Monday, September 21, 2015

Pinto Beans and Singing Conventions: Claunch, New Mexico

Of all the places we could go from long-lost Centerpoint, New Mexico, which we visited last time, perhaps it makes the most sense to simply continue south down Highway 55 and follow it through a few sharp turns until we get to Claunch, something less than 30 miles away. Claunch’s position in central New Mexico put it firmly within the pinto bean empire of the early part of the 20th century, when neighbor Mountainair was proclaiming itself the “Pinto Bean Capital of the World” and soldiers fighting in WWI were eating beans that had been grown in the fertile Estancia Valley.

Back around 1900, when Claunch was being settled, it wasn’t known as Claunch. Instead, it was called Fairview. Or perhaps DuBois Flats, after Frank DuBois, a local cattle and sheep rancher. Or maybe it had been called both. I can find no certainty on the matter. Whatever the case, Claunch became Claunch near 1930, when the town was big enough to warrant its own post office and a DuBois, NM already existed. Or a Fairview, NM existed. Or both did. But a new moniker was definitely needed and L.H. Claunch, who ran the nearby Claunch Cattle Co., agreed that his surname could be used for the town. Later, he would firmly refuse to let his name be attached to the Claunch Saloon, which thus never opened.

Claunch flourished in the 1910’s and 1920’s, before it was actually called Claunch. However, by the early-1930’s, just as Claunch had gotten its name and post office, the Great Depression and the relentless drought of the Dust Bowl began to hit farmers in the Estancia Valley hard. Within a few years a Works Progress Administration (WPA) school would be built, but as more topsoil was carried off by the howling prairie winds it was already becoming too late. The school closed in the 1950’s, but its skeleton yet sits on the plains.

Where it's been said that there was once a homestead on every 640-acre section in the area, by the late-1960’s it was more like one homestead for every 20 sections, and only six or eight close-knit families inhabited Claunch. These are numbers which have certainly not increased in the last 50 years and the place remains isolated, the nearest towns, as ever, being Mountainair, 37 miles northwest, and Carrizozo, 42 miles southeast.

While Claunch is largely quiet these days, if you listen closely you might hear voices on the breeze, for singing once echoed loudly across the gravel roads. At first, there were gatherings in people’s homes, but then, in 1916, under a brush arbor not far off from town, the Torrance County Singing Convention was born. These were not informal get-togethers, but true events rooted in long religious tradition stretching back to the remote forests of New England in the 1700’s. Ralph Looney, relating his attendance at a convention in Claunch in “Haunted Highways,” even describes learning of shape-notes, a tool intended to aid those who can’t read music, which has a rich history in a unique type of hymn singing in the Deep South often referred to as Sacred Harp.

The Torrance County Singing Convention attracted people from all over the region and even those from other states who had moved away. A yearly state-wide convention could bring in as many as 1200 singers. In DuBois Flats/Fairview/Claunch, the singing convention “year” began on the fourth Sunday in April, with another convention held in June, August, and October. And, as with Sacred Harp “sings” in the South, food--and lots of it--was required to sustain hours upon hours of music in which everyone participated. So, after two hours of singing in the morning, it was time for lunch.

Ralph Looney describes a spread he saw in the mid-1960’s, years after one might’ve assumed Claunch was forgotten: “Meat loaf, fried chicken, roast chicken, ham, beef roast and pork roast. Turkey, molded fruit salads, slaw, tossed salads. Vegetables like pickled beets, green beans, wax beans, mashed potatoes, potato salad, candied yams. Homemade yeast rolls and cornbread. Chocolate cake, angel food, vanilla cake, white cake, apple pie, cherry pie, blueberry pie and so on and on and on and on.” Then would follow at least another three hours of songs such as “Joy is Coming,” “Then We’ll be Happy,” and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.”

I’ve been assured there is still fine music being made in Claunch, if not on quite so grand a scale. And the post office is open yet, and operating as a library, too. You can check a book out or swap for one of your own. But as you walk past the old pinto bean elevator, with Ye Olde Dance Hall still faintly visible on the front, and a sign for a museum which it’s probably best you not wait too long to open, it is the past you feel, remarkably soothing--which is not always the case in such places--and somehow alive and singing.

It is perhaps worth adding a short postscript: Claunch lies about 40 miles northeast of the Trinity Site as the crow flies. Given prevailing winds on the morning of the world’s first atomic bomb blast, it was directly in the path of potential fallout. People from the region still talk of cows that turned white after the explosion and were then shown off at local fairs as curiosities to ponder over. It's a strange and unsettling footnote in the history of the little town of pinto beans and singing conventions.

Ralph Looney’s “Haunted Highways” provided a wonderful description of Claunch in the 1960’s, while “Ghost Towns Alive” by Linda Harris revisited the town over 40 years later. I grabbed a little info from Robert Julyan’s “The Place Names of New Mexico,” as I tend to do, as well.

Next time we’ll just see where we end up. I’ve got a backlog of locations that only seems to grow larger.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Too Small to be a Village, Not Large Enough to be a Town: Center Point, New Mexico

On Highway 55, about 40 miles south of Mountainair, New Mexico, is a charming old one-room schoolhouse. It’s one of those abandoned places that is a sheer pleasure to visit. I even put the above photo on my City of Dust "business" cards. But where exactly are you when you’re at this school? For many years it was a mystery to me as I could find no record of anything besides pinto beans existing in the area. Enter the internet. After a few photos (not even my photos!) of the school showed up on ghost town and history-related Facebook pages, the story of this little dot on the map, which, it turns out, was known as Center Point, finally came to light.

Center Point isn’t in Robert Julyan’s comprehensive The Place Names of New Mexico, but I can still tell you how it got its name: It’s smack dab in the middle of the state, right by Center Point Hill. The only “official” mention of Center Point seems to be in “Mountainair, N.M., Centennial History, 1903-2003” by Bert Herrman (published by Mountainair Public Schools), which includes Center Point in a list of area schools: "Many rural schools were three-month terms and began after New Mexico became a state in January 1912. Teacher's salary was $25 a month. Many of the teachers were 16 or 17 years old; they boarded at homes until small teacherages could be built for them. Dozens of schools dotted the countryside as the region developed. There was Eastview, Center Point, Piñon, Round Top, Ewing, Cedarvale, to name just a few. Typically, each had one room and one teacher that taught grades one through eight. The teachers often lived in shacks next to the schools.”

Beyond that, the initial bit of first-hand information about Center Point came from S. Smith-Cumiford, who saw a photo of the school on-line and said, “That’s on the road to Gran Quivira. It looks like the school built on land donated by my grandfather-in-law, John Cumiford, who was a land-granted rancher and whose homestead ranch was the last to be sold off, in 1985.”

A short time later, H. Thomas added some poignant history about John Cumiford who, it seems, also built the school: “John Cumiford came to Mountainair from Independence, MO in a covered wagon with nine children, his wife dying en route or shortly after as a result of childbirth. He never remarried but was cared for in the late 1950’s by my mother-in-law, who had some nursing background. He built this schoolhouse which also doubled as the chapel on Sundays.”

Then came a wonderful account from J.E. Bowers, who grew up in Center Point, and through Facebook comments provided what is likely the most extensive history of the place in existence: “My mother, Florence Drew Tausworth, taught in that schoolhouse. My brother and I went to school there. We lived in that shack across the street. When it snowed we would wake up with snow on our beds. This was in 1946-1947. There was no community. Just the schoolhouse and the shack. There was a cistern where we got our water. We had a pot-bellied stove in the house. The people lived on their farms and brought their kids to the school.

“My mom taught all the grades. There was a wood stove in the schoolhouse and my brother would go over every morning and light a fire. There were three of us. My oldest brother went to school in Mountainair. It was his job to chop the wood. The wood was brought in by the people that lived in the area. My uncle was the preacher in Mountainair so he would come get us once in a while and take my mom grocery shopping as we had no car.

“I thought it was the most wonderful time in my life, but my brothers felt differently because of the hard work they had to do. Oh yes, I forgot, there was an outhouse. I don't know when the school was abandoned as we moved to Willard the next year. I was quite young. We had enough kids for a baseball team. As you are standing looking at the school, to the back left was where we played baseball. My mom was quite brave to live out there with us three kids.

“The only name I remember that lived close by, maybe a mile or so, was Garrison. One of their sons (Larry, I believe his name was) was a year older than I was. We went back to visit them a year or so later, and Larry had died of food poisoning from home canned green beans.

“The house doesn’t look the same. It has been ‘updated’ since we lived there. LOL. I don't believe it had the ceiling or the drywall and insulation. There were cracks in the walls and ceiling and the wind, snow, or rain would come through. We had to use pots and pans to catch the rain. We had a rain barrel also and we used the water to wash our hair with. Mama would heat water on the stove for us to take baths in the washtub. We had a chamber pot which my brother had to empty every morning. Being the youngest, I never had to do anything.

“We had no toys. So we went wandering. My brother says he got lost one time and it took him quite a while to find his way home. We looked for birds eggs in the piñon trees. We ate a lot of beans. I do remember buying margarine and mixing the yellow packet that came with it. Mother made a lot of corn bread, so cornbread and beans was our main meal with the margarine on the cornbread.

“It's been so long ago that it's taking me a while to think of things. When I said I had no toys, it made me remember. My Aunt Leta Hood cut pictures out of magazines for me. They were my paper dolls. I also had some jacks. I was a whiz at jacks. My mama would get down on the floor and play with me. Years later, when my daughter was that same age and we went to visit my mama, she got down on the floor and played jacks with my daughter.

"My mother was the treasure. I can't imagine taking three children to a place with no modern convenience. This was where I got my love for reading. I read anything and everything. (Even the Montgomery Ward catalog in the outhouse. LOL.) Wouldn't it be nice if things still cost the same as they were in that catalog?

"So many people had it much harder that we did, but fortunately for me and my brothers, we had a very determined mother. So, to me, this story is about my mother, who was determined to be a teacher. She's the one who brought her three children from Texas to New Mexico. And she's the one who probably gave those children in Center Point one of their most memorable school years, as she loved teaching and she loved children.

“Here's what my eldest brother said. (Funny, we all have the exact same memories.): 'Mom taught grades 1 thru 5. I, a 5th grader, was the janitor of the school with a monthly salary of $5.00 which went to mom to help with expenses. During the winter we all slept with a hot rock wrapped in a towel and it went cold too fast. Brother Bob was to keep wood chopped for fire wood and help haul water on wash day. The cistern was always dry and we had to have water hauled in at $10.00 a load. On Christmas eve, the school children put on the Christmas play and we wore bathrobes to be the Three Kings.

"'On New Year's Eve there was a group of local men who played instruments and came and put on a "jam session" for the local people. And, yes, we could have all the pinto beans from the fields we wanted, and go pick leftovers after harvest. But at that altitude they took a long, long time to cook. And I hiked to Gran Quivira one time not realizing it was five miles away. Thought I was never going to get back home. But I found a beauty of an arrow head.

"‘Like you, the only names I can remember are the Garrison's. They lived in the next house north of us, about a mile up the hill, on the east side of the road that was surrounded by trees. There were two boys that I remember, one a senior in high school that year, I believe. I think his name was Glen. He used to supply us with firewood. I don't remember anyone else that I rode with on the school bus. When I was there, probably 20 years ago, I couldn't find the house, and the trees were gone. All that land was bean farming and there were lots of piñon trees. When we were there last, both were gone.’"

It’s true. So much of Center Point has slipped quietly into the past that even its memory was hard to find. But it has been found and now if you Google “Center Point, New Mexico,” well, you might wind up here and read just about everything that’s ever been written down about the place. One thing that has not been found is the house that J.E. Bowers grew up in. If it's still there, it can't be far from the school. I'll have to take a closer look next time I'm in the center of New Mexico. (UPDATE: From J.E. Bowers: "The shack the teachers lived in is gone. It was right across the street. It probably fell down. LOL.")

Information for this post came from people that knew Center Point and that book about schools around Mountainair. And that’s it! I cut-and-pasted the comments of S. Smith-Cumiford, H. Thomas, and J.E. Bowers and her brother from Facebook and with luck they’ll find their way here and give City of Dust their blessing! I thank them for sharing their memories and present them here with the utmost respect, even if I did sort of steal them (for now).

Photos 1-5 were taken in 2009. Photos 6-10 were taken in 2014. Different time of day, different film stock, different time of year.

Next time…I’m not sure. I’ve got more places to write about than time allows, so I’ll just go with what grabs me in a couple weeks. Drawbridge, CA? Claunch, NM? The El Rancho Hotel in Gallup? We shall see.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Bridal Chamber: Lake Valley, New Mexico

We’ve spent a lot of time over the past few months in Grant and Sierra Counties, including visits to Hillsboro, Kingston, Fierro, Hanover, and Fort Bayard. So, let's make one more stop in southwestern New Mexico (for now) and check out Lake Valley, site of the famous Bridal Chamber Mine.

Lake Valley lies in the shadow of Monument Peak (aka Lizard Mountain), a prominent knob of rock that nevertheless would’ve given no indication to early travelers of the great wealth waiting nearby. It was 1878 when George W. Lufkin, a Union Army soldier, and his partner Chris Watson went looking for silver not far from Hillsboro. A Chinese man had told Lufkin and Watson in a Georgetown, NM saloon of how he’d ended up lost on the way to Silver City and come across a piece of silver chloride, or horn silver, a very pure, soft form of the mineral, yet could never find where it came from again. That would certainly be a likely story in the Old West. However, both Lufkin and Watson were in their mid-50’s and desperate for a strike. And they thought what they’d heard had the ring of truth. Thus they went out looking for silver. For weeks. With no luck, naturally. Then the story gets contentious, but everyone agrees that somehow Lufkin and Watson stumbled upon silver outcrops. Unfortunately, they’d now been out so long that their initial grubstake was exhausted and they had to quickly head back to Hillsboro to raise more money.

After an additional delay due to Apache depredations, the two miners eventually got back to work, hauling out a half ton of ore and bringing it directly to the Red Onion Saloon in Silver City. Here, John A. Miller saw what had been found and offered the men $1.50 a pound or $1500 for the whole load. Miller went to the assay office, where the geology was better than in the saloon, and quickly learned that the ore ran $12 per pound. So he put up enough money for him, Lufkin, and Watson to mine in earnest.

In the spring of 1881 the men sold their claim to a syndicate led by George Daly. Miller got $100,000 while Lufkin and Watson, along with nine other men, each got $25,000, in addition to the considerable amount they’d already made. Lufkin would build a house nearby in a camp he named after Daly, but the settlement soon moved and became known as Lake Valley in honor of a small lake nearby long since gone dry.

Then, John Leavitt, a blacksmith, leased a claim from the Sierra Grande Mining Company (in which Walt Whitman owned 200 shares!) and spent two days digging in a hole that Lufkin and Watson had started. Lufkin and Watson should’ve gone farther though because at ten feet Leavitt hit a thing that most miners surely didn’t even dare dream of--a cave of solid silver chloride measuring 26 feet wide and 12 feet high. A flame would melt silver right off the ceiling. Despite all this, Leavitt didn’t seem to know what he’d discovered and sold his claim back to the Sierra Grande Mining Company for a few thousand dollars.

(Leavitt's cave, now collapsed, would be in the middle distance in the photo below. The visible mine and rock pile are the result of manganese mining during WWI and II.)

Of a dirty gray color and very malleable, horn silver was soon being cut into large blocks and loaded into railroad cars parked right outside the cave. The ore didn’t even need to be smelted it was so rich. A massive piece, valued at $7,000 (about 394 pounds-worth, silver then being $1.11 an ounce), was exhibited at the Denver Exposition of 1882. In fact, no single concentration of silver has ever exceeded what was quickly named the Bridal Chamber for obvious reasons. All told 2.5 million ounces was exhumed in a couple years, still not even half of the silver taken from the immediate area between 1881 and 1893, when the price of silver collapsed with the end of mandated government purchases. In short, for a few years in the early 1880's, Lake Valley was something else.

Peak population was estimated at 1,000 souls around 1883, the town having moved once and then again to be closer to the Bridal Chamber, and whoever was there was clearly having a wild time. One western surveyor tagged Lake Valley as, “…the toughest town I’ve ever seen.” Adding, “I’m satisfied a man died with his boots on every night.” Marshal Jim McIntire was brought into Lake Valley in 1882 to keep the peace at the astounding rate of $300/mo. He must’ve had his work cut out for him. Legendary lawman and strong-arm Jim Courtright was also there and quickly killed two ore thieves in a gunfight. He would kill three more men in Lake Valley.

But if Lake Valley wasn’t lacking for silver or bloodshed, it wasn’t lacking in irony, either. George Daly, who’d purchased all those area mining claims initially, was killed by Apaches on the very day the Bridal Chamber was unearthed. A settler had appeared in Lake Valley holding her baby and saying she’d been held hostage by Victorio’s band and tortured for hours. The men headed to Cotton’s Saloon for some liquid courage and to await the arrival of a unit of the Army’s Ninth Cavalry. Once everyone was assembled and Victorio’s camp was located in Gavilan Canyon, the men charged right into an ambush, with Daly killed in the initial moments. George Lufkin, who, with Chris Watson, first re-discovered the lost silver near Lake Valley, is also buried in the town’s cemetery; he died without a penny and rests in a pauper’s grave.

In 1908, with Lake Valley having burned in 1895 and already on its way to becoming a ghost town, a man named Oliver Wilson came to make a home. He’d built the Victorio Hotel in Kingston and refused to sell, only to have the bank finally foreclose on him. His daughter, Blanche, was nineteen and as they approached the town saw no way that she could remain in Lake Valley. In the end, she stayed until her death on March 31, 1983, running the Continental Oil distributorship for the area and fully taking the reins after her husband A. Lee Nowlin’s death in 1937. Blanche said her family disapproved of her marriage because Lee was from Texas and “Texans generally weren’t held in very good repute around here in the old days.” Blanche’s next door neighbors in the old Bella Hotel, Pedro and Savina Martinez, were the final holdouts, keeping watch over the town until 1994. Pedro had arrived in Lake Valley in 1904 at the age of two and spent 90 years there.

(Mrs. Nowlin's home is in the photos above and below. Her name can still be made out on the screen door.)

So why would anyone live nearly alone in a ghost town? Blanche Nowlin said, “It’s so peaceful, you know. It’s wonderful to wake up in the middle of the night and hear the silence. This is where all my memories are,” she continued. “There are seven graves over there on that hillside that I can’t leave.” Now she rests amongst them herself.

Much of the background on the cast of characters in Lake Valley came from Haunted Highways by Ralph Looney. Varney’s New Mexico’s Best Ghost Towns and Julyan's The Place Names of NM were also useful, of course. The BLM now operates and oversees Lake Valley and their brochure also came in handy. I highly recommend a visit soon. Woefully expired "Top Crest" brand 35mm film provided Lake Valley with a violet cast.

Next time we’ll visit a place that even Google won’t tell you about: Centerpoint, NM.