Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Paying a Visit to the Williams: Negra, NM



It’s time to head south out of House, New Mexico, drop down off the Llano Estacado, and into the town of Taiban, home of one of the most photogenic churches I’ve ever encountered. From there, we travel Highway 60 west for quite a stretch, past Fort Sumner, Yeso, Vaughn, and Encino. But then, five miles past Encino, we find Negra. So, at the gravel road, let’s turn south and have a look.

Negra, in Torrance County, was established, as were a number of other towns along Highway 60, when the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad (AT&SF) constructed the Belen Cut-off. This enabled trains to pass through the flat plains and avoid climbing into the northern mountains through Raton Pass. The cut-off came through about 1905 or 1906 and Negra’s post office was established in 1909. However, the post office didn’t last long. It shut down in 1918 with mail to those few still in Negra even then going to Encino



There are a couple stories about how Negra (“black” in Spanish) got its name, including one about a black dog hanging around the early townsite. Robert Julyan suggests the town got its name because of the black soil in the area and mentions the presence of a black water tank. The tank is notable because Negra must’ve had good water and plenty of it. For instance, Encino once got their water from Negra. I was told that a man named Tenorio used a small tanker truck to haul water to town and sell it to the residents. Of course, the steam-powered locomotives would’ve stopped in Negra to get water, as well. After the conversion to diesel engines, Vaughn bought four wells near the tracks from the railroad and, at some point, even Duran, 20 miles away, got water from Negra.

Beyond the above, there’s not much information available on this little town. Nearest the highway is a vacant but nicely intact filling station that might be from as early as the 1920’s. It’s pictured below. (Note “U.S. POST OFFICE” written near the roof. Perhaps this was salvage material.) Behind it is an old tourist court. Both were built by C.E. Davenport, Negra’s first postmaster. A working farm is adjacent to the south. Even farther to the south, across the still-active railroad tracks, there’s a cemetery. To the west, where most of the community once was, only a couple buildings remain. Two, which are not much more than piles of sticks now, were an old school and a teacher’s residence. An adobe structure with a big hole in the middle (shown above) might’ve been a more recent school.



But the gem of Negra is the wonderful rock house, built on the site of an old grocery store, and its attendant barn and outbuildings. Despite the paucity of historical documentation, in a happy twist of fate it’s known who once called this lovely place home. In my post on Encino, I mentioned that there were once four beautiful murals on the walls of the high school gymnasium, which had sadly been torn down. Those murals were done in the very early 1940’s by Hallie Williams, and it is she and her husband Ollie (or, maybe, Albert) who lived here. Hallie also painted at least one other mural and I’ve been told it still exists, in a store built by Mr. Williams in the 1950’s, also in Encino.



Mr. Williams ran a filling station in Negra—likely the vintage one just mentioned. He also operated a mercantile that fronted the railroad tracks in Encino. This store contained a reportedly very smelly stuffed buffalo head on a wall. Later, in the mid-1940’s, Mr. Williams built a smaller store on the north side of Highway 60. His third store in Encino, then, would be the one containing the mural.

Now, there are some abandoned places that legitimately feel creepy and leaving them brings with it an undeniable sense of relief. Then there are other locations, like the Williams’ homestead, that are peaceful, if not downright soothing. With the sun and clouds playing across the flat land of the eastern plains and a cool breeze rustling the grass, I could’ve stayed there—and, indeed, in all of what remains of Negra—for many more hours than I did. I hope to return soon. I feel like there’s more to be learned out there.



About the only published documentation of Negra that I’ve come across is Dixie Boyle’s “Highway 60 & the Belen Cutoff.” It’s a fantastic source for all kinds of info on the towns along the highway. Of course, Robert Julyan’s “The Place Names of New Mexico” handled the naming story, per usual. I even got a few facts, particularly about water, from comments left on the City of Dust Facebook page. Finally, Henry R. sent me a fascinating message about Encino and Negra, as well as background on Mr. Williams, his various stores, and his buffalo. As Henry R. was there back then, his is a fantastic first-person account. His full letter can be read as an update on my post on Encino, which I first published in 2013. Photos of Hallie Williams' now-destroyed murals can be found there, too.



Alright, we won’t have far to go to get to Lucy, the next stop on our never-ending journey.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

On the Edge of the Staked Plain: House, NM



The more I learn about the Llano Estacado, or Staked Plain, the massive tableland that covers over 37,000 square miles of west Texas and eastern New Mexico, the more fascinating and evocative I find it. We’ve visited Causey and Pep, both on the western edge of the Llano Estacado, so let’s visit one more Llano town. This one is right beside the Mescalero Escarpment, a long cliff averaging about 200’ high which forms the border on the New Mexico side of the tableland. The Mescalero Escarpment could be (and probably was!) seen as an excellent defense against enemies below. House sits perhaps 15 miles northeast of where this escarpment descends from Taiban Mesa into the wonderful semi-ghost town of Taiban, NM.

Near House is another simply-named town called Field and while the origin of Field’s name is officially obscure, it would seem kind of obvious to anyone passing through. Likewise, you might think that perhaps House was named for a…house. But, in fact, it was named for John L. House and his family, who settled on the current townsite in 1902. John built the first store in 1904 and within two more years House had a post office, with Lucie Jordan House as the first postmistress. I've heard that settlers often arrived by train from Tucumcari and made the surely difficult journey up the escarpment to House on foot where an agent would assign them land to homestead.



(The building above was once a hardware store.)

Below the soil of much of the Llano Estacado is caliche, a hard mineral here known as caprock. In fact, the entire top of the plateau is often referred to as "The Caprock", or even just "The Cap". To make things more confusing, the towering escarpment on the Texas side is the Caprock Escarpment. Anyway, this Caprock Caliche can keep soil depth relatively shallow and, without any features to block wind, the Llano was one of the two regions most devastated by the Dust Bowl, particularly in Texas. Southeastern Colorado-Southwestern Kansas was the other hard-hit region. I wonder how House fared.

There are no descendants of the House family in the area any longer, but the town that bears their name persists. In fact, House is not a ghost town by any stretch. While the population as of the 2000 census was 72, House feels somewhat larger. There are many well-kept homes and gardens and it comes across an active place. So, I apologize to the residents of House for making their home look a little like a true ghost town. I guess it’s just what I do.



(Above is the Sunshine Grocery. Inside were copies of U.S. News & World Report from the early '60's. A quick glance at an issue showed that while the world is very different it's also just about the same.)

While not a ghost town, House has changed considerably over the decades. Its history is difficult to uncover, but someone whose family settled near House in 1906, who began attending House Public School in 1948, told me that the town once had 4 service stations, 3 churches, 3 grocery stores, 3 mechanic shops, 2 hardware stores, 2 feed stores, 1 appliance store, 1 barber shop, 1 blacksmith shop, 1 cafe, 1 school, 1 pool hall, 1 movie theater, a post office, and a potato grading shed. Now, beyond the post office and school, virtually none of it remains.

In 1948, 325 kids attended 1st-12th grade in House and almost every 1/4 section was occupied by a family. But just a handful of years later there were 125 students in the entire school. Much of this decline occurred in the 1950's, when New Mexico suffered a terrible drought and people left the farms around House en masse.

Now, that's about all I could learn about House itself. However, I would be remiss in not mentioning Glen Franklin, born March 18, 1936 in House. Mr. Franklin was world tie-down roping champion in 1965, 1967, and 1968 and was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1979. It’s said that Mr. Franklin carried a rope while still in diapers and was soon looping every dog, chicken, or human that crossed his path. He rode a horse called Red Light that received its share of credit for Mr. Franklin’s achievements. However, Mr. Franklin didn’t want to travel constantly and retired from rodeoing to ranch near House, which he is still doing to this day.



If I got any geology wrong, I apologize. Please correct me! I used Wikipedia and LlanoEstacado.org as my two primary sources on the Llano and its escarpments. Since there’s not much out there on House, Robert Julyan’s The Place Names of New Mexico tells you more than any other published source just by describing how the town got its name. There’s about as much info on Mr. Glen Franklin at the ProRodeo Hall of Fame site as there is on any other aspect of House! Without the help of Robert W., who has deep roots in House, this post would be much poorer. Michael K. contributed the bit about folks hiking up the escarpment after getting off the train. I thank them both very much!

Next time I believe we’ll head back west down my ol’ friend Highway 60 and visit Negra, New Mexico.

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.