Jim Harris

Caudill Family: Those Days in the West, Life Went Right On

            When I have thought of the Caudill family in the history of Lea County, I have usually remembered the much-circulated 1909 photograph of three Caudill family members who came out west into New Mexico from Texas in the first years of the 20thcentury and helped establish the town of Lovington.

            The photo is of the brothers John, James, and Emory Caudill.  They are sporting western beards and mustaches, all three wearing suits that look like they could have been worn by Wyatt Earp or Doc Holiday in the years following the Civil War.  They also look like the men who were my maternal ancestors who came to Texas from Tennessee at the beginning of the 1900s.    

            Two of the brothers, James and Emory, were owners of the most prominent building in Lovington’s first years—the Lovington Mercantile.

            Their huge sign with the store’s name above the entrance was a landmark for the frontier community and suggested the brothers Caudill had a knack and flair for advertising.  Several iconic photos of early Lovington feature the store with its sign you can’t miss.

            Lovington was founded in 1908 with the Love family having the help of J.W. Caudill, the father of the brothers.  When the Caudills opened their store, they had a built-in customer base since J.W. had 13 children.  You might say the Caudills did as the Bible instructed Adam and Eve; they were fruitful and multiplied. 

            However, my first images of the Caudills has been permanently altered by the words I have just read written by one of the members of the family.

            At the age of 83, J.P. Caudill, the oldest son of J.W., hand-wrote his remembrances of growing up in Texas and moving to New Mexico. His granddaughter, Freida Caudill Owens let me read from a copy of that memoir, in addition to showing me a large number of family photos I had not seen.

            What he titled, “The Memories of J.P. Caudill,” begins this way:

            “I was born in Young County on January 21, 1895, about 30 miles from Graham, Texas, on Bitter Creek.  My father was J.W. Caudill, my mother Mattie Caudill.  No doctor, just a midwife for help.”

            No doctor, just a midwife for help?

            J.P. has a way of writing a lot in a few words, and in the first three pages of his remembrance, he develops the hitch-up-your-britches theme that runs throughout his unpublished book:  Good and bad things happen to all of us, but life goes on, he writes.

            At the end of his third page, here are J.P.’s words on that theme: 

            “Those days in the west, life went right on.”

            That is one essential idea that runs through the history of Lea County and the history of the American West, but it is especially significant in the story of the Caudill family.  They were not only a big family, they were also a family of members who despite setbacks persevered and prospered.

            The Caudills have been all over the place in Lea and New Mexico many generations after they arrived to settle on farms and ranches outside the town of Lovington.

            Here is what Lea historian Gil Hinshaw wrote about J.P. in his book “Lovington: Survivor on the High Plains,” published in 2008:

            “J.P. (James Pearil) Caudill followed in his father’s footsteps, turning out innovations that improved the quality of life for his neighbors.  Using an old Model T, he constructed and operated Lovington School’s first school bus in the early 1920s.  His freighting service that brought supplies to Lovington from Midland, Roswell, and Seagraves was something that caused his neighbors to marvel.  

            “In its operation, he used 101 burros and claimed that each animal had its own name.  His endeavors also included collecting and operating ranches, mostly north of Lovington.  

            “In 1953, he purchased and presented the first of eighteen new Cadillacs to his wife Vickie—a practice that he continued every year for eighteen years.” 

            J.P. Caudill’s grandaughter Freida is one of the board members of the Lea County Museum, and I have wanted to write about her family since she joined the board several years ago.  I am just now getting around to doing that because I have recently come in contact with so many other Caudill descendants

            For instance, Vickie Caudill came down from her home in Ruidoso to visit with me last week.  Vickie is the significant other of Lea County rancher Bert Madera. I learned quickly that Vickie is the aunt of Crystal Ball, whom I have known for several years and who works for the City of Lovington.  Crystal’s daughter Star McKee is the manager of Lovington’s Lea Theater, and since Star has a son, that makes four or five generations of Caudill kin I visited with or learned about in a two-day period just because Crystal’s Aunt Vickie came for a visit.

            So how many generations of Caudill kin have lived here in the 112 years since they moved to this corner of New Mexico?

            I guess the answer to that would depend on just what branch of the family you happened to be cataloguing and how far you would take the survey into the marriages of Caudill women to other pioneer families.  At the end of one story in the “Then and Now” Lea genealogy book, J.P.’s wife, Vickie, wrote that at the date, 1978, the J.P. Caudill family had 63  relatives of their immediate family still alive. 

            There must be dozens of Caudill stories about Caudill females marrying, including some related to members of the Harve Harris family. Norise Caudill married Prentice Harris in 1919.  Descendant Wes Harris sometimes writes history for this History Notebook column.  

            Perhaps I have dwelled too long on the size of the Caudill family. 

            This History Notebook will end with a passage or two from the opening pages of J.P. Caudill’s handwritten memoir that has been an interesting read for me.  There will be more stories and photos on the Caudills in future columns.  Thanks to Frieda Owens for letting me borrow her copy.

            One editorial note on these quotes:  I have quotation marks around all of these written words to indicate they are what J.P. has written, but to avoid confusions for readers, I have changed some punctuation and spelling to make the brief passages easier to read.

            “I lived in Young County until I was six years old.  My father got hurt by a bale of cotton at the gin in Young County.  We moved to Crosby County from Young County and I lived there until I was 10 years old and we moved to Gaines County.  On the ranch there I learned to hold the plow handles. 

            “My older sister drove the team and we helped break out a farm to plant corn on.  I lived on the farm for about 18 months and then moved to Seminole as my father had bought a section of land and had sold part of it out to help start the town of Seminole. He bought a doctor’s house, our first bathroom.  Oh, what a grand sight and quite a prestige house.  

            “I remember we rode horses 3 miles to school from the ranch in Seminole.  We walked over sand hills to school.  My school friend Glen Stark’s father had the grocery store in Seminole.  On weekends I helped him deliver groceries in a horse buggy for all the groceries.  Glen and I could eat, which I think was good pay.”