In History of Lea, Words and Language Remain Keys to Personal and County Stories

History Notebook by Jim Harris. Originally published in the Lovington Daily Leader, Lovington, New Mexico on August 27, 2013

Listening to Texas country music icon Billy Joe Shaver talk and sing about his life made me go back and examine several Lea County historical narratives that have found their way into print and that have passed along the county story over the last century. Here’s what I found: Despite the proliferation of popular alternate histories, such as film, video, still photography, and television, words continue to be the communication vehicles that carry the most weight with us when it comes to the authenticity and durability of our stories of the past. It’s as if our faith in language to tell our truths is much stronger than it has ever been. The reason that Shaver’s life story has reached millions of popular music lovers has to do with a number of factors, but the most important is the quality of the singer’s language. He is a good writer, Willie Nelson saying that Shaver is without question the best song writer in Texas history. Similarly, the reason that certain of Lea County’s personal and regional accounts remain as part of the county’s traditional story has to do with the quality of the writing found in those stories. As an example, I went back to one of the first books published by the Lea County Museum Press, “Love, Death, and the Plains: Historical Narratives of Lea County,” and I reread the stories told by several of the authors, including V.H. Whitlock, Minnie Hobbs Byers, Hazel Berry, Bob Beverly, Bess Yearwood, and Mettie Jordan. In each of their writings, I found examples of language that made you feel like I was in the presence of a physical object, something I could see and touch, making me feel as if I had been taken back in time to another era. Whitlock, known in his life as “Ol’ Waddy,” wrote of his experiences growing up in the home of Lea County’s first rancher, the ex-buffalo hunter George Causey. Here is a passage from Whitlock’s book “Cowboy Life on the Llano Estacado” in which Whitlock tells of coming back for a visit to Lea County in the 1960s and visiting with old friends here: “We saw only two of the old waddies I had known and had worked with fifty-five to sixty years before. They drove down to the open house from their homes in Tatum. One was Dick Miller, the LFD windmill man in his nineties, who repaired the windmills at the LFD watering places over the range for many years. The other was Harve Harris, with whom I punched cattle for the LFD. He was well up in his eighties. “We had quite a bull session, reminiscing of days on the open range. I learned that all ten sons of the two Beal families who ranched in New Mexico and Texas had ‘cashed in their chips.’ “Miller told us he was with the Jones Ranch in northern Lea County. ‘I’m too old to climb windmills now,’ he said, ‘but I can still tell others what to do to keep them running. I’ve been thinking for several years about retiring, but can’t make up my mind to do so.’ History Notebook by Jim Harris. Originally published in the Lovington Daily Leader, Lovington, New Mexico on August 27, 2013 , 2013 “Harris talked about fine cattle and sheep, irrigated farms, and oil (with which Lea County is saturated). ‘You remember when we used to have our own mount of cow ponies in the remuda when we worked the range?’ he asked. ‘Well, nowadays we punch cattle on foot or in pickup trucks. There’s no more real cowhands.’” Whitlock had some editorial help, as all writers should have, before his words were turned into a book, but the quality of his writing is what made the University of Oklahoma Press publish the book, and it is Whitlock’s skills–his dialogue rendition and character development–as a writer that have made the book stand the test of time and keep the work in print for three generations. Other than Gil Hinshaw’s history of Lea County, there is no more important book than Whitlock’s in telling of life in the early days in this corner of the state, and it is easy to see in Whitlock’s handling of character and dialogue what a good writer Ole Waddy is. Good writing lasts. Bad writing that, for instance, concentrates on genealogical listings, ends up lost in Aunt Sarah’s scrapbook or in trash cans. Good writing can be found in many different settings, and as one other example of memorable Lea County writing I’ve picked a portion of an article that appeared in the Lovington Press “Parade of Progress” in 1958 written by Bess Yearwood, the daughter of J.S. and Rose Eaves. This was a section of the paper celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of Lovington. Yearwood wrote, “To say that living conditions on the New Mexico ranch in the early 1900s were primitive would be a gross understatement. Although my father had told mother that the life she had chosen to share with him was ‘No life for a lady,’ I doubt that she was entirely prepared for the living conditions presented in her new home. “Heat, which was entirely inadequate in winter, was provided by a wood burning stove that all too frequently smoked, and seemed always to be full of ashes. The wood was mesquite roots which were laboriously dug or ‘grubbed’ by my father or some of the laborers on the ranch. “During the summer, this same stove which was necessary for cooking purposes made the house almost unbearably hot. Water for drinking and household needs was carried in buckets from the windmill which was some distance from the house. Light was provided by kerosene lamps and lanterns. The nearest post office was Monument, which was about eighteen miles from the ranch…. “The nearest doctor also lived in Monument. If he were needed, it meant that someone must drive the distance of eighteen miles in a buggy or wagon and bring him back to the ranch. This doctor, by the way, was Dr. A.A. Dearduff, beloved by all of the old timers in Lovington and the surrounding areas.” Many folks today worry that books will fade in importance as technologies offer us alternatives in ways we can learn. The form in which books come to us may change radically, and in some instances they already have. But it is my opinion, humbly offered, that books will become even more important than they have been in the past as the good ones flesh out the details of Lea’s past that can only be glimpsed in other historical works, such as photographs. The Whitlock and Yearwood examples used in this History Notebook will remain a part of Lea’s history because of the quality of the writing; they are engaging and informative. To conclude, I’ll say one more thing about Billy Joe Shaver, the writer of many great county music songs who performed here on Saturday, Aug. 17. I had more than one person ask me if Billy Joe was a bit tipsy when he was singing. He wasn’t, and I know this because I was around him in the afternoon before his show and into the night following his performance. In fact, Billy Joe has been clean and sober for several years after he struggled with more than one addiction during his life. I think he may have sounded tipsy because he has spent so many years singing before crowds of drunks that he’s started to sound like his audiences. Shaver’s concert and dance was one of the best that we have had in the several years we have put on the summer events. One of the reasons it was so good is that each song he sang was one he had written. He’s a good writer, and his music will survive because of the quality of the language he uses in the telling of his life story in songs. Stop in at the museum, and I will give you copies of the lyrics to some of his songs. Or better yet, come by and we’ll listen to one of his CD’s and pay attention to the poetry in them.

The Lipan Apaches: Southern Plains Indians in Eastern New Mexico And Texas

History Notebook by Jim Harris. Originally published in the Lovington Daily Leader, Lovington, New Mexico on September 10, 2013

In Bandera County Texas in 1866 a fourteen-year-old orphan named Frank Buckalew was captured by a band of Apache Indians raiding settlements in the rugged Hill Country south of Austin and west of San Antonio. As he was being taken northwest out of the Hill Country and into the plains of West Texas, young Frank must have wondered what was coming next in his tumultuous life. He had been kidnapped by the Apaches after his uncle Berry, with whom he had been living, had been killed by Indians in an earlier raid. Frank was born in Union Parish, Louisiana, in 1852, and his father had moved the family to Texas in hopes of a new life and the opportunity to settle on free land. Their hopes were dashed, both parents dying as they lived in several central Texas locations, including Cherokee County, where his father passed away and left Frank an orphan. The Indians who had captured Frank at his uncle’s farm were Lipan Apaches, one of three “eastern Apache” groups that included the Jicarillas and Kiowa Apaches. As they had been for a century, the Lipans were on the run from marauding bands of Comanches, fierce and superior horseback warriors who were driving all Apaches, including the Lipans, Jicarillas, and Mescaleros, from the Southern Plains of Texas and northern Mexico. When the Lipans first took Frank into their tribe, they treated him harshly. In the first days with them, he was savagely beaten by just about everyone in the band, initially making him run through a gauntlet

of men, women, and children who lashed him with tree branches, leather harnesses, or anything else they could get their hands on. The Lipans were testing him to see if he was tough enough to become a tribal member and live under the harsh conditions that were part of everyday life for the the tribe. Frank survived the punishment, and just when he thought one elderly Lipan woman was going to cut his throat and he would die, the woman simply broke the surface of his skin enough for him bleed slightly and then she embraced him as part of her family. At just fourteen years of age, Frank was now part of the third family in his brief life. I guess the Lipans practiced what today we call tough love. Frank may have been tougher than even his new Indian family members were aware because eleven months after he was History Notebook by Jim Harris. Originally published in the Lovington Daily Leader, Lovington, New Mexico on September 10, 2013 , 2013 taken prisoner, he escaped from the Lipans who were preoccupied with other matters, which included escaping the wrath of the Comanches, who were in those years following the Civil War, the most feared of all the Plains Indians. In fact, among all Native American tribes only the Apaches in Western New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, developed the warrior reputation of the Comanches. Late in his life, in 1925, Frank Buckalew wrote a memoir of his life and his times with the Lipans. It is titled, “Life of F.M. Buckalew: The Indian Captive as related by himself”. The book tells much about the practices and beliefs of the Lipans, but even with his description of his experiences among them, the Lipans continued to be one of the least known of all the Plains Indians. Even in Texas, school children learn much more about the Comanches, the Tonkawas, the Karankawas, Kiowas, and the Mescaleros than they learn about the Lipans. In fact, it was with the Mescaleros that the Lipans finally merged, both tribes taking refuge in the Sacramento Mountains of south central New Mexico in the last years of the 19th century. Thus, if Lea County folks want to know specifically about the Native Americans who occupied the southeast corner of the state, they need go no farther than the Mescalero Reservation three hours to the west where descendants of the Lipans still reside. It was these two tribes, Lipan and Mescalero, who in historical times frequented Lea land to camp at such places as Ranger Lake, Monument Springs, Dug Springs a few miles to the south, or other playa lakes in the north and south of Lea. Long time New Mexico journalist and syndicated columnist Sherry Robinson has just published a new book about the Lipan Apaches, “I Fought a Good Fight: A History of the Lipan Apaches.” It is released by the University of North Texas Press, and sometime this fall she will appear at the Lea County Museum to give a powerpoint presentation about her research and her new book. Robinson’s book has received much critical praise, and copies of “I Fought a Good Fight” are presently on their way to the Lea County Museum’s bookstore. More about her book in other History Notebooks and local news releases. More information about the Lipans can be found at the tribal web site, “lipanapache.org.” The tribe is now a State of Texas recognized Indian tribe, and the tribe has a museum in Corpus Christi and headquarters in McAllen, Texas. There is also another band of Lipans headquartered in San Antonio, and their web site is “lipanapachebandofTexas.com.”

The information about Frank Buckalew in this History Notebook can be found in the excellent and readable book “The Indians of Texas by W.W. Newcomb, Jr. published in 1972. More about Buckalew’s experiences as a boy with the Lipans can be found in his book, first published in 1925 five years before his death. Buckalew’s descriptions bring to mind the thoughts of most American and Mexican peoples living in the Southwest during the 19th century. Native Americans were considered “savages,” uncivilized peoples because their civilization just had not progressed to the advanced state of European civilization. They thought Indians were primitives still living thousands of years back in the development of humanity. However, in light of what is happening around the world today, particularly in Syria and the Middle East where Sunni Muslims slaughter Shiite Muslims by the thousands with weapons unimaginable 150 years ago, just how savage were the acts of the Lipans who murdered Buckalew’s relatives and kidnapped the young boy they wanted to be part of their tribe? Just how savage were the Lipans who kidnapped the boy Buckalew so their people would continue as a tribe? Were they predisposed to savage acts because of a primitive state of mind or because they were culturally taught to live the life of their fathers, mothers, and ancestors? In other words, was it nature or nurture that programed the Lipans to live as they did?

Indians of West Texas and Eastern New Mexico

History Notebook by Jim Harris. Originally published in the Lovington Daily Leader, Lovington, New Mexico on September 17

My writing of last week’s History Notebook on the Lipan Apache Indians brought me to much more reading about the Native Americans of the American Southwest. From Sherry Robinson’s book “I Fought a Good Fight: A History of the Lipan Apaches,” I found myself looking at any book on Indians I have in my possession in the Lea County Museum and in my home library.

This always seems to happen when my subject is Native Americans. I just can’t stop thinking about what life for these people was like just a century or two ago. So I picked up books of photographs, such as those of Edward Curtis. I examined books of paintings, such as those of George Catlin. I quickly reread one of the early 20th century folklore books of tales from the American Indians. I went back and thumbed through chapters of “The Comanches: Lords of the South Plains.” And I went back and reread the chapters of Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” that have to do with Blue Duck or other Indian characters in the novel and made-fortelevision movie. I’m sure there are many reasons for my fascination with the subject of Indians, many of these pre-occupations with them I probably share with thousands of Americans. We have tended to romanticize the lives of early Native Americans. They were noble savages in many of our popular fictions and films. The dominance of cowboy and Indian books and movies in my youth surely influences by inclination to continue reading about them. Even my remembrances of radio and television western shows in the 1950s and 1960s continue to influence my reading desires, programs such as “The Lone Ranger” and “Wagon Train” in which Indians often figured in the plots. So to get the subject out of my system, and of course, for the reader’s information and curiosity, here are some of our area’s Native American tribes discussed in two books, Paul Carlson’s “The Plains Indians” and W.W. Newcomb’s “The Indians of Texas: From Prehistoric to Modern Times.” In pre-horse times, that is, before the Spanish brought horses here in the 16th century, there were Querecho Apaches in the northern part of the Texas Panhandle and on the plains of northeastern New Mexico. Below them south of present day Amarillo, lived the Tewa Apaches in the many canyons around Palo Duro Canyon. History Notebook by Jim Harris. Originally published in the Lovington Daily Leader, Lovington, New Mexico on September 17 , 2013 At the extreme southern end of the plains in the Big Bend, several bands of Indians known as Jumanos lived along the Rio Grande and Concho River. They included the Caguates, Patarabueye, Abriache, and Conchos. By three hundred years later, in the 19th century, the tribes of West Texas and Eastern New Mexico had changed dramatically. Kiowas and Kiowa Apaches made their temporary camps and more permanent settlements in the northern part of the Texas Panhandle. Below them were bands known as Quahadis, Wanderers, and Penetekas. Farther south, including in present day Lea and south all the way to the Big Bend, there were the Mescaleros and Upper Lipan Apaches. To the east and north of the Rio Grande, in what is now called the Texas Rio Gande Valley, there were the Lower Lipans who had on to the east of them the Tonkawas and Wichitas. In the later years of the 19th century over most of Texas and the eastern half of New Mexico rode the Comanches who were such superior horsemen and warriors that they dominated every tribe in their path. If the Comanches had been able to amass more of the many bands containing their cousins and distant relatives, they would have given the Mexicans, Texans, and Americans a much harder time than they did. The US Cavalry soldiers, for instance, were not necessarily better individual fighters, but they were under the command of seasoned military men who had disciplined men trained to defeat even an enemy who fought guerrilla warfare. In addition, in the final analysis, the Texan and US armies had an unlimited supply of soldiers while many of the Indian tribes, including the Comanches, struggled to produce the next generation of warriors.

Quanah Parker was Comanche/Scots-Irish from the Comanche band Noconis meaing wanderers or travelers

The tenacity with which the Indians of the 19th century fought the American soldiers and the bravery with which they fought are other reasons several generations of the world’s people have been curious about the Native Americans. In addition, many Americans, including myself, trace some of their genetic heritage to various Indian tribes. As I have mentioned more than once in the History Notebook, on my mother’s side of the family in Tennessee we had Cherokee relatives, more than one of my aunts and great aunts having facial features that would have fit comfortably in a photograph in front of a teepee. My son Hawk is part ChoctawCherokee. To conclude, I would be interested in knowing just how many Lea County residents are Native American or have some Indian blood in their family. If you have time, send me a note or come by for a visit about your Indian family members and how they have influenced your thoughts about yourself and about your family.

Insightful New Book of Lea and More “Max Evans Animal Stories: A Lifetime Collection”

History Notebook by Jim Harris. Originally published in the Lovington Daily Leader, Lovington, New Mexico on September 24, 2013

Last week I took a digital sabbath, retreating into a restful world I need more and more these days, a world far from smart phones, emails, the internet, conference calls, and satellite communications. The escape was into the world of the book, that document I need to have on my shelves, beside my bed, and in my hands to touch and hold before I open it for the pleasure of the words heard in my mind, for the stories it tells, for the emotions it conjures, for the music of the soul it sings, and for my and the world’s history it offers. For me, books are sacred documents of the mind and heart, and last week I made a spiritual pilgrimage to the debut and launching of a new book by Max Evans, Lea County’s most famous author and a man who has written passionately and insightfully about Lea County’s part of the American Southwest, that is, Eastern New Mexico and West Texas. Max and the illustrator of his new book, Keith Walters, did their first book signing for the new publication i n the pastoral setting of a museum and library located on the beautiful Philmont Boys Ranch outside of Cimarron, New Mexico, a setting appropriate for the new book for several reasons.

Max Evans (right) and artist Keith Walters sign copies of their works at the grand launching of the sales of their new book “Max Evans Animal Stories” at the Philmont Boys Ranch Museum near Cimarron, New Mexico.

Published by the University of Oklahoma Press, the book is titled “Max Evans Animal Stories: A Lifetime Collection,” and it contains 26 narratives written by Max about the animals–coyotes, dogs, prairie dogs, cattle, mice, and more–that have been part of his life, some of them fictional and created for his short stories and novels, some of them horses he rode or dogs he owned as pets. Now Max will tell you that he has been around a few humans he would label as animals, but the stories in this book emphasize non-human animals, most of them beloved in some ways, but certain of them the History Notebook by Jim Harris. Originally published in the Lovington Daily Leader, Lovington, New Mexico on September 24, 2013 ornery, mean, frustrating critters that slip into our lives. For instance, one of the stories set in Lea County is titled “Cricket,” the name of the small bay horse Max owned and rode when he lived in Humble City just north of Hobbs on the Lovington Highway. Cricket was one of the beloved animals in Max’s life, his attitude expressed even in the story’s subtitle, “Little Horse of the Prairies.” Here is how the story begins: “I don’t remember when I started riding, playing, and working on Cricket. I was a four-year-old kid when I first got him, and he was a horse a year and a half younger than me, that’s all. The little gelding was an odd horse in many ways. For one thing: his ears were the size of a much bigger horse–these gave him acute hearing ability. He was smaller than a quarter horse but built just as powerfully in the hindquarters as any show winner. This breed was called “Steel Dust” back then. The little bay had ‘bottom,’ as the saying goes about a horse that never quits, and delivers under the toughest conditions.” In the opening sentences, the reader can feel the love and nostalgia Max has for the little horse he had as a boy, but the Cricket story is much more than an older man’s longing for the days of his youth. It is a story that subtly relates the history of Lea County in the 1920s and 1930s, and it tells that story in a manner very different from the era’s narratives found in books written by academic historians. Max is a writer of literary works- -novels, short stories, biographies, reminiscences, and screen plays–and it is often the case that literature provides the reader with history that is much more realistic and specific, that is insider or flesh-and-blood, engaging history, a history without the constraints of footnotes and bibliographies. Max’s “Cricket” tells of the hardships of the Depression era. It lets the reader experience the hunger many Lea residents experienced. The story informs the reader of the Evans neighbors and his relatives who were finally forced off of the drought-weary county land that would not produce the water or the food they needed. This is not to say that “Cricket” is a story of sorrow or sadness. In fact, it’s just the opposite of that. It is a joyous celebration of a different time and land that pushed children and adults to live up to their potentials. They were a people living in a time that drove life into a corner, and the survivors who knocked down the walls of that corner were heroic women and men, boys and girls. I have watched people respond to Max over the last 15 or 20 years; to many of them he is a hero for his life and for his writing. In his new book, Max’s story of Cricket has a beautiful pen and ink illustration to accompany it. The drawing shows Cricket in the background and in the foreground is a young boy extracting rabbits from a hole in the ground, one dead rabbit lying beside the boy. These are rabbits that were the main source of protein for the Evans family of Humble City. For a time, it was the young Max’s job to hunt on horseback the jack and cottontail rabbits that ended up on the Evans dinning room table. The Keith Walters illustrations of the twenty-six stories add much to the experience of the fat, paperback book, and the book’s color cover shows a plains pronghorn, golden grass in the foreground, white clouds and blue sky behind the animal. It is a beautiful painting that looks like it should be hanging in an art gallery. In fact, it is such a good looking work that a 16” x 24” cloth print reproduction of it is now part of the Lea County Museum’s Max Evans Room. Walters appeared with Max at the Cimarron book signing last week. He is a very personable and engaging man who looks like he belongs in a movie. In fact, he has appeared in a number of motion pictures, including a brief appearance in the 1998 film version of Max’s novel “The Hi Lo Country.” Working in his other occupation, Walters has been a property master on 22 major motion pictures, including “The Road,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “True Grit.” I’m hoping to have an exhibition of Keith’s work in the Lea County Museum Art Gallery one of these days, and I am hoping he will be able to accompany Max down to the Lea County for a book signing sometime this fall. In the meantime, visitors to the museum can buy copies of Max’s new book in the LCM bookstore, and they can see prints of two of Keith’s works in the Max Evans Room. I think every Lea County resident ought to have a copy of “Max Evans Animal Stories” for the book’s insight into life lived here during the Depression, but it is also a book enjoyable for young and old readers who simply enjoy stories about animals.

The photos of the following old building show a mill built by Lucien Bonapart Maxwell in 1864. It is now the Aztec Mill Museum in Cimarron. One photo was taken last week, the other in 1936

Lea County Loses A Historian Lea County History

The Last Frontier Series by Jim Harris. Originally published in the Hobbs News Sun, Hobbs, New Mexico on Sept. 8, 2013

With the recent death of Max Clampitt, Lea County lost not only a public servant dedicated to his community, but also a man who felt compelled to chronicle the history of the place that had been his home for most of his life. Over the last few years, and over cups of steaming black coffee, Max and I spent quite a few hours talking about our corner of New Mexico. He drove up to Lovington to the Lea County Museum where I work, and we would discuss a prized historic photo he had recently found to add to his extensive collection or we considered the subject of an upcoming column he was writing for the News Sun. One subject Max and I always came back to was Gil Hinshaw’s book “Lea, New Mexico’s Last Frontier,” the one work both of us considered the most important book about Lea County. I hope Max was aware that in the last weeks of his life the Lea County Museum staff was in the process of reprinting Gil’s 1976 publication. I hope Max was aware that in the last three weeks Thomson-Shore, Inc., publishers in Dexter, Michigan, were printing several hundred copies of the book that is essential reading for knowledge of Lea County history. Max Clampitt was Lea County’s historian, the county’s popular or “folk historian,” might be the best title for him, but both of us talked several times about Gil Hinshaw being our county’s “academic historian.” Hinshaw is a man experienced in writing and publishing several regional histories, such as the works he did on the towns of Tucumcari and Lovington and books on the Civil War. Since he so valued Gil’s book, I think Max would be happy about the title I have chosen for this column, “The Last Frontier,” and I hope up there in heaven Max feels good about my taking up his mantle of writing Lea folk’s history of the county. I did not ask my friend Gil Hinshaw if it is okay that I borrow a part of his book’s title for this column. Gil will be aware of this column only when he reads this first edition. For “The Last Frontier,” I would like to make it my goal to combine the folksy contemporary narratives and historic photographs found in Max’s columns with the more formal and footnoted narratives that Gil wrote in his county history book some 37 years ago. For several years in the 1990s and the first two years of the new century, I wrote a weekly history and travel column called “The Southwest” for the News Sun. For the last 11 years I have written a column called “Lea County Museum History Notebook” for the Lovington Leader. I will continue to write that column for the Leader, and “The Last Frontier” will be completely different in subject matter, although as the historical subjects relate to museum programs or exhibits, similar references may be found in both writings. Writing this initial essay, I already feel back at home at the Hobbs News Sun.

This image shows the front and back of the Lea County Museum’s reprint of the Gil Hinshaw book “Lea, New Mexico’s Last Frontier.” Hinshaw’s book was published by the Hobbs News-Sun in 1976 with two reprintings, one in 1977 and another in 1983. The book will arrive in Lea in the next few weeks.

Geography and History: Turning Points and Critical Junctures in Lea History

The Last Frontier Series by Jim Harris. Originally published in the Hobbs News Sun, Hobbs, New Mexico on Sept. 15, 2013

Southeast New Mexico, Territory, Summer, 1882. On a cloudy afternoon with rain threatening, George Causey trailed at the back of his herd of fifty cattle and over 100 mustangs when he and the few remaining members of his hunting crew drove his halfwild beeves and horses into New Mexico Territory. The buffalo were all gone. There’d be no more killing of the thick-skinned, ornery beasts that once appeared to be as numerous as the stars. At what he thought must be the border, Causey stopped his horse and looked back over his shoulder at the West Texas that was no more. Then he looked ahead into New Mexico. This was the way it had always been for him, looking ahead since he was a child mostly-grown at the age of ten. More than once, he had scouted this corner of the territory where the grass was as high as the belly of his horse and the land was free for the taking. The new life wouldn’t have the excitement of buffalo hunting, but all you had to do to make the land yours, he thought, was stay put in one place awhile and build something, a rock corral, a rock barn, or a rock house. The best part of it, he said to himself, was the openness of the place, not another man to smell clear to the Pecos River, and in between here and there the prairie looked big enough to get lost in. In the afternoon light, the land looked to him like a golden sea of grass.

George Causey

Robert Utley is the celebrated author of books that tell the stories of such famous individuals of the American West as Billy the Kid and George Armstrong Custer, and he has a unique approach to narrating history. According to Utley, he “combines research in both indoor and outdoor archives to enable the reader to visualize a drama unfolding on a stage.” He writes that “the West still retains enough undamaged landscape to offer a stage for historic events…” and he believes The Last Frontier Series by Jim Harris. Originally published in the Hobbs News Sun, Hobbs, New Mexico on Sept. 15, 2013 “if you know the history, you can visualize the action that swept over the landscape.” It seems to me that Utley’s approach to historical writings–using facts and a specific geography–is a good way of seeing the brief history of Lea County. In other words, having a good grasp of the geography of the county is especially helpful in visualizing and understanding the events that took place here in this corner of New Mexico. Here are four important facts about geographic Lea. First, this county is part of the Southern High Plains of North America. Second, much of Lea is also located on the Llano Escacado, a semiarid, mesa-like table that disoriented early travelers with its apparent flatness and featureless terrain. Third, to grasp the history of the county, one needs to also know that the land is not as flat or as featureless as it first appears. It was difficult for early travelers to know it, but all it takes for a modern resident to realize this is to get out of the automobile and walk across the land’s surface of sandhills, playas, rolling meadows, and rocky flats, stopping to pause at day’s end at the edge of its rugged western escarpment, the caprock. Fourth, it takes very little effort to realize that geographic Lea County can be a hauntingly beautiful setting, a prairie land that can enchant and mesmerize residents today just as it did to the early nomadic travelers and first permanent settlers of the region. As is the potential for any place on mother earth, the broad land and even broader sky can combine to transform the setting into a high aesthetic and spiritual experience. It is my feeling that each of the major events and critical junctures in the history of Lea needs to be seen in the context of the county’s geographic settings. For those readers new to Lea County, here are a few important dates that outline critical events in the region’s history. In 1871, Colonel William Shafter and his Buffalo Soldiers stationed in Ft. Davis, Texas, first mapped the southeast corner of New Mexico Territory. In 1882, the ex-buffalo hunter George Causey moved a herd of horses and some cattle from West Texas into Southeast New Mexico building the first ranch house in future Lea County. Causey went on to do many firsts, including drilling the first water wells and erecting the first windmills. In 1900, the town of Monument was established two miles to the east of Monument Spring, the most important source of water in the region and the spot where natives had camped for hundreds or perhaps even thousands of years. In 1912, New Mexico became a state, and the people of this corner of the land of enchantment began a campaign to acquire a portion of Eddy and Chavez counties and establish their own county. In 1917, Lea became a county with Lovington, the largest town in the region, as the county seat. In 1926, oil was discovered outside the little community of Maljamar on Lea’s western edge. In the 1930s, Lea residents suffered through a drought and through the Great Depression that economically transformed the entire nation. In each of these critical events and sweeping movements, Lea’s geography was the stage on which county history played out.

New Mexico’s Lea and Colfax Counties: Historic Similarities and Striking Differences

The Last Frontier Series by Jim Harris. Originally published in the Hobbs News Sun, Hobbs, New Mexico on Sept. 22, 2013

Last week I drove through several small towns in Colfax County, New Mexico, located in the northeastern part of the state along the Colorado border. Colfax’s towns include Springer, Raton, Cimarron, Miami, and Maxwell. Roughly a five hour drive north of Lea, Colfax County has some of the most spectacular geographic sights in the state, filled as it is with majectic mountain peaks and stunning open plains. The county Chambers of Commerce often describe the region as the place where the mountains meet the plains. It is, in fact, a postcard pretty county, with dozens of small lakes and streams nestled on mountain peaks and hidden canyons. Along the state’s highways, it may be only 300 miles from Lea County, but geographically Colfax and Lea are strikingly different places. However, if you examine the history of the two counties, there are many similarities between the two. First, Colfax and Lea were formed by taking a portion of other counties. Colfax was first a part of the huge Taos County formed in 1852 following the United States invasion of what was northern Mexico and its annexation as a territory of the US. Colfax was formed in 1869 from the northern portion of Mora County, which had earlier been carved from Taos. Similarly, Lea was created in 1917 from Eddy and Chavez counties, which had been part of the much larger Lincoln County. A second similarity between Colfax and Lea is that in historic times most of the land was initially used for ranching, with both counties still home today to quite a few well-known and smaller ranches. For instance, following the Civil War Kit Carson owned a ranch outside of Cimarron, while today Ted Turner owns the nearby Vermejo Park Ranch. Several of Lea County’s ranches that were started in the 19th century continue to operate today, including the Four Lakes, High Lonesome, San Simon, Hat, and Pitchfork ranches. A third similarity in the histories of the two counties has to do with the early permanent settlers to the regions. Last Week’s “Last Frontier” column mentioned the former buffalo hunter George Causey who in 1882 moved into the future Lea County when he stopped hunting buffalo in West Texas and built a ranch house at Ranger Lake north of the future town of Tatum.

Similarly, a former buffalo hunter and frontiersman, Lucien Bonapart Maxwell, was the owner of a ranch on what became at the time the largest piece of privately own land in America with over one million acres. The area became known as the Maxwell Land Grant, land that had been deeded by Spanish and Mexican governments. Thus, ranching has not only been a major part of the historical narratives of the two counties, but it has also been part of the folklore and folklife of the two. When I ate lunch in the 1872 St. James Hotel in Cimarron last week, I sat in a room filled with photographs, paintings, and bronze sculptures of famous cowboys, cowmen, and their guns, horses, saddles, and spurs. To conclude, much of the economy of Colfax County depends of bringing tourists to the region, tourists who want to be learn about and be in the historic region where cattle ranchers were kings. There are, of course, many characteristics that illustrate just how different Colfax and Lea County histories are. One of the biggest differences has to do with something that also brings tourists today to Cimarron and other Colfax towns. Cimarron was on the Santa Fe Trail, one of the most famous settlement routes in the American West. Down the Santa Fe Trail from towns like St. Louis, Missouri. came thousands and thousands of settlers who wanted to create new lives, or simply sell goods, in the West. Although there were pathways through Lea County in prehistoric and historic times, trails used by Native Americans, the extreme southeast corner of New Mexico was never a major throughfare betweens points to the east and west. Today, Lea has thousands of miles of concrete trails crisscrossing the region, and never has the county seen the traffic that it is experiencing in 2013. In fact, I think it would be safe to say that Lea easily now has more automobiles than Colfax County. The number of residents in Lea today is probably four or five times that of Colfax, the 2010 US census showing the northern county with less than 15,000. Driving through the geographic regions making up Colfax and Lea County, a visitor probably would not guess that the two would have similar histories, but the two counties do share much. Colfax is a thriving tourist destination. We’d like for that to be the case in Lea, but it isn’t…yet.

Knowles: A Road and a Western Town in Transitional Times

The Last Frontier Series by Jim Harris. Originally published in the Hobbs News Sun, Hobbs, New
Mexico on Sept. 30, 2013

Last weekend I took a 28-mile
bicycle ride north out of Hobbs on Knowles
Road to see if the recent growth in Hobbs
had moved out that direction from the city.

Knowles road September 2013

Knowles is one of the oldest of roads out of Hobbs because it was once the route to a prosperous little town, a town created when Hobbs was not much more than a store operated by members of the James Isaac Hobbs family, a store near their dug out home located just east of the present day intersection of Marland and Dal Paso. The Hobbs family settled in the location in 1907 when they claimed 160 acres where they just happened to stop their wagon to visit with strangers, another pioneer family that they accidentally encountered on the wide open plains. The town of Knowles had formed four years earlier in 1903 with the opening of a post office and store, located one-half mile north of where the center of the thriving little community finally came to be located. Lea historian Gil Hinshaw writes that Knowles was Lea’s second city, after Monument, and at one point it was the largest: “At the peak of its growth in 1909- 1912, Knowles reached a population estimated at 500.” With Hobbs having a little less than 50,000 residents today, 500 may not sound like very many people, but for the homesteaders and ranchers on the plains of Southeast New Mexico a century ago, Knowles must have seemed like a metropolis since it had a saloon, bank, general store, blacksmith shop, hotel, newspaper, and more. One of my favorite photos of early Lea was taken in 1907 on a dirt street in Knowles. It shows two cowboys, the brothers Charlie and George Weir sitting on their horses with their ropes ready to lasso any wild critter that might be coming down the town’s main thoroughfare.

Knowles a century ago, the Weir cowboys Charlie and George Weir in 1907

Another photo, taken in 1911, shows a more modern and refined Knowles with a horse and buggy stationed in front of a Ford Model T Passenger Touring Car, both the buggy and car parked in front of the The Last Frontier Series by Jim Harris. Originally published in the Hobbs News Sun, Hobbs, New Mexico on Sept. 30, 2013 Knowles Hotel, a good-looking two-story frame building with a covered front porch and a balcony fenced with decorative railings above the porch.

The Knowles Hotel in 1911

The Knowles Hotel looks like a building for which modern day tourists would pay inflated prices to stay in a place that would take them back to another era during America’s settlement of the West. But this photo is such that it suggests the buggy and automobile just might be parked as they are to take hotel guests to church or to the opera, although if Knowles had anything close to an opera house it would have been one of those rowdy music and dance halls that were part of certain saloons in the wild West of the late 19th century. I like the suggestion in the photo that it was taken during a transitional time when the horse drawn buggy and the gasoline powered automobile were two compatible vehicles for transportation. If you think back to the popular portrayals of the West in fiction and film, you may remember that many of the most popular wild West narratives in novels and movies were set in that time when the Indians had been stationed on reservations and modern vehicles appeared to be taking the place of older forms of transportation. The themes in many of those works of art focused on the hardships of transitional eras. My favorite of the motion pictures with that theme is Sam Peckinpaw’s “The Wild Bunch,” which was set in Mexico during the time the town of Knowles had begun its decline. The protagonists in “The Wild Bunch” were men who were emotionally stuck in an earlier era and were not able to make the adjustments to modern America. That was the reason they rode south into Mexico where life was much closer to the wild West the men had known. I am not suggesting that anything ever happened in Knowles similar to the shootouts seen in “The Wild Bunch,” but the Weir brothers seen in the Lea County photo are dressed like the characters seen in the movie that ends in one of the bloodiest scenes ever depicted in a movie. The town of Knowles, just a few miles north of where Hobbs is today, existed at a time in which the land of Lea still had a frontier look, from the men on horseback on the range, to the frame businesses located in town. Last weekend riding on my bicycle so I could be closer to the land and experience more intimately the sounds and smells of the region, I found no signs of the town’s existence, but I did see a few reminders of earlier times. For instance, on Knowles Road just a mile or two north of where the town was, a visitor can walk through the Teague Cemetery

Teague Cemetery September 2013

where the headstones are placed above the remains of men and women born just after the Civil War in the 1860s. And with farm fields and dairy farms, the land along the road still has an out-in-the-country feel to it, which is a good thing to offer Lea residents living in bustling city neighborhoods. Going north out of Hobbs, Knowles Road does not take a traveler very far or to the little town that once was there. The land along the highway has changed with the economic diversification of the county, a large dairy farm now across from where the town once was. However, the rural Knowles Road still has the ghosts of its past standing just off the pavement, and if you listen closely they will talk to you about the Teague, Thorp, Norris, and other families once there.