Railway’s ‘brashness’ put Clovis on the map for good

Don McAlavy

Santa Fe Railway mechanical department workers numbering about 120 mass together on a steam locomotive in the Clovis railroad yards on April 8, 1926. Photo courtesy of the High Plains Historical Foundation.

The brashness of the railroad in choosing a site on the bald prairie for a new town and division point sent shock waves through the four neighboring towns.

They have never really recovered from the slight. Each felt itself the best qualified.

Texico (founded in 1902-03, and the first town in present Curry County), Melrose (founded as Brownhorn in 1906), Blacktower (now called Portair, also founded in 1906), and Portales (founded in 1898 by the “Pea Vine” Railroad) had all been tentatively considered by the Santa Fe Railway.

Melrose had been the first choice, and roundhouse construction had even begun there.

Then, on Sept. 1, 1906, came the abrupt switch that determined the site of the area’s largest city.

Following William B. Storey’s being named the railroad’s chief engineer of construction, he wired his engineers on the ground at Texico to locate and buy the first level section of land west of Texico for a new townsite, which was to be named Clovis.

The change to a site on the bald prairie came about as land speculators, on learning the railroad had picked Melrose, bought up all available land and asked the railroad an exorbitant price for it, which the railroad refused.

As to the controversy over the naming of Clovis, it’s a proven fact that the railroad had already named the siting and put it in its first timetable effective March 12, 1906, some six months before the railroad had decided to purchase land for a new town.

They named it Clovis, and the name Riley Switch was never the railroad’s choice for a name.

The reason for the Santa Fe Railway even being in this area was a simple one.

Its main line had already been built into New Mexico, back in 1879, but it went over the steep Raton Mountains, necessitating additional engines to push the heavy freight trains up the steep pass.

Santa Fe wanted a more level route to the West Coast. That’s when they had a route surveyed from Portales west and from Texico west, and chose the route from Texico that would go 250 miles to Belen, where the railroad’s main line turned west to the coast.

This became the Belen Cut-Off and work commenced on building the tracks from Texico and Belen in 1902.

The Belen Cut-Off saved the railroad an enormous amount of money and time.

The square-mile section that the railroad bought for its new townsite, Section 18, had already been homesteaded, with two of those quarter-sections owned by Clayton Reed and his sister, Nellie.

Mr. Reed had already built his home, about where Grand Avenue and Prince Street came together, and was cutting feed with his team of mules when he saw someone coming across his field in a buggy.

This was on Oct. 1, 1906. The man in the buggy asked Mr. Reed if this was his land, and if it was, he wanted to buy it.

Mr. Reed didn’t know the man, and told him he wasn’t interested in selling, but that there were some quarter-sections he knew about that could be had for $100 to $200.

The man informed Mr. Reed that his piece of land was what he wanted and told him he was R.C. Reid, representing the Santa Fe Land and Improvement Co., in charge of townships for the railroad.

Clayton Reed still didn’t want to sell and wanted to get back to cutting his feed. He said it would take $1,000 to even get him interested.

The railroad had already bought the southern half of that particular section.

The railroad man said, “If you and your sister will sell your quarter-sections without any trouble, then the north half of this section would be the site of the new town. If you and your sister refuse to sell, the railroad will have to condemn and arbitrarily set the price. I’m authorized to pay as much as $2,500 each for yours and your sister’s land.”

He also told Mr. Reed that he had already purchased the south quarters from Blackwell and Todd for $2,250 per quarter.

At this, Mr. Reed said, “Me and my sister will be in your office in Texico in the morning.”

Mr. Reed never finished cutting his feed that day, and the next day, he and his sister got $2,500 dollars each.

They had paid only $15 to file on each quarter.

When the townsite of Clovis was platted on April 13, 1907, and lots opened for sale on May 1, Clayton Reed and Charles Steed, the town’s first undertaker, bought a lot at about 307 Main St.

J.C. Faris, a carpenter, built them a 12-by-20-foot building, and they opened up as the first commercial business in Clovis — a real estate company.

But the first lot had been purchased by Eugene F. Hardwick, where Phillip’s House of Music is today, at 118 Main St.

Charles Steed went on to start the first cemetery out on West Seventh Street, on his brother Claud’s place. And the first funeral home.

Hill A. “Doc” Jenkins, operator of the Turf Saloon, located next to the railroad property on South Main Street, built the second house in Clovis, and today it’s the “Oldest House” mini-museum opened each year during Curry County Fair time.

On May 1, 1907, Arthur E. Curren, started the first newspaper in Clovis at 113 W. Grand Ave., and he called it The Clovis News (a forerunner of today’s Clovis News Journal).

At the 50th anniversary of Clovis in 1957, Mr. Curren had this to say: “At the beginning of Clovis, the only sound to disturb the monotony of the situation was the mournful sound of the coyote on the distant prairie, except that occasionally ‘ye editor’ would take his mandolin and get out to the daisy patch covering an alleged street in front of my newspaper office and keep harmony with said coyote.”

Down the alley a block south from Curren’s newspaper’s small wooden building, and across then-Otero Avenue (now Second Street), was another wooden structure being built for the first bank in Clovis, which was actually organized in Melrose on May 29, 1907, to become the Clovis National Bank (today’s Bank of America, now located at Grand and Main).

The little town of Clovis was only a tent-city at first.

All the lumber to build homes and businesses was freighted in by the Santa Fe Railway.

There weren’t any trees here then, you understand. The town’s growth was so rapid that everyone started calling it “The Magic City on the Plains.”

Along about this time, a group of the first businessmen apparently didn’t like the idea of the post office being so far away from their business.

“So they up and marched down there, to William Palmer’s store and post office, located in a box car, just south and east of the railroad crossing at First and Prince, and simply picked up everything, except the box car, and moved the post office, lock, stock and barrel, locating it on West Grand just across the street from the Antler’s Hotel (about 110 W. Grand).”

Mind you, no documentation backs this story up, but many old-timers have told it so many times that today it has become a “fact.” A story circulated three times becomes a “bona fide fact,” it has been said.

Into this upstart town came many people, most of them looking for a new start in a new town.

One of them was Charles A. Scheurich, born in Taos, who happened to be a grandson of New Mexico’s first territorial governor in 1846, and a great-nephew of Kit Carson.

Scheurich was an extraordinary man with a shrewd sense of business. He started a mercantile business on the site where Hotel Clovis is today, but soon left that in favor of insurance, real estate and banking, becoming the first leader in the growing town.

On April 6, 1908, the county commissioners of Roosevelt County decreed that the town of Clovis be a duly and regularly incorporated town.

Yes, Clovis began in Roosevelt County, said county having been created in 1903.

Well, perhaps the same businessmen who hijacked the Riley post office were the same ones who were unhappy that the county seat was at Portales. It didn’t make for easy travel, being 19 miles away with sandhills in between.

A plot was hatched, lead by Charles A. Scheurich, to secure their own county.

Due to Scheurich’s efforts, one of the first bills introduced in the 38th Territorial Legislature of 1909 (the last assembly of that body before statehood) was House Bill No. 5, for the creation of a new county to be carved out of Quay and Roosevelt counties.

The bill passed on Feb. 25, 1909, and was signed into law by then-Gov. George Curry.

Of course, part of Schuerich’s plan announced beforehand was to name it for the governor, an old friend.

That cinched the deal, and we became Curry County. A long time later “Uncle Charley” Scheurich was recognized and designated as the “Father of Curry County” by the High Plains Historical Foundation Inc., founded in 1972.

He died in 1949.

Now the fun began. Who was to get the county seat? Where would the courthouse be located? The town that got that would be assured of continual growth.

Of course, Texico — especially Texico — and Melrose, still smarting from the railroad building a town “out on that bald prairie,” thought they should have the county seat.

A bitter war ensued with the newspapers, especially the Texico Trumpet, flaming the debate, saying, “Talk about trickery and unfairness. It’s a bitter scheme hatched out in Clovis, so don’t be fooled by their hirelings, as they are hoodwinking and decoying the honest citizens right into the lion’s mouth!”

One group of citizens, living north of Clovis, designated a piece of land with nothing on it, as the town of “Center,” being in the center of the county, and campaigned for the county seat.

The election to decide who got the prized county seat was held April 30, 1910. Melrose received 16 votes, “Center” got 208, Texico 870, and the winner, Clovis, received 2,639 votes.

Some of the losers said that Clovis cheated as they saw “a railroad extra gang that was being moved through Clovis march up Main Street, and they voted them all!”

With the town of Clovis attracting all sorts of people, Clovis soon became a wide-open, saloon-ridden town.

One old-timer remarked, “There were saloons, dance halls, gambling joints, calico queens, shysters, rum-tums, drifters, pimps, con men, extracting women and shade dwellers.”

Between 1909 and 1910, the so-called “better element” held a mass meeting, calling themselves the “Law and Order League” and demanding the City Council clean up the town.

Clovis’ first mayor, E.R. Hart, said he was aware of at least eight gambling joints but was waiting until city ordinances “were in shape” before making a move.

About this time, perhaps to emphasize how wild Clovis used to be, a feud broke out between 50-year-old John Childers, owner of the Elk Bar at 112 W. Otero (Second Street) and also owner of the Cash-In Sale dry goods store, and August “Gus” Von Elm, Clovis” first fire chief and owner of the White House Saloon at Connelly and Hagerman Ave. (Hagerman is now First Street).

Two or three set fires in one evening convinced the fire chief that Childers was deliberately setting the fires for insurance purposes.

Childers was arrested and released on bond, but was angry at the fire chief for placing a guard over Childers’ property. Childers assaulted the guard, Billy Skelton, and made known his intentions of killing Fire Chief Gus Von Elm.

Childers called for a showdown. The shoot-out was in front of Von Elm’s saloon.

As Childers climbed out of his buggy, Von Elm stepped out the door and fired first. The bullet struck Childers in the chest, causing him to shoot low. He shot Von Elm in the knee, thigh and left hand.

Von Elm fired twice more, hitting Childers in his left hip and side. Childers managed to get into his buggy and drove the 2 1/2 blocks to his saloon, laid down on a billiard table and died.

Von Elm recovered with public opinion in his favor and was not held accountable for Childers’ sudden demise, especially when it was said Childers already had six notches on his gun.

The railroad had set aside two lots each to four of Clovis’ first churches: First Baptist, Grand and Gidding; First Methodist, Fifth and Gidding; First Presbyterian, Sixth and Pile; and First Christian, Fifth and Connelly, and a block at Seventh and Axtell for a public school.

That site became Clovis’ first school, called Clovis City School, and enrolled all kids from the first through the 12th grades. The contractor who built that first two-story building was J.S. Marsh, father of Ernest “Maggie” Marsh, who rose in the ranks in the railroad yard in Clovis to become the president of the Santa Fe Railway and later the chairman of the board of Santa Fe Industries.

Later, at this first school site, Eugene Field Elementary School was built, but today the site is vacant, grown over with weeds and some wild grasses.

In 1910, Clovis High School graduated its first and only student, Victor Bieler.

By 1910, Clovis had posted ordinances against vice, and with churches being built, Steed’s Funeral Home and cemetery (cemetery donated to the city), several banks, a couple of newspapers (the second one started in 1909 was the Clovis Journal founded by Thomas Mabry, who between 1948-50 was the state governor and for whom Mabry Drive is named.)

Clovis also had a public school.

Now the “Magic City” was ready for the future. But New Mexico wasn’t even a state yet.