History: The Horseshoe Camp in Eagle Nest

From the 2003 Summer Enchantment published by the Sangre de Cristo Chronicle

Johnny, Kay, Karla and Jeff Dahl at the Lucky Shoe Saloon, April 2003.
Johnny, Kay, Karla and Jeff Dahl at the Lucky Shoe Saloon, April 2003. (Chronicle photo by Ellen Miller-Goins)

By Ellen Miller-Goins

When Johnny, Kay and Jeff Dahl bought the Horseshoe Camp in 1982, Johnny and Jeff were kept busy with repairs and renovations, leaving Kay to run the store and tackle shop, something she says she’d never done before.

Kay recalls, “hunters from the East would come in and they’d say, ‘What in the world are you doing here? You look like you should be in New York City!’

“That first winter it got to 36 below in January. Every time that front door opened … a cold bast of wind would come in. I was so very cold, I wore my mink coat.”

Kay says Johnny’s sister and brother-in-law were having lunch in Taos when they struck up a conversation with some tourists who had passed through Eagle Nest.

“They said, ‘It was the strangest thing. We stopped to get gas and this lady waited on us in a mink coat and her husband was running around in a cowboy hat.… He looked like a movie star.’”

‘The end of the earth’

Their confusion is understandable when you consider Kay, Miss New Mexico 1952, had once screen tested for Paramount Studios. (A devout Christian, she chose not to follow her dream to Hollywood, choosing instead to stay in Albuquerque where she was raised.)

Today, Kay is still perfectly coiffed wearing her trademark cream-colored or white coordinated outfits and pearls — I always wear my pearls” — And Johnny still dons Western shirts and jackets — the cowboy and the lady.  “When we first came up here, I thought Johnny had brought me to the end of the earth,” Kay says.

Moving to a tiny lakeside community may not have been what Kay imagined for her life, but for Johnny, it was the fulfillment of a dream.

Walter Dahl came first

Johnny first became acquainted with the Horseshoe Camp around the time it was built, in 1943 when his family and his uncle Walter Dahl’s family came to fish.

In 1948, when W.E. “Willie” Rushin decided he wanted out, Walter Dahl bought the Horseshoe. “He loved to hunt and  fish and he was a close friend of Willie Rushin,” Johnny says.

“Willie told me later after I bought the Horseshoe that he had built each cabin by a truckload, or maybe he said wagon load. He said he paid $100 a load for wood they hauled from Black Lake. He kind of laughed about it.”

Walter ran the business with his wife Leola and partners Ek and Omega Harvey, Johnny says. “They opened Memorial Day and closed Labor Day. The men ran the tackle shop and the women cleaned the cabins.” (In the late 1950s the Dahls became sole owners.)

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Horseshoe Camp from a 1948 postcard.

Ice was a commodity

Beginning at age 15, from 1949 to about 1952, Johnny came up summers to work for his uncle. “I started as a pump boy (selling gas for 14 to 18 cents a gallon) and I’d mop the cabins. I was also the ice boy.
I got the ice for people from the ice house.”

Ice was not a product of electronic refrigeration then. Instead, Johnny says, “The business owners here in town would go as a group down to the lake. They had big ice saws and they would cut out 4 x 4-foot squares. They would all get those giant tongs on the chunk of ice and pull it onto a flatbed truck.”

These 300-pound chunks were then hauled to ice houses like the one at the Horseshoe. “The walls were about 3-feet thick and inside the walls they had put sawdust,” Johnny says. “They would stack it on the sawdust floor and then they’d put sawdust over it.”

In the summer, whenever customers ordered ice, Johnny says they’d hose it off and cut off what they guessed was a 12 or 25-pound block. “I think it was a penny or
2 cents a pound and we’d just put it on their car bumper or in their metal ice cooler.”

Johnny also guided fishing expeditions to Lost, Horseshoe, Bear, Middlefork and Latir lakes. He says he loved fly fishing and he never minded having to get up at 1:30 in the morning to get started. In fact, he says he loved everything about the business.…

“I stood on the steps of the Horseshoe with my uncle and said, ‘Uncle Walter, I’m going to own this business someday.’ And he laughed and said, ‘Don’t get involved in this business, Johnny.’ Of course he died before I bought the Horseshoe so he never knew my statement to him came true.”

The end of gambling

When Johnny first began working at Horseshoe Camp in 1949, gambling was still going strong at the Gold Pan, Moreno Bar (next to the Laguna Vista), Eagle Nest Inn and Eagle Nest Lodge (the dilapidated hotel at lake’s edge). “That was going big. They would let us kids come in and stand in the shadows, even though we were under age. We could watch them gamble.

“I was there when law enforcement agents came in with axes and sledge
hammers. I remember them hitting the slot machines with sledge hammers and at
the same time, they were ushering everyone out.

“That was going on at every one of those casinos. You couldn’t drive a car down the street, there were so many people. When I saw them put a big padlock on the Eagle Nest Inn, I knew gambling was all over.”

Johnny says the Horseshoe survived because its business was catering to fishermen and hunters. “Every summer we had gobs of fishermen. We had 22 cabins.”

In the late ’50s, Johnny says, Walter Dahl, with the help of Eagle Nest’s postmaster, the late Sunny Johnson, built motel units. Then Walter’s son Donald, the Horseshoe’s next owner, built the last motel buildings (six units) and the large dormitory in 1979.

Johnny, meanwhile, deferred his dream for a military career, after graduating from the University of Oklahoma. He served 22 years with the Military Police Corps. “I was in Vietnam twice. I was there when the war started and I was there when the war ended.” (While he was in Vietnam, Johnny’s mother Ellen was once tackled by the Secret Service when she sprinted across a room to deliver President Lyndon B. Johnson a personal message, “I want you to get my son out of Vietnam.” Johnson said, “Mother, I will get your sons and all sons out of Vietnam.”)

Kay and Johnny Dahl
Kay and Johnny Dahl

Whirlwind romance

Johnny retired in 1978 and came to visit family — who had recently moved to Albuquerque from Okmulgee, Oklahoma — on his birthday, July 30. He met Kay that Sunday at the Montgomery Church of Christ.

Johnny, who was divorced, was there with Jeff who had just graduated high school and was on his way to Virginia Tech on a football scholarship. Kay, a widow — her first husband died in 1976 — was there with her 4-year-old daughter Alixana. After a whirlwind romance, Johnny and Kay married Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 23, 1978.

Four years later, Kay had arrived at “the end of the earth,” the year Johnny bought the camp from his cousin, former Eagle Nest Mayor Don Dahl.

“The Horseshoe was really run down,” Kay says, recalling the “junk” she found in the tackle shop — Don Dahl, by that time, leased that retail space to someone else who “had things that dated back to the 1940s.”

The Dahls began fixing the place up and stocking the tackle shop with more useful merchandise. Kay says, “Johnny had me go to Albuquerque — I would make I don’t know how many trips — to buy canned stuff from several discount stores. Jeff would sit for hours and price it all — at a very low mark up.”

At this point in their marriage, they had a markedly different view of life.

“I was in heaven,” Johnny says. “I owned the Horseshoe.”

“And I was thinking, ‘This can’t last very long,’ ” Kay says with a laugh.

A real fixer upper

Johnny admits the early years were “pretty tough because there was so much maintenance. We remodeled the store two or three times before we built the Lucky Shoe Saloon in 1995 and the restaurant in 1998. It was hard.… I had to become a professional plumber!”

One of their biggest jobs was cleaning out the old ice house. Johnny says it took 3 weeks and 29 pickup loads of sawdust to clean it out. “We had to wear masks because the sawdust had turned to powder.”

Since buying the Horseshoe, the Dahls in 1988 leased the concession rights at Eagle Nest Lake, remodeling the old buildings and building boat docks.

“Last year before the state bought the lake, the Davises bulldozed everything,” Kay says. “It was rather heartbreaking for Johnny but he was happy when the state bought the lake because he had lobbied so hard to make that happen.”

In 1992 the Dahls bought Mickey’s Ski Rental. They built the Subway Sandwich Shop in 1994 (now Picadilly Pizza and Subs). In 1996, they bought the Texaco and Laundromat.

Johnny and former Eagle Nest resident Kenneth Moore took out personal loans to build the Moreno Valley Church of Christ. Then Johnny took a U-Haul to Vernon, Texas, three times to pick up oak pews that had been donated by a church there.

Johnny also found time to serve as an Eagle Nest councilor for 12 years and mayor from 1994 to 2002. “He never took any salary or per diem money in all those years,” Kay says.

A family affair

Jeff, brother Dyrk and Alixana were all involved with the businesses but Dyrk and Alixana have since moved with their families. Dyrk is a real estate broker in Sarasota, Florida, and Alixana owns Subway Sandwich Shops in the San Antonio, Texas, area.

Today, at the Horseshoe it is only Johnny, Kay, Jeff and his wife Karla, whom he married in 1986. “She’s the cornerstone of this business,” Johnny and Kay add.

Not only are Jeff and Karla the managers for all the businesses, but Jeff also prepares delectable meals for Lucky Shoe patrons. He learned his love of cooking from his dad. It runs in the family:  Johnny’s mother operated a restaurant in Oklahoma many years.
“I was my mother’s head fry cook,” Johnny says.

Kay kept her Albuquerque home — she enjoys going there to shop and go to the theater.

Kay says she always loves coming home. “When I come in over the hill and see Eagle Nest and the mountains, there’s a peace that comes over me.”

Johnny, on the other, hand, takes pride in the Horseshoe and the Village of Eagle Nest.  “It is the beginning and the end of his earth,” says Kay.

HorseshoeCamp_1950_SM
Circa 1950
HorseshoeCamp_1983_SM
1983
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Johnny and Walter Dahl in 1985

In Memoriam: Johnny Dahl, former mayor of Eagle Nest

2 COMMENTS

  1. Awesome story, however, I wish you would of mentioned John Cullers, who ran the store for a brief time in the early 80’s, then managed the Golden Eagle, the Laguna Vista, and then the Corner Market where he passed way too soon. Many people that will read this article will remember John and Helen Cullers as prominent members of the Eagle Nest community in the late 70’s to early 90’s.
    I really appreciate the historical article on Eagle Nest, and follow everything that is posted.
    Thank you

  2. Johnny and Kay were very special people to all of the Cunningham family… Long before I became a Cunningham. We stayed many times at the Hoseshoe cabins… Before we built our house and truly felt at home there!

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