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The Ranger and the Saboteur
By John P. Wilson
Las Cruces, New Mexico
We think of the sheriffs and U.S. Marshals of the Old West as the men who brought law to the mesquite in early-day New Mexico. However, what about up in the ponderosas, among the occasional settlements, widely scattered ranches, small farms, and thousands of sheep that grazed in the pine-shadowed mountain valleys? There, such duties often fell to the Forest Rangers who tended the Forest Reserves and later the National Forests.
Elliott Barker had a long and distinguished career as an author, poet, and for twenty-two years as Director of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. In the latter days of World War I, he served as Forest Supervisor on Carson National Forest. One day in 1918 he received a phone call from Santa Fe, telling him that a man named Alex Nagy, an enemy alien (the name is Hungarian), armed and probably dangerous, was thought to be at the old Maupin Ranch west of Tres Piedras. Barker was tasked to arrest him. In his later recollections, the ranger said that Nagy had supposedly burned grain silos in Kansas and damaged farmlands in the Estancia Valley. In other words, he was a saboteur.
In that era, burning wheat fields and silos was a perfectly legitimate form of sabotage. However, this man was not your everyday enemy agent. Germany and Austria-Hungary fought together in World War I as the Central Powers, against France, Great Britain, Italy, and the United States. Alexander Nagy appears to have been an exotic specimen, one who worked for the government of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Franz Josef the First, instead of the German Kaiser.
Elliot Barker was a deputy U.S. Marshal as well as a Forest Supervisor, and he made his way to the Maupin ranch with Ranger E.L. Perry, armed, and forewarned. According to the Carson National Forest newsletter, the Carson Bulletin, Nagy had gotten himself in trouble by impersonating a Forest Service officer. He posed as such at Amador’s store in Vallecitos, and also at Cañon Plaza a few miles above Vallecitos, where he issued what purported to be a free-use permit to Juan C. Gurule to cut twenty-five pine poles or house logs.
Barker rode down from the San Antonio Ranger Station some thirty miles distant and was waiting near the Maupin ranch on the morning of September 1, 1918. Shortly after daylight, the rancher and the man being sought came out of the house. When they started down into a nearby oat field, the Forest Supervisor rode up and called them over. The two were unarmed. When asked his name, the man gave it and proved to be the person Barker was looking for. The ranger showed them his authority as a deputy marshal and told them he had orders to take Nagy in.
The enemy agent made no protest, but rancher Roy Maupin argued vigorously that he just wouldn’t let him go, that help was hard to get and he was sure the fellow was all right. Barker said that the judge would decide whether the man was all right or not. Maupin kept it up until the marshal finally snapped out that if he didn’t shut up and let him carry out his orders, he would take both of them in and they could walk ahead of him in the road all the way. The ranch lay about eight miles west of Tres Piedras, N. Mex. Maupin finally conceded, “Maybe you’re right, maybe that’s the authority.”
Nagy asked if he could go to the house and get his coat and some other things that he had there. Barker replied, “Yes, I will go with you.” Mrs. Maupin was getting breakfast as they walked into the kitchen. The ranger paused to say “Good morning, Mrs. Maupin. I have a little business with this man here,” then started to follow him up the steep, narrow stairway that led to a landing opposite Nagy’s sleeping room. When the agent started to hurry, Barker did too, but he had on chaps and spurs as well as his gun belt.
At the top of the landing, the door to the room stood open and the fellow was throwing his coat off the bed with one hand and grabbing something with the other. Barker knew instantly that this must be a gun and, quick as anything, “I drew my gun, stuck it right in his kidneys, and said ‘Drop it you son-of-a-so-and-so, or I’ll kill you! Nagy half-turned around with his .45 cocked, but then dropped it to the floor. It struck but didn’t go off. The ranger-lawman had acted just in time and his six-gun got all of the attention necessary.
Barker took the saboteur to Tres Piedras, where a U.S. Commissioner came from Taos on September 2nd and held a preliminary hearing. He bound Nagy over to await the action of a Federal district court. While being brought back to Taos by the commissioner pending the arrival of a U.S. Marshal, Nagy escaped. He was rearrested at Española the following day and taken to Santa Fe. The September newspapers in Santa Fe and Albuquerque carried no notice of these events although they reported at length on Allied advances in France.
The criminal case file for Alexander Nagy, now in the Denver Federal Records Center, states that he stood trial in Albuquerque on December 22, 1918, the only charge being unlawfully pretending to be a Forest Ranger and granting permission to cut timber on a National Forest. He was found not guilty. Nothing in his file said anything about him being an enemy alien.
According to Barker, however, Nagy was sent to the penitentiary for the duration of the war while the ranger kept the .45 as a souvenir, only to have it stolen years later. He left the Forest Service and turned to ranching, until one day the agent, now out of prison, had the gall to write and say he wanted his gun back! Barker replied that if he thought he was man enough to come and get it. No one showed up.
Unfortunately, while the master alien registration records for the World War I period might have documented any actions involving Nagy, these were destroyed in 1922. Upon my inquiry, the Kansas State Historical Society could find no mention of an Alexander Nagy.
Elliott Barker enjoyed a very long life, from his birth in Texas on Christmas Day in 1886 to his death in Santa Fe on Easter Sunday in 1988. The Forest Service did not want or expect its rangers to be gunslingers, and only this once did he draw his gun on anybody. From 1931 to 1953, he directed the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish while writing poetry and such wildlife classics as Beatty’s Cabin and When the Dogs Barked ‘Treed’. Then in 1950, firefighters rescued an angry little bear cub with singed paws, “Hot Foot Teddy,” from a fire in the Capitan Mountains. The Game and Fish director donated him to the U.S. Forest Service. The cub went to Washington and the National Zoo, there to become the symbol of forest fire prevention as Smokey Bear.
Carson Bulletin, September 9, 1918.
NARA Denver Federal Center, District of New Mexico Criminal Case Files 1912-53, Case #1213.
The Early Days: A Sourcebook of Southwestern Region History, Book 1, compiled by Edwin A. Tucker.
USDA Forest Service Southwestern Region, Cultural Resources Management Report No. 7 (September 1989). Albuquerque, N.M.
Janis L. Wiggins, Archivist, NARA College Park, Maryland, Jan. 9, 2003, to John P. Wilson
William Grace, Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka, Feb. 7, 2003, to John P Wilson