News of 1937 highlighted circus, disaster, mayhem

By Don McAlavy: Local Columnist

Seventy years ago, in 1937, the news of the day included a lost man, an air circus, and a train robbery and killing.

The news said, “Lost, One Man and One Earthquake.” The Tucumcari Chamber of Commerce received a note from a Cleveland, Tenn., woman, Harriette E. Wells, middle of November 1937. She was a friend of the “man’s mother” that got lost. Her note said: “Somewhere near Tucumcari, during the time of the earthquake around 6 years ago (1931?), there lived a boy by the name of Charles Franklin Petitt. His mother would like to know if he survived the earthquake and if you can locate his whereabouts. She is grown old and becoming anxious about her son.”

Ray H. Smith, then secretary of the Tucumcari Chamber of Commerce, said he was “growing older and becoming anxious” about the matter himself.

“To date (1937) I have located neither the earthquake nor Petitt,” he said.

The Curry County Times reported on Thursday, May 27, 1937, that seven planes would have an “Air Circus” in Clovis twice daily, June 2 and 3, 1937. The airplanes would be in Clovis as part of the big Pioneer Days celebration. The air show would stage acrobatics in addition to formation flying about noon each day.

Two “Dude” cowboys from Brooklyn, N.Y., 22 and 27, attempted to rob the Southern Pacific‘s “Apache” passenger train near Las Cruces on Thanksgiving Day in 1937. An El Paso railroad employee was killed and the robbers severely beaten by enraged passengers and trainmen.

“We didn’t mean to kill anyone,” said one of the Dudes. “We agreed before the holdup that we wouldn’t shoot, even if they captured us and it meant 20 years in jail.” They were sentenced to 50 to 75 years in prison on Feb. 21, 1938.
Late in the year, an Albuquerque paper reported about an old rancher here in New Mexico called to testify what he saw when two trains crashed head-on. He was the only witness and the railroad lawyer asked him to testify as to what he saw.

“Well,” the rancher said, “I was on my horse near the railroad out in the middle of nowhere and I heard a train coming from the west. Then I heard a train coming from the east. They were on the same track and coming lickety-split toward each other. That was the most gosh-awful crash I ever saw!”

“What were your thoughts when you saw the crash?” the lawyer asked him.
“Well, I thought to myself that that was a hell of a way to run a railroad!”

At the end of 1937 the federal postal department reported on postmasters in New Mexico.

“In New Mexico there are 3,000 postmasters who can neither read nor write English.”