Golden years saw Clovis population double

Don McAlavy

A decade that has been called Clovis’ “Golden Era” saw the population double in a 10-year period, and has not been matched since.

The decade got off to a slow start with the early 1920s financial recession and Congress enacting prohibition in 1919, which didn’t look good to a lot of people.

Even though this decade was called the “Roaring Twenties” because of the so-called “wild life” of a minority of people who drove high-speed cars, danced and drank too much illegal liquor, it just wasn’t that way in Clovis or Curry County.

“Oh, there was some illegal booze made down there in the sandhills, and there were some fights,” said the late Gordon Fitzhugh in 1982, “but about the most exciting thing for us boys growing up was to sit in front of the post office, then located on Main Street, and watch the girls walk by. Of course, we hoped for the wind to blow a little.”

Fitzhugh had played in a dance band formed by CHS music professor Verdie Croft, and after college, Gordon formed his own dance band in Clovis.

And what kind of music was played in the late 1920s?

“It was strictly jazz and swing,” he said. “Western music was frowned upon and hadn’t come into its own yet.”

But the latter part of the 1920s was Clovis’ hey-day – a period of optimism and a period of building some of Clovis’ major structures.

In 1923, J.C. Penney came to town, and the Fox Drug at Fourth and Main streets opened in 1924 with one of the best all-time soda fountains and was owned by George Sasser. (Later, in 1947, this entrepreneur started Clovis’ first shopping center, The Village at Seventh and Main, anchored by the Silver Grill Drive-In, which had famous dance bands to come in the parking lot for everyone to dance to.)

In 1926, farmers started shucking their old iron-lug tractor wheels for rubber tires, and some investors got their hopes high when in 1926-29 some half-dozen oil wells were drilled in Curry County, one of which went to 3,900 feet, four miles north and two east of Clovis and found traces of oil and gas.

Even so, they apparently were not of commercial grade and were capped and forgotten.

Gasoline was selling for 18 cents a gallon in 1928.

The “Abo” highway going west out of Clovis (today’s U.S. 60-84) was hard-surfaced for the first time in 1927-28.

In 1928, F.W. Woolworth opened at Fourth and Main, and in the next year Montgomery Ward built a beautiful building at 307-09 Main St.

On May 30, 1928, unknown to Charles Lindbergh, although he made it happen, a flat piece of land was located six miles west of Clovis that would in 1942 see the beginning of what is today Cannon Air Force Base.

“Lucky Lindy,” as they called him, came to Clovis to choose a site for an air terminal and landing field to service a transcontinental train-plane route across the nation. He chose a site south of the railroad tracks at Blacktower, today known as Portair.

This train-plane route across our nation was called Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT), a non-governmental transportation business using Ford Tri-Motor passenger planes that flew from airport to airport during the day, with the railroads, including the Santa Fe Railway, carrying the passengers during the night on their trip from coast to coast.

The service started officially on July 9, 1929, putting Clovis on the map, but ended a short 15 months later as a bigger plane was built that would carry more gas and more passengers. And with new radio technology, they could fly at night, eliminating the need for a stop at the Clovis air field.

This field wouldn’t be used for planes again until after World War II started.

Excitement grew in 1929 as “talkies” came to Clovis to the Lyceum Theatre at 411 Main St., built in 1919-21 by Eugene F. Hardwick as a vaudeville/movie house.

The first talkie was “Chinatown,” starring Wallace Berry and opened to a packed house on May 6.

Hardwick was able to get the famous “March King,” John Phillip Sousa, and his military band to perform two concerts at the Lyceum Theatre on Nov. 14, 1928, and introduced “The New Mexico March” here.

The famous old theater was purchased by the city of Clovis in 1982 and is operated today by a non-profit group.

Another exciting event, but the significance of it would not be known for three more years, was the discovery in the Blackwater draw between Clovis and Portales of “elephant bones” by James Ridgley Whiteman. Whiteman, who had graduated from CHS in 1928, was an avid arrowhead hunter who wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in 1929, telling them about it.

Of course, the “elephant bones” were 11,000-year-old mammoth bones, some embedded with arrow points made by “Clovis Man,” the earliest-known humans said to have lived in North America.

In 1932, Dr. Edgar B. Howard came from the Pennsylvania University’s museum to start the dig that authenticated Whiteman’s discovery.

Whiteman will soon be 90 and still lives in Clovis.

In 1999, a book published by the University of Pennsylvania called, “Clovis Revisited,” recognized Whiteman as being the first discoverer of the Clovis Man culture.

On April 21, 1929, the Clovis News Journal was formed from the two weeklies, Clovis News and Clovis Journal, by Mack Stanton, who also established the oldest printing shop in Clovis at the same time, Clovis Printing Plant, which today is City Printing Inc.

One of the most popular newspaper columnists, beginning in 1929, was “Scoop” Bomar, daughter of the owner, Mack Stanton. She still lives here today.

Other structures built at this time (in 1929), or started then, was the $50,000 City Hall at Fourth and Mitchell, now home of the main fire station; and the $75,000 First Methodist Church at Seventh and Main (becoming one of Clovis’ finest architectural structures.)

That same year, 115 acres of Kentucky Heights, at the end of East 10th Street, was purchased by the city for a park named Hillcrest Park in 1935. Today, the park has one of the best zoos between Fort Worth and Albuquerque.

Natural gas came to Clovis in 1929, something we take for granted today. The year 1929 was the year that Lincoln Jackson school was added to the Clovis school system, and the first teacher there was Mrs. Ida O. Jackson.

The summer of 1929 was nice in Clovis and Curry County. The future looked bright, but an ill wind was blowing through the financial centers of the nation.

Wall Street collapsed with the stock market crash in October of 1929 and signaled the end of the Coolidge-Hoover prosperity.

In 1929, more than 90 percent of the nation’s wealth was consolidated in the hands of only 13 percent of the people. People across the country resumed their business pursuits, tried to recapture their boom-time zest of getting and spending, but somehow things were not quite the same afterwards.

Clovis and Curry County were slow to feel the effect of the crash, continuing a fast pace of building. In fact, the building boom here had just gotten started in earnest.

Plans were laid in 1929 for the tallest building in New Mexico, the nine-story $300,000 Hotel Clovis, finished in October 1931.

The Hardwick brothers also were planning to build their new theater, the plush State Theater, just north of G.C. Campbell’s bottling plant.

The depression postponed those plans until 1936, but the construction of the $20,000 CHS gym at the site of today’s Marshall Junior High School began in 1931, as did the $30,000 National Guard Armory at Second and Connelly.

In 1930, one of Clovis’ greatest men, Andrew W. “Andy” Hockenhull, was elected lieutenant governor of New Mexico, becoming governor when Gov. Seligman died in 1931.

The decade preceding the Great Depression of the 1930s had seen the laying of the foundation for Clovis’ continued growth.

These were the years that Clovis became a city, full of high hopes and dreams of a good future.

The summer of 1931 saw 1,200 Curry County farmers grow 4 million bushels of wheat. The hard times would come, and slow down growth, but didn’t stop it.