountain with a pick, stating he was going to find gold.
When he returned, he showed his friends pieces of gold-flecked rock. They yelled in delight and asked him to show them where he had found the rocks. Baxter and Winters planted stakes and asked Wilson if they could stake a claim for him, too.Wilson uttered words that probably haven’t been heard since then, and maybe not before, "I have no use for gold." His friends gave him a pistol and some silver dollars and Wilson went on his way. The remaining two gold miners eventually sold their claims for $300,000 each.
Named for nearby White Oaks Spring, a post office was established in 1880. Soon permanent buildings of stone and brick replaced tents and shacks and the town began its rapid growth to 4,000 people. Four newspapers, two hotels, three churches, a planing mill, a bank, an opera house, saloons and gambling houses were established.
The story is told of a casino run by Belle La Mar, known as Madam Varnish because she was reputed to have slick ways. She dealt faro, roulette and poker. Another saloon, it is said, sold three grades of whiskey at three different prices. However, they were all from the same barrel. The saloon owner obviously did his marketing well, as the miners each chose the same grade whenever they ordered.
White Oaks was a stage stop on the line from San Antonio, New Mexico to Roswell, and from Las Vegas to old Mesilla and El Paso. Coal was also found in this area, and originally railroad builders intended to continue the line from Carrizozo via White Oaks in 1898. Supposedly, however, land prices in White Oaks changed the minds of the powers-that-be, and the line was run instead to Corona.
This event caused the population to begin dwindling. The town survived to the 1950s as a trading center, school and post office. Today, however, it is no longer a trading center and no post office exists. The school house is in good repair and is used for community affairs.
Well-known people were once residents of White Oaks. The first governor of New Mexico, W. C. McDonald, and H. B. Ferguson, a delegate to Congress, lived there, and Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett are also part of its history. In 1903, Emerson Hough, a newspaper reporter, wrote a novel Heart’s Desire with the setting in White Oaks.
White Oaks is 12 miles north of Carrizozo, three of which are on U. S. Highway 54 and nine are on paved New Mexico 349. It’s worth a stop in your travels, preferably in the summer when there is more activity.
Other Ghost Towns in This Area*
Blazer’s Mill: Near Mescalero on the Rio Tularosa. No remaining structures.
Bonito City: Eleven miles northwest of Ruidoso off NM Highway 37. No remaining structures because it now lies under 75 feet of water in Bonito Lake.
Coalora: One mile north of Capitan off U. S. Highway 380. No remaining structures.
Jicarilla: Twenty-seven miles northeast of Carrizozo on NM Highway 349. Historic Cemetery.
Parsons: Eight miles south of Nogal off NM Highway 37. No remaining structures.
Raventon: Six miles northeast of White Oaks. No remaining structures.
Vera Cruz: Ten miles east of Carrizozo off U. S. Highway 380. No remaining structures.
*Information provided by a map of the Rural Economic Development through Tourism project (REDIT).