When Henry B. "Harry" Ailman came to the young mining camp of Silver City, New Mexico, at the age of 26 to try his hand at prospecting, he little dreamed that he would one day be the owner of one of the richest silver mines in the area. The year was 1871, and Ailman, a native of Pennsylvania, had been inspired by a display of silver ore at a Colorado exposition. He had come west with the railroad.
The H.B. Ailman house (left) and its twin, the H.M. Meredith
house, are shown as they appeared shortly after their
construction in 1881 (Silver City Museum Collection)
Ailman settled in the nearby camp of Georgetown in the spring of 1873 (this now-vanished community was located between Santa Rita and the Mimbres River). There he met and formed a partnership with Hartford M. Meredith, and together they developed the Naiad Queen, which proved to be the most bountiful of Georgetown's silver mines. Both men were married in Georgetown, Meredith to Mary Bunn, and Ailman to Theora Virginia Smith.
The Naiad Queen was sold in 1880 for a handsome figure, and the Meredith and Ailman families moved into Silver City, where the men acquired a mercantile store from an elderly businessman. Included in the transaction was a sawmill west of town, which the partners traded to building contractor Robert Black as part payment on two new residences, one for each family. The identical Mansard/Italianate houses on Broadway were built of local brick, and were among the first elegant Victorian homes erected in Silver City during the prosperous 1880s. A warehouse for the Meredith & Ailman store was built on the back end of the block.
In his memoirs, Ailman recalled the construction process: "Our two houses, being virtually paid for in advance, came slow. It was more than a year before mine was ready to move into.... We established a line through the center of the plot giving each a half block, and then tried our hand at finding water on said line so as to supply both houses. Going down near forty feet-more than half of that in solid granite-we got plenty of water, but it was awfully hard. To remedy that, I built a hundred-barrel cistern and piped all my roofs into it, passing through an improvised filter of sand and charcoal. I had splendid soft water-so much so that the doctors would use it for sick patients."
Theora Virginia Smith Ailman
(Silver City Museum Collection)
About the time the houses were nearing completion in 1881, Harry and Theora Ailman took a belated honeymoon trip back East, and shopped in St. Louis for furniture to outfit their new house. "On arrival home," Ailman wrote, "we found our house completed and ready for occupancy. In due time the furniture arrived by ox train. It was in good shape, with only one dining chair being damaged, and made our home most comfortable. The cultivation of a lawn and planting of trees soon followed. I also added a stable, a pair of fine grays and a new carriage that could be easily adjusted to carry four people." The Ailman family grew to include two sons and two daughters who shared the home on Broadway.
Meredith & Ailman's business expanded into banking, and by 1883 they sold out their retail interests and devoted their energies to operating the bank. At that time, Silver City's mining boom was at its peak.
Harry Ailman (left) and Hartford M. Meredith,
partners in mining, business, and banking
in southwest New Mexico 1870s - '80s
(Silver City Museum Collection)
The Meredith & Ailman bank survived a local "crash" which closed down the town's two other financial institutions, but by the late 1880s had become over-extended, due in part to a reduction in the price of silver and a drought which ruined many ranchers.
In December, 1887, their bank failed. All of Meredith & Ailman's extensive real estate holdings, including their twin houses, were sold to satisfy debts, and both families left the Silver City area.
The Ailmans settled in Los Angeles, where two more children were born. Harry Ailman's search for another big "strike" led him to participate in the digging of the first oil well in Los Angeles, but success eluded him; Ailman retired early from the venture, while his partner, Edward Doheney, went on to make a fortune in oil.
D.C. and Theodora Hobart, owners of the house from 1892-1908, added a new wing in 1900 and made many other improvements. Former owners of the Tremont House hotel, the Hobarts hosted many festive gatherings at the home on Broadway.
Edmund N. (Eddie) Hobart
(Silver City Museum Collection)
Their son Eddie grew up in the house, and during one of the remodeling projects he placed a note behind new plaster in the cupola, found years later when the same plaster was being repaired by the Museum.
Written in red ink on lined paper, the note speculated on his own future occupation:
"I may become the greatest (singer) (actor) (ruler) (teacher) (general) (poet) (sculptor) (wiseman) (musician) (cemist[sic]) (student) and [illegible] famous, something commertial [sic] or otherwise
The message was signed E.N. Hobart. This young man would eventually become a successful mining engineer, spending most of his career in Mexico.
Problems lay ahead for the Hobart family, who had acquired the Ailman house in the very complicated legal proceedings of the Meredith & Ailman bank settlement. In 1903 the bank estate challenged their ownership, claiming that they owed the estate money. After the case dragged through five years of litigation, the judge ruled in favor of the bank estate. The Hobarts, who at that point (1908) had occupied the house for 16 years-5 years longer than the Ailman family had resided there-were suddenly told their home was not their home. They were allowed to deduct the cost of improvements from the "back rent" due the estate, and the house was placed on the auction block. Just a few weeks after this ruling, D.C. Hobart died at the age of 57.
Mrs. J.R. Johnson purchased the house at auction in 1908, and from that time until 1926 it was used as a boarding house, under various peoples' management (the Hobarts themselves had leased the home to others for boarding house purposes off and on from 1904). In 1926 the house was purchased by the Town of Silver City for use as City Hall, and a concrete vault was added to the northeast corner of the house. During this period the concrete pylons were installed at the sidewalk entrance, with a fence fashioned from lengths of heavy chain draped between smaller pylons. At some point (probably 1928, when the town's original cluster-style street lamps were replaced with single "acorn" heads), the bases from two of the old street lights were mounted on top of the entrance pylons and wired for electricity.
In 1931 the local fire department moved into the Ailman House, and three fire engine garages were eventually added to the back of the 1900 addition. Oak floors were installed downstairs in the 1930s, and a fire bell was hung above the two pylons at the front entrance. During World War II, "Roll of Honor" signs were installed across the front yard, listing the names and status of local people off at war. Up until the 1950s, living quarters for the fire chief and his family were provided in the house by the Town, with other rooms occupied by volunteer firemen in exchange for their services. Gradually the fire department became professionalized, but continued to occupy at least a portion of the Ailman House until 1970.