The Official Scenic Historic Marker program is celebrating its 80th anniversary in 2015.
Easily recognizeable, large brown roadside signs dotting the New Mexico landscape provide vignettes on local history, geographic marvels, notable persons and political events that shaped New Mexico’s heritage. The program started out in 1935 to encourage the increasing number of motorists traveling New Mexico’s highways to pull off the road, learn more about where they were traveling, and boost local economies in the process.
Today there are approximately 650 historic markers, but only in the last five years did any of them highlight the contributions of women. Now there are 75 women’s markers across the state, a book written about the New Mexico Historic Women Marker Initiative and apps that guide you not only to the new women’s history markers, but to most of the familiar brown signs in the state.
The markers happen through a strong partnership among the Historic Preservation Division, the Cultural Properties Review Committee, New Mexico Department of Transportation and the public. Motorists continue to contact HPD about missing or damaged markers, and citizens always have ideas for new ones. In fact, most of the women’s markers came about because the New Mexico Women’s Forum, working with HPD, reached out to every county and Native American community in the state to find out who local citizens thought would best represent their part of New Mexico.
So today among the markers about the importance of the Camino Real to New Mexico’s cultural development, the challenges presented by La Bajada, the exploits of Billy the Kid and the origins of communities that no longer are on the map like Tolar, you will find markers celebrating the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe and million-selling recording artist Louise Massey Mabie. But there are also the local unsung heroes like Sally Rooke, a telephone operator who died at her post saving countless lives when in 1908 a wall of water rushed through Folsom; Anita Scott Coleman, a noted author of the Harlem Renaissance who grew up on a ranch near Silver City as the daughter of a woman born a slave and a father who was Buffalo Soldier; and Esther Martinez, named a National Endowment for the Arts fellow for her work as a language preservationist and storyteller at Ohkay O’Wingeh Pueblo.