Flames in Clovis fire of 1909 were well-fed

Tom Pendergrass moved with his family from Texico to Clovis in 1907 when he was 7. He remembered all the excitement of those early days, especially the fires.

This is his story about what he called the “big fire” in 1909:
“Clovis’ first major fire occurred on April 29, 1909. That’s what my dad said. A lot of fires had happened since 1907 in the 100 block of Main, caused mostly by youngsters playing with matches between the wooden buildings.

“The fire started at 3:30 in the morning and nobody could say what started it. A hasty alarm was given. Flames came from the second story of the Cameo Café and rooming house, and were soon beyond control, so rapidly did the half-square block of ‘timber boxes’ succumb to the well-fed flames. The other businesses were the Senate Bar and bowling alley, the Eagle Bar and rooming house, the Eagle Barber Shop and bath rooms, the Bon-Tom Cafe, and the Union Saloon and pool room.

“The frame restaurants, rooming houses and saloons occupying about 150 feet of space between the Reidoria Hotel and the Commercial Bar (which were brick buildings) on the west side of Main were all in flames.

“So intense was the heat from the cheap wood structures that the scaffolding in front of the uncompleted Dearborn and Bayless brick building on the east side of that block was soon in flames. The wood framework and lumber inside the building caught fire too, gutting the brick building.
The first building north of the fire-swept section was occupied by the Johnston Furniture Company and the Reidoria Hotel upstairs. The stock of furniture in the Johnston building was hastily removed as was all furniture and bedding in the south rooms of the hotel.

“It was extremely difficult to estimate the loss should a strong wind have been blowing from the south and west, for in that case the Oklahoma feed and wagon yard and the Alfalfa and Kemp Lumber companies, together with a large number of private residences, would most certainly have been consumed. The losses were first estimated to be approximately $25,000, a big amount of money in 1909. The saloons and cafes and rooms above these businesses were a total loss. All that was left of the saloons and cafes and rooms above were a mass of twisted pipes, iron bedsteads, and smoldering ruins. Nobody was killed.”

Tom Pendergrass said with all three saloons well stocked with whiskey it made a “hot fire in the town that night!” Tom’s folks would wake him up so he could see the flames every time there was a good fire in Clovis.

Tom’s father “was the first of the merchants in Texico to pull up stakes and move to Clovis,” Pendergrass said. That was in the fall of 1907.

In a trade, Tom’s father acquired a confectionery store and Tom peddled the Denver Post, Kansas City Star, and the Dallas News (known by some old-timers as “the Texas Bible”). Tom became the first newsboy in Clovis. The papers sold for 5 cents each with Tom making a profit of 2 cents on each one.

Tom developed a keen interest in the history of Clovis and the area. A natural storyteller, he remembered many incidents from the early days and put many of those on paper. In 1946 he started to write the history of Clovis, doing extensive research in Santa Fe railroad files, but his book didn’t materialize. He was one of the first members of the High Plains Historical Foundation, Inc. (east-central New Mexico’s first historical society).

Tom was my historian when Harold Kilmer, I — and others — started the society in 1972. Tom Pendergrass died in 1976 and I was sure sorry to see him go. Historians are hard to come by.

Don McAlavy is Curry County’s historian. He can be contacted at: