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. (UPDATE: Claunch was formerly known by both names, with DuBois Flats the earliest, dating to the 1890's.) 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.


Tom Gump said...

Very nice.

jmhouse said...

Thanks for the kinds words, Tom Gump! I'm glad you enjoyed City of Dust's visit to Claunch. JM

Vincent D. Johnson said...

Very cool stuff. Love the main photo on your blog. If you have some free time, check out this site
I've been documentary abandoned rural America for the last 20 years.

jmhouse said...

Thanks for stopping by, Vincent D. Johnson! The documentary you're putting together looks fascinating. I shared the Lost Americana trailer on the City of Dust Facebook page. Maybe it'll send a couple people your way.

Keep up the great work, and if you've ever got questions about abandoned places in New Mexico, Georgia, Minnesota...etc., don't hesitate to drop me a line at the e-mail in my profile.

By the way, that top photo is from Highway 56/412 between Springer and Clayton, NM, in the northeastern portion of the state, not too far from the Oklahoma and Texas lines.

Best Regards, JM

Joan Mathis said...

My parents farmed pinto beans in the mid-1940's. Charlie R. Montgomery and Sudie Jane Armstrong were married January 1048. My sister Judy Sue was born on October 29, 1948 in Carrizozo, New Mexico. I was born September 22, 1949 in Carrizozo, New Mexico. Claunch was our home until we moved to Texas in the late 1950's. We went back to visit my grandparents Jim and Mattie Montgomery. My Uncle Bill Montgomery lives there with his wife Dixie today, September 30, 2015.

My mother's family lived there for a short time. My Great Grandfather built a three room motel there. John Armstrong lived there. I remember visiting him. He had a wood burning pot bellied stove in the middle room.

So many memories...wonderful days. Joan

Julie said...

Your photos are amazing. I love finding abandoned cars, playgrounds, and interesting buildings. You managed to find them all. The information was interesting too.

jmhouse said...

Thanks for sharing some family history, Joan Mathis! It's great to hear from someone that grew up in Claunch. Anyone that lived there that's contacted me has very fond memories of the place.

I have to say, I'm quite interested in that three-room motel your great-grandfather built. You don't happen to know if the structure is still standing, do you? Or might you remember whereabouts it was? Of course, I'd love to find it (or whatever remains).

Thanks again for stopping by City of Dust! JM

jmhouse said...

Thanks for the kind words for the photos, Julie. I appreciate that. Claunch does seem to have it all!

I hope the exploring is going well in AZ these days. At least it's starting to cool down a bit! JM

Kathy Owens said...

In 1963 my aunt Iva Hobbs and neighbors would meet at the old school house and have a quilting bee

jmhouse said...

I can just imagine those quilting bees! I really need to go back to Claunch and properly visit that old WPA schoolhouse. Maybe I'll find an old needle or a ball of string in a corner.

Thanks for your comment, Kathy Owens! JM

Larry Richardson said...

I have traversed Claunch, NM since I was a very young boy. My father was a traveling salesman for an automotive parts company, in Albuquerque. On April 28, 2016, I stopped in Claunch to photograph the old schoolhouse. It was a cool, breezy day. I was taking photos from across the highway when I heard children playing. Looking around, nobody was outside of their houses! Does anybody know if children died at the school?

jmhouse said...

That sounds a little spooky, Larry Richardson. I don't know of any tragedies occurring at the school, but if there ever was one perhaps somebody else will be able to provide information.

Thanks for sharing your experience! JM

Joan Mathis said...

I have not heard of anything about children dying thethre. When I was a child I attended the Claunch school. We loved playing all around the school grounds. Thanks for sharing your experience. Joan Montgomery-Mathis

Anonymous said...

I am not aware of anything happening at the school. My great grandmother, Nora Stewart cooked at the school for many years. She was also a great piano player and played for the Women's Club and many of the musical programs that were mentioned in this blog. I spent many days down visiting her and playing in the abandoned school and other buildings. My family were all bean farmers from down that way and eventually moved to Mountainair. Kevin Knight

Joan Mathis said...

I went to 1st Grade at the school about 1955. I remember a woman who made cakes with dolls in the center. She took special order. I do not remember her name. Sorry I do not remember who cooked for school. I thought the women took turns.

I also remember a play in the auditorium. Think I loved the stage plays after that. I took drama in Jr. High and High School in Texas.

Great memories.Joan Mathis.

jmhouse said...

Thanks for all the recollections of life in Claunch, folks! I'm proud to have these memories recorded here. Keep 'em coming! JM

Brandon Claunch said...

Does anyone have any information on Lockhart Claunch? It turns out, he is my Great-Great Grandfather. I'd like to know more.

jmhouse said...

Brandon, I'm afraid I can't provide any information on Lockhart Claunch, but perhaps somebody else will have something to pass along. You might want to keep checking back here, or even provide an e-mail address for faster contact.

Good luck, and thanks for stopping by City of Dust! JM