Railroad changed early-day Portales valley

By Don McAlavy: Local Columnist

This is part of a story written by Rose White, an unofficial, but unanimously recognized historian of Roosevelt County. She takes us back to the cowboy and nester days.

She wrote:

“The ranchers who moved into the pre-Portales area found that they and their cowboys were the only settlers nearer than Fort Sumner or Roswell, both of which were little country villages, with small country stores. The nearest big stores were at Colorado City, Texas, at least 150 miles away.

“Payment for the goods bought by ranchers was made only once a year, after the steers had been sold in the fall. If there had been a heavy loss of stock because of blizzards or drought, the storekeeper would usually agree to carry the rancher over till a better year.

“Often there was not much cash left after all yearly bills were paid. Jim Newman did his banking at Sweetwater, Texas; Dr. Winfrey (a rancher too), banked at Kansas City; and Lonny Horn banked in Denver.

“Sometimes when a loan was needed, a good friend would help out an unfortunate neighbor. No note was signed, and no interest was paid or expected. In those days of honest dealing, ‘a man’s word was as good as his bond.’

“We find it hard to realize that the coming of the railroad could so completely change the whole character of a ranching area such as the Portales valley had been in the ‘’80s and ‘’90s. But that happened in 1898 when the Pecos Valley & Northeastern Railroad was built as far as what is now Portales.”

Miss Ella Turner, an aunt of Adrian Turner, who came in 1899, told this story:

“Twenty-four of us came from Texas in five covered wagons and a buggy. We arrived on the first day of May in the midst of a typical sandstorm. Our food had given out, and the only house in town that was finished belonged to Uncle Josh Morrison. Next to it was a small frame building in which he had a small store. Three or four houses were being built, but none was finished. Several families were living in box tents, and there were (was) a small saloon or two.

“Of course, people came in fast from then on, for the homesteaders were anxious to get the free land the government was offering. Inside of a year there was quite a nice little town here, with lots of houses and stores.

“Well, we stopped our wagons across the road from Mr. Morrison’s store and went over and bought some (something) to eat. We got some cans of tomatoes and peaches, and some crackers and cheese. Then we asked for postage stamps. Uncle Josh replied, ‘We don’t sell stamps. You have to buy them in Roswell or Hereford.

We don’t have a post office.’

‘“They set the mail off of a train,” said Uncle Josh, ‘in a box and everyone looks it over and takes his own. We all put the outgoing mail in a box and the train picks it up. And no, we don’t have a doctor here. I don’t know how we get along. We just don’t get sick much.’”

That was in 1899 and the next year saw a two-room public school building, a post office, a drug store, and a hotel. By 1902, when the First National Bank began business on May 1, there were two general stores, three wagon yards, a restaurant, a barber shop, and seven saloons. In 1902 came the first church, the Presbyterian, and soon after the Baptist Church began regular services. All these improvements occurred in the short space of four years.

(This story will continue next week.)