Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Tale of Three Lucy's: Lucy, NM

Let’s start 2015 by getting back on Highway 60 and driving just a little bit west of Negra to the ghost town of Lucy, New Mexico. Like Negra, Lucy is on the south side of the highway, tucked back beyond the railroad tracks, so you could drive past day-after-day and never even know it’s there.

There are three versions of how Lucy got its name and no one knows which is correct, although they all involve the railroad. The first is that Lucy was named for the wife of James Dunn, chief engineer of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (AT&SF). The second is that it was named after the mother of an attorney for the AT&SF. The third is that the town’s namesake is Lucy Myers, daughter of railroad construction engineer Frank Myers. Maybe they're all true. Oddly enough, despite these three stories, Lucy’s original name was the Spanish Lucia and the town only became Lucy in 1914, nine years after it had been established by homesteaders. Makes a person wonder who Lucia was, doesn’t it?

By 1916, Lucy had a post office (est. in Lucia in 1908), two general stores, a one-room schoolhouse, a 16’ x 40’ Santa Fe depot, and almost ten homes. A four-room hotel was built in the fall of 1917. Lucy actually had three schoolhouses over the course of its life, the first being used only until 1910. A second school operated into 1920 and had an average attendance of 18 pupils, all the children within a radius of nine miles. Or, at least, the children that wanted to go to school. The last school was fairly large and used from 1920 into the 1940’s. These schools were the center of community in the town.

Church was also held in the schools and often the congregations of Lucy--Methodist and Baptist--had to lead their own services, ministers not making it to town every Sunday. It’s said there was a lot of singing in town and much of the population would head down to the depot to see the passenger train come through from the east once each day. Flour sacks often provided material for clothing Lucy’s citizens.

But by the 1920’s and 1930’s, it started to get more difficult to make a living in Lucy. Families began leaving and during the Dust Bowl it became nearly impossible for farmers to tough it out. Often a homestead would be abandoned in the middle of the night, the residents unable to pay their debts. This was quite a blow to store owners, who had extended credit in many cases and now had to try to absorb the losses. Other homesteaders sold to ranchers.

By 1940, there were no longer enough students to justify keeping the Lucy school open and soon the few children in the area began to be bussed to nearby Willard. The post office closed in 1942. The rail depot was moved to Estancia and later ended up on a local ranch. The last event of real note in Lucy was a train wreck on April 14, 1979, in which 42 cars derailed, spilling Lincoln Continentals and Ford Broncos all over the tracks.

I got to Lucy in the summer of 2014, just in time to realize that I was a bit late. The beautiful skeletal concrete remains of the 1919-1940’s school had been taken down by a new property owner. Also, the A.D. Formwalt home, at the north end of town, had recently burned. I don’t know what caused the blaze, but there was very little left of what looked like a once-wonderful old farmstead.

One of the worst things that can happen to a ghost town hunter is to find they’ve missed the opportunity to visit some historic structures. Most houses in town were built on a foundation of rock or even bare ground and not a trace of them remains. Luckily, the large, wooden Lucy Ranch was still standing and very photogenic. Also, the Lucy Cemetery has recently undergone an extensive and loving restoration, so there is activity yet in this little ghost town, one of the many forgotten places along Highway 60.

There’s not much information out there on Lucy, but what exists can be found in the rather spendy “Torrance County History” and Dixie Boyle’s excellent and much-less-expensive “Highway 60 & the Belen Cutoff.”

Next time I believe we’ll go way down to the southwestern part of the state and visit Fierro, a mining ghost town in Sierra County. See ya then!

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 ranch--the Davenport Ranch--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 Albert (nickname "Ollie") 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.

DECEMBER 2014 UPDATE: As she did by contributing her photos of Hallie William's murals to my post on Encino--the only known shots of those murals, I might add--Dixie Boyle has significantly increased the worth of this post by sending in two great old photos and providing a bit more information on Negra, and the Williams family, in particular:

"Hallie and her sister, Carrie Walker, taught at the Negra School (pictured below) when it was first built, and then in later years Hallie taught music and art classes at her house, which was across the road from the school. The kids would walk across the street to her home for classes. The pile of wood in the middle of the others was the Negra School. During this time the kids made up a wonderful puppet show that Hallie and her students took to other schools. Her daughter, Carrie, still had the puppets when I interviewed her.

"Carrie and Hallie actually moved from Texas to Negra to homestead land together. They built a shack to the south of the school somewhere. Ollie also moved to Negra to homestead. Hallie had a degree from Baylor University and had taught in Texas a few years before arriving in Negra. You can find Hallie and Ollie in the Encino Cemetery.

"In front of the car (above) it's Carrie, Ollie, and Hallie. I just love this picture of them."

Many thanks to Dixie Boyle for yet again providing photos and information that are nearly impossible to find elsewhere. The best place to get this stuff is directly from Dixie's books, in this case, particularly Highway 60 & the Belen Cutoff: A Brief History, which would almost surely be of interest to anyone reading this post.

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 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.