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.


Owen said...

I have never heard of the hard rock underneath caliche called "caprock" that's the name for the Mesa that is the llano estacado.
(For example Ms. Noland had to come down off the cap every day to teach high schooler english classes.)

I wonder is Mr. Franklin is related to the Franklin's off nine mile rode. If you get out that way between Tucumcari and San Jon there is a cool old service station off the frontage road that is worth checking out.

jmhouse said...

Owen, thanks for your comment! This is where the geology and common use get tricky, I think. Here's a quote from the website of the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, TX:

"Most of the Llano Estacado topsoil is underlain by a layer of thickened calcium carbonate called the caprock caliche."

I didn't intend to imply that the caprock is under the caliche, but that the "caprock" *is* caliche.

In any case, it is certainly common to refer to the top of the mesa as the "Caprock" (capital "C", even) and, to muddle things further, the escarpment in Texas is the "Caprock Escarpment."

But I'm new to this, so I may well be off!

I was told that Mr. Franklin is ranching west of House and he most likely would have family in the area. I've been wanting to get a look at San Jon, in particular, for a long time.

Thanks again! I'm sure we'll hear more about the Llano, Caprock, etc.! JM

CoastConFan said...

Caliche is some tough stuff all right. It can also form a barrier against water soaking into the desert from infrequent rains. This leads to some interesting ponding of water in unexpected places, which can last for weeks. It’s pretty amazing to come across some of these shimmering lakes out in the middle of desiccated deep desert. Secondly it is a contributing factor in flash flooding as the water roars down hill and through arroyos. In some places it is used in buildings and other structures such as stock tanks.

When dry it can be as hard as sandstone (we’ve had some discussions about that previously in other posts) and when dry it forms a highly adhesive mud that can bog any four-wheel drive vehicle and sticks to anything. I have some opinions about these properties, but this is a family-friendly blog. BTW, for those who are interested, Wikipedia has a pretty good article on caliche.

Caliche can indeed be considered cap rock because of its properties. For example here’s something for the geologist and scientists out there:

But it’s not all bad, they make a rum in Puerto Rico called Caliche Rum, so I guess it’s good for something:

When I lived in NM my yard was about pure caliche and the following article from the U of Arizona explains that the only thing you can do if you want to have a decent yard is dig a hole in the caliche and put in some decent soil instead:

jmhouse said...

CoastConFan, that ponding you mention is why some think that the Llano Estacado (Staked Plain) was originally named the Llano Estacando (Ponded Plain).

Having attempted on more than one occasion to dig through caliche with a hand-auger, I'm sure my opinions on it are similar to yours. I will also refrain from expanding on them.

That also means I don't think I'd want to drink a rum made with caliche. Although it seems they are referring to the geology near the distillery in Puerto Rico, I suppose you could always add a little CaCO3 and see what you get.

Thanks, CoastConFan! JM

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm Kayleigh Fury and I go to school at House. My mom is Amy Noland Fury and my grandmother was the Mrs. Noland that would drive down the cap to go teach English. �� It is really cool to find an article about House, America on the Internet and seeing a comment about my grandmother! Really cool. ��

jmhouse said...

Hi Kayleigh! Thanks for your message. I suspected that Owen was referring to someone in particular when he mentioned "Ms. Noland," but I wasn't sure. That's great that he was talking about your grandmother!

There's not much information out there on House, America, and I'm happy to have at least contributed a little something. Thank you for contributing something, too!

Best, JM

Anonymous said...

Its sad to see these pictures. I grew up when House was vibrant small community. A hub for the area.Every one knew every one. Time changes marches on !!!

Unknown said...

Hi JM,

I like this little blog, my father in-law and mother in-law have a place in House, while I was there i met one of the old ranchers there, he said House was once a busy place years ago, I would love to this old place busy again back to the day when it quite a few businesses, I'm sure if someone was to invest in House in someway and there was work for new people coming to House, then this place could be like it was all them years ago. I'm sure if the weather changes in the future and they have more rains, then the land will be prime grazing land once more. All the best. B Robson

jmhouse said...

Thanks for your comments, Brian Robson and Anonymous! House is like countless small, rural towns around the US, I think. There isn't much economic opportunity now and the young people leave for bigger cities and never return. I'm not sure how to reverse that trend, but it's obvious that it's causing problems in numerous ways. Medora, a recent documentary on a small town in Indiana, captured some of those issues quite well.

Well, as you alluded to, Brian, time will tell what the future holds for House and so many other once-bustling small towns.

Thanks again! John

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful article on House NM~ I enjoyed reading it…

My grandparents grew up at House and raised their 7 kids there. My mother graduated from House High School in 1960. My parents married there and my dad is buried there along w/ many, many aunts and uncles. Did you visit the cemetery? It’s basically in a cow pasture.

I have thousands of memories there. And even though it’s not quite as vibrant, I’m so glad that you took the time to visit and get to know some of the people.

One aunt still lives there… In fact, the old grocery that you showed, I can remember when a grocery was open in the 1970’s and my grandfather ran one there in the 1950s.

My grandfather was a rancher.

I will pass this blog on to the Mitchell family…

Thx. Sandy R.

New Mexican said...

You ought to visit "Chaperito" in San Miguel County and "Loma Parda" in Mora County. I guess you will never run out of old places to visit. Then again there is "Las Ruedas" abt 4 miles from I-25 at Rowe in San Miguel County.

jmhouse said...

New Mexican, I was just talking to a ghost town aficionado today and Loma Parda came up. They'd just visited. I need to spend more time in San Miguel and Mora Counties, overall. In fact, I've been trying to make a visit to Hermit's Peak for the last couple years and really need to find time to do so. I will surely never run out of places to visit.

Thanks for your comment! JM

JimGeek said...

You might try to look up the book "I Claim This Life" by John W. Bedingfield. I was able to find a couple copies on a few years ago; it is long out of print. It's the recollections of a youngster growing up on a hardscrabble ranch in the 1920's near House. My Dad and some of his siblings were born there and my grandparents lived there until Grandpa Devenport died in 1962. I always loved visiting there in spite of there being absolutely nothing to do "in town" (House).

jmhouse said...

JimGeek, thank you very much for your comment. I love hearing from people with family connections to these places.

Also, I'd never heard of "I Claim This Life." There was a reasonably inexpensive copy on Amazon and it's now on the way to my house. I trust you've read "Cowboy Life on the Llano Estacado," by V.H. Whitlock? It's mostly focused on the region south of House, but is an excellent history of ranching in eastern NM going back to the very start.

Thanks again! JM

JimGeek said...

I read the summary of "Cowboy Life on the Llano Estacado" and must assume the "Causey Ranch" had something to do with the still-extant dusty/deserted town of Causey, NM. My uncle, my Dad's youngest brother, (who was born in Lucille, NM, a suburb of House NM) lived with his second wife in Causey and died a few years ago while living there.

jmhouse said...

JimGeek, the Causey Ranch was actually a few miles south of Lovington, in the southeastern part of NM. Although Causey was named for at least two of the Causey brothers, T.L. “George” and John.

I did a post on the still-extant dusty/deserted town of Causey that you might find interesting if you didn't see it. It's HERE.

Best, JM

Wayland Dillard said...

I lived in House all my life & graduated from House HS in 1961. My parents & grand parents are buried in the House Cemetary. My mother always raised a tremendous garden. No caliche there. I returned there every summer to assist my Dad with wheat harvest. It was good therapy after a year in a classroom. Some of my class mates have moved back there after retirement. In 1961 there were 3 auto repair shops, 2 grocery stores (1 operated by my father & grandfather, Dillard & Son, the other by Glenn Mitchel, the Post office, Fire Station, Farmer's Coop & the Community Building which is still used for the annual reunion. My 1st grade teacher was Mrs Franklin, Glen's Mother. Other Franklin's Still live in the area. My HS history teacher, Mr Kitchens, owned a horse that won the 1/4 HORSE FUTURITY one year. House won the state basketball tournament in 1932 defeating Gallup.

jmhouse said...

Wayne Dillard, that is a wonderful snapshot of House in the early 1960's. Thank you very much for your recollections. It seems that everyone that spent any time in House remains quite fond of the place.

Was that the All American Futurity race held at Ruidoso Downs that Mr. Kitchen's horse won? That's claimed to be the world's richest quarter horse race these days. Pretty impressive.

Also, I'm thrilled that a bit of an oral history of House is developing here in the comments section. I think that's really great.

Thanks again! JM

Wayland Dillard said...

Yes, that was the All American Futurity race.

Keiko Alvarez said...

I don't believe it! We were riding along and saw a sign that said "House - 12 miles" (I think it was 12). I thought - is this a sign pointing to a house? So we had to explore. After a couple of miles we gave up - too much time as we were rushing home. Thanks for enlightening me!

jmhouse said...

Yes, House takes a little work to get to if you were coming off of Highway 60. But it is indeed a place...containing houses. Did you go far enough to encounter Field? It's between Highway 60 and House, depending on how you go. There's not much there, aside from the obvious! JM

Unknown said...

My grandpa, Glenn Mitchell ran that old grocery store there on Ash street, him and my grandma Mildred Henry mitchell. My dad, Royce, his brother Troyce and all their sisters, la Donna, Glenna, Carol jean, janie, and la Quita all went to House school and graduated. We raised up on the Hill Ranch just southeast of House.i went to school in House til eighth grade....lot of family history in that old place. Hard life. Lots of dust and loss and heartbreak there too. Buried in that ground and whispering on that wind is a Looot of dreams that went unrealized. Plans thart parched by the sun, dried up and just blew away without a fight. Lots of good times too...but forgotten when you look at the empty shells of folks dreams around the village. Just Fallin down with the weight of time. I cry every time I'm there cuz I know I'm losing the fight against maintain what I once called mine. Not just things either. Not just businesses and buildings. House is a monument to one thing: time catches up to us all,every thing. And life, that seems so cruel and so slow in youth, is brutally short. No one will won this fight but we have illusions that we can so we fight proudly. But in end, the wind will always win.

jmhouse said...

monte mitchell, thank you for your heartfelt comment. What you wrote is truly the subtext to what I do with City of Dust. I can't say it as well as you did, so I let the photos and history do the talking. Life was indeed very hard back then. Life is hard right now. Among the few things that don't change I guess that's one of them.

Was that the Sunshine Grocery that your grandfather owned? That would really be something else! I'm constantly amazed that people with such close connections to these old buildings somehow find my posts. I guess the internet is good for something.

Take care, and thanks again! JM

Unknown said...

It's been a while since I've been able to read your blogs. However, sitting in my car while one of my kids is practicing soccer with his team seemed like the right time. House sounds like a cool little town, may not be a ghost town like Fiero or Hanover but still a cool little nonetheless.

jmhouse said...

Sitting in a car while one of your kids is playing soccer is the perfect time to catch up on City of Dust! The chunk of east-central New Mexico that House is in is a goldmine for old farm towns. I hope to do posts on places like Forrest and Wheatland soon, and I need to get back to visit McAlister and Nara Visa, too. These places are not well-documented, to say the least, but I'd like to change that at least a little! I have managed to do posts on Pep and Causey, southeast of House.

Thanks for your continued interest, Chris P.! JM

Anonymous said...

My Grandparents Clyde Moon and Bessie MacDonald Moon homesteaded in Forrest in 1905. My dad, Leo, was born and raised in Forrest. In 1951 my parents, Leo and Betty and myself moved to Jordan. They drove a school bus to McAlister School. We attended church in McAlister and bought groceries at Young's grocery store. But in 1961 my dad became the postmaster at McAlister with my mother as one of his subs. Now my sister in law, Rachelle Moon, is the postmaster there. I did not attend McAlister School because it closed before I started school. My sisters and brother all attended and graduated from House School and our children all graduated from there. In the late 50's our dad was the manager of the House Coop that is still open for business today. After Mrs. Catherine Franklin, Glen Franklin's mother, retired from teaching first and second grades for 40 years, I replaced her. I taught first and second grade for 34 years at House Schools before I retired. Now Amy Noland Fury, Mrs. Noland's (that was mentioned in this blog) daughter, is the first and second grade teacher. For 77 years the House School has only had 3 first and second teachers. I married Bill Runyan whose Great Grandparents also homesteaded in the McAlister area. There are several other families whose's descendants still live in the area. We are proud of our heritage and could share lots of stories about this area, but time is running out. There is much about House, McAlister, Jordan and Forrest and the families who lived here in the Quay County History written by many people and compiled by Lynn Moncus and Marian Farmer Knapp in 1985. (This book can found in nearly any library in Quay County.)

jmhouse said...

Thanks so much for your comment, Anonymous. I greatly appreciate such recollections and history because, as you say, time is running out. I have been wanting to document McAlister for a while now and hope to get there soon. I did make a trip to Forrest earlier in 2016, and I posted a few photos of the school on the City of Dust Facebook page. One can be viewed HERE.

That is really wonderful that in 77 years there have only been three first and second grade teachers in House. I love to learn those kinds of facts. I will have to try to find that Quay County History book someday.

Best wishes, and thanks again! JM