Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Lively and Energetic Place: Pep, New Mexico

The first thing that strikes one about Pep, at least before visiting, is its name. It might seem a little unusual, except that there’s another town called Pep 60 miles dead east in Texas. In fact, it’s been said that Pep, New Mexico got its name directly from Pep, Texas. It’s also been said that Pep was named for a fortified breakfast cereal popular during the Depression. Neither of those stories is true though and, really, Pep was probably named for the reason you’d guess at first glance.

The place that would become Pep was settled in the fall of 1925 by Edward Cox, who established the first residence and store. T.M. Pearce, who wrote New Mexico Place Names, concluded that Pep got its name because Cox expected it to be a “lively and energetic place.” Apparently Pep was a word used often during the Depression to instill enthusiasm. That’s how Texas got its Pep, too.

I’ve been told that there was a big party to get the town going, including a baseball game and rodeo. The post office opened in 1936--possibly beating Pep, TX to the name--and remains in operation to this day, despite the fact that there are only a handful of residents left. The post office also serves the ranches and farms of the surrounding area, of course, but is now only open in the morning and mail is not delivered every day.

Pep is in Roosevelt County, on the western edge of the legendary rangeland known as the Llano Estacado, or “Staked Plain.” I described the 30,000 sq. mi. Llano Estacado a bit in the last post when we explored nearby Causey. There’s a lot of folklore surrounding why this formidable mesa is known as the Staked Plain. The term is perhaps better translated as “Palisaded Plain,” the “palisaded” likely referring to the high, rocky escarpments that border the tableland, particularly to the east, where one, the Caprock Escarpment, reaches 300 feet tall. A common but probably less accurate explanation is that the “stakes” are really the dried shoots of yuccas, which can rise a few feet above ground and thus appear as scattered stakes as you look out over the landscape. My favorite is that early settlers “staked” their trails with buffalo bones and skulls so that they could follow them back out if they got lost, like macabre bread crumbs. Recently the Hillsboro Historical Society told me that Robert Julyan believes “estacado” may be incorrect and that the original Spanish word could’ve been “estancada” or, “ponded.” Indeed, after a rainfall water collects in the small depressions across the plains and thus “Ponded Plain” might be fitting. Which is right? I’d do like everyone else does and just go with whatever you like best!

As for personages, science fiction author Jack Williamson was from Pep. Known as the “Dean of Science Fiction,” he published in every decade from the 1920’s to the 2000’s. He also built a little wooden cabin near his parent’s house so that he could write undistracted. I don’t know exactly where it is and I’ve heard it’s decaying…but still standing! I’d sure like to get a photo of it.

So why did Pep not live up to its name? Initially Cox, who owned all the land in town, may have tried to sell it at too high a price during a bad economic time for the country. Maybe it was the name in the first place; Pep, Texas has wound up in a similar state. But the record on Pep is spare, to say the least.

While it’s difficult to uncover the history of the little town, let alone the stories of the people that lived there, that does not make Pep unimportant. In fact, I would argue, quite the opposite. A couple months ago I posted a photo from Pep on the City of Dust Facebook page. After it had been shared around a bit, I found a comment which says more in a few words than I probably have in this whole piece. I don’t know the commenter, but I’d be happy if they somehow stumbled across this post so that I could give them my thanks for such a beautiful sentiment. Hopefully they wouldn’t mind that I’ve used their quote to end this latest installment!

“This post may be the only place in the entire world where the old community of Pep is being discussed. Pause for a moment, if you will, to honor those who gave their all here -- gambling on a new life -- in the Great American Desert.” G. L.

Information for this post came from almost nowhere. Robert Julyan provided the lion’s share in a single paragraph in The Place Names of New Mexico. I cobbled together some of the text on the Llano (or, yar-nah, if you like) from V.H. Whitlock’s book, Cowboy Life on the Llano Estacado. Various other bits were taken from personal correspondence and whatever else I could dig up. I learned a little bit about Pep, TX, the town from where F. Stanley published all those yellow “New Mexico Story” pamphlets, from THIS PAGE. You can see Jack Williamson’s cabin HERE. Thanks again to G.L.

Now we’ll go a little bit west and somewhat more north to the also memorably-named town of House.

Monday, October 06, 2014

In the Shadow of the Buffalo Hunters: Causey, New Mexico

We’re about to start a run of posts featuring towns out on the eastern plains of New Mexico, some not far from the Texas state line. A few of these aren’t absolute ghost towns in the sense that the populations range from perhaps a couple individuals to around 70. But they’re all pretty obscure. So obscure, in fact, that in many cases all I can find on them, historically-speaking, is what Robert Julyan has to say in The Place Names of New Mexico. But, to me, these are fascinating, picturesque, and photogenic places, each persisting as best it can, whether populated or not, on the lonesome, windswept prairie.

Let’s start with Causey, New Mexico, located in Roosevelt County at the crossroads of NM 114 and 321, 35 miles southeast of Portales and about a mile from Texas. Despite some previous conjecture that the moniker was intended to flatter a railroad VP and get a line through Causey, it now seems agreed that the town was named for at least two of the Causey brothers, T.L. “George” and John. The brothers were buffalo hunters, working in the southeastern part of the state and George, in particular, established a reputation for being one of the most successful in the history of the American West. Estimates by outside observers put the number of buffalo he personally killed at around 40,000. One of George’s hunting companions, George Jefferson, known as “Old Jeff,” said “Causey killed more buffaloes in one winter…than Buffalo Bill Cody killed in his entire lifetime.”

The problem with shooting that many buffalo is that eventually you run out. Of course, that’s how it went and, after hunting through the 1870’s, by 1882 Causey had shot the last of the wild buffalo on what is known as the Llano Estacado, or “Staked Plain,” of eastern New Mexico.

While George Causey generally operated to the south, the town of Causey is on the west central part of the Llano Estacado, one of the largest tablelands in North America, the majority of which is in northwest Texas. Coronado had this to say upon stumbling onto the Llano in 1541:

"I reached some plains so vast, that I did not find their limit anywhere I went, although I traveled over them for more than 300 leagues...with no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea...there was not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by."

To translate for those of us no longer using leagues, Coronado covered more than 1000 miles.

Thus turning to ranching on the Llano, George Causey established himself south of Lovington, maybe 60 miles from present-day Causey. Mr. Causey promoted the suitability of eastern New Mexico for ranching and farming and, as one of the earliest settlers in the area, opened it up for those who followed, not least by being the first to discover the rich supply of groundwater in the region.

In 1902, Causey was thrown from a horse during a mustang round-up, badly injuring his spine. After traveling all over the country depleting his finances in a failed effort to find medical relief for his severe headaches, and increasingly disenchanted with the rapidly changing West, Causey sold his ranch to pay off debt, married his nurse, and moved near Kenna, 30 miles southwest of the town that bears his family name. He shot himself in his bed on May 19, 1903, his body discovered by his nephews, Vivian and Ralph, who’d heard the report of their uncle's gun. I don’t know if the town of Causey had been established by that time or not.

The earliest date I can put on Causey is 1907, when the post office opened. It remains operational to this day. The townsite was actually moved by Ezra Ball sometime after WWI and is now three miles north of where it was first established. These days you will find some well-kept homes and a few residents. The population as of the 2000 census was 52 and I imagine that’s decreased a little. There is also the ruin of a massive WPA-built school which is collapsing and disappearing into the overgrowth. It was surprising to me that such a large school existed in Causey, but F. Stanley reported in “The Causey (New Mexico) Story,” published in 1966, that there were at least 150 students attending the school in 1942. That's more than I would've guessed. Here’s a taste of how things were back then:

"The Causey school has over fifty in high school and over one hundred in grade school, Supt. L. E. O'Hare stated last weekend. The attendance has been good. The school board has not decided when it will dismiss school for crop gathering, but Supt. O'Hare is of the opinion it will be about the first of next month. There have been no resignations of teachers so far." (Sept. 7, 1942) The school is pictured below.

Also, in 1960, the senior class was said to have visited the "Insane Asylum" in Las Vegas, NM as part of a long field trip. I wonder if the kids lobbied to put that on the itinerary.

Stanley himself said of Causey that, “The most surprising thing is the school system and the fire house, worthy of larger cities.” He went on: “Time is unimportant to the teachers. They give so much of it to the school. Many a trip took me through Causey and teachers would be noted at their desks far into the night. There may be a thousand reasons for this; there may be none save that they love their work.”

Next to the school is a massive metal, armory-like structure with a caved-in roof. I was told this was the school gymnasium and also held the agricultural shops. Someone else told me they’d played basketball inside the school, which would indicate the gym was there. Heck, maybe there were gyms in both places. (Update: There were two gyms! I've been told the bigger was the "New Gym," probably built in the mid-to-late 1960's.) Inside the armory were a couple bedraggled pick-up trucks and the first abandoned semi tractor I’ve ever seen, now crushed under the huge roof.

F. Stanley noted in 1966 that, “Causey had a long, hard road to travel, but it has made the grade and the future looks good.” It is referred to as “one of the business centers of Roosevelt County,” with a population of 234 as early as 1920. Like so many small towns, the future Stanley spoke of appears to have, in the end, been at least as hard as the past.

Information for this post came from the aforementioned The Place Names of New Mexico, as well as F. Stanley’s long out of print “The Causey (New Mexico) Story.” Some biographical information on George Causey can be found at the Texas State Historical Society and High Plains Yesterdays. Wikipedia will give you demographics. If you get really into George Causey and the Llano, you will want to read Cowboy Life on the Llano Estacado, written by his nephew, V. H. Whitlock aka Ol’ Waddy. Roosevelt County History and Heritage, by Jean M. Burroughs, wife of former NM governor John Burroughs, documents the county, but doesn’t say a whole lot about Causey.

Next time…Pep!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Back from the Dead: The Murray Hotel, Silver City, New Mexico

It’s been awhile since we’ve visited an operating historic hotel, but over the last couple years we've seen the Express St. James in Cimarron and the Schaffer Hotel in Mountainair. So, it's fitting that we also take a look at the recently restored Murray Hotel in downtown Silver City, NM. A beautiful Art Deco building, it was constructed on the site of the Broadway Hotel, which was torn down in 1925. Across the street is the Palace Hotel, another lovely place, which opened March 1, 1900 in the former Meredith and Ailman Bank building, built 1882.

Construction on the Murray Hotel began in 1937 and, with the country still reeling from the Great Depression, it was no trouble to get very skilled craftsmen to build the joint, which was originally designed to have 52 rooms, three retail stores, a restaurant, a coffee shop, a bar, and a luxurious lobby. Steam closets and low shower heads were even installed in the bathrooms so that women would be able to get the wrinkles out of their clothes while cleaning up after a long, hot, bumpy, and rumple-inducing journey.

Below is an iconic photo of 16-year-old Martha Ryan, granddaughter of the hotel’s developer and NM state senator W.D. Murray, on her horse in the terrazzo-floored lobby. It was taken to promote a Fourth of July Rodeo in 1938, before the hotel was even finished. Incidentally, W.D.’s grandson, Murray Ryan, was a long-time NM state representative. The Murray officially opened in October ’38 with a grand celebration. Anyone who was anyone in southern New Mexico turned out, including hotel magnate and Paris Hilton antecedent Conrad Hilton.

In 1949, as the American economy boomed post-WWII, another 48 rooms were added to the Murray in a north tower, making an even 100, and a spring-suspended maple-floored ballroom was installed. The parties held in the ballroom remain legendary among local old-timers. The hotel also took on a more explicitly Western vibe and the bar, which had gone by the mining-themed moniker Copper Lounge, became the Branding Room, where ranchers and businessman wheeled and dealed beside a large mural depicting local ranch brands.

For decades the Murray was perhaps the social center in Grant County. However, by the late 1970’s a lot had changed and the hotel was struggling to stay afloat. Area mines had closed, travelers were staying elsewhere and, by the early 1990’s, the once-grand hotel was shuttered and appeared abandoned. Eventually, local residents decided that the iconic building should be saved, but it would change hands several times in the ensuing years before anyone could figure out quite what to do with it.

Finally, in 2005, the Murray was bought by the Albershardt’s, who began a long and expensive restoration. Extensive cleaning was required as the hotel had seen its share of vandals and homeless residents and it was a given that the original Art Deco design elements needed to remain intact. The hotel re-opened for business in spring 2012 and, at this point, I believe as many as 82 rooms have been restored, as well as the ballroom and various banquet and meeting rooms.

My visit to the Murray Hotel occurred last Christmas during a freak (well, this is southern New Mexico) blizzard that earlier had me cut-off from my desired route to Silver City through Hillsboro, Kingston, and the Black Range. The Murray, however, was warm and inviting and sipping complimentary herbal tea in the lobby, which looks just as it did when Martha Ryan parked her horse there, was…well, not exactly a rugged, Western way to spend a holiday evening. But I can’t ever complain when in Silver City, even if snowbound and unable to brave the elements for just the short walk to Billy the Kid’s childhood cabin. The rooms were likewise cozy and still have a vintage feel to them, despite the extensive updates.

Obviously, I highly recommend a stay at the Murray Hotel, which has been so faithfully restored as to leave one pretty convinced they’ve entered an Art Deco time portal back to the late 1930’s. Now if they would just re-open the Branding Room and maybe book a Duke Ellington gig.

Information for this post came mostly from the Murray Hotel itself. Check out their website and Facebook page for reservations, correspondence, and all that kind of thing. A tour of the hotel can be found on You Tube.

Alright, enough of the shiny and new(-looking). Next time it’ll be back to some abandonment. We’ll travel way across the state and return to the eastern plains near the Texas border to hit some little-known towns that I can barely dig up any information on. So, those of you who have been fervently wishing for less time-consuming posts will be sighing with relief. I’ll be sighing with relief myself, actually.