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Bitter Lake gives some history lessons

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Mike Bilbo, in Spanish colonial-era attire, says rock art and bison bones can be found on federal lands near Bottomless Lakes State Park. He was one of the presenters Saturday at a Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge event that included talks about the history of the region. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

The Civilian Conservation Corps, the most popular of all the New Deal jobs creation programs of the 1930s, had as many as 52 work sites in New Mexico at its peak. These included Camp Bitter Lake, which housed workers who developed the wetlands area northeast of Roswell into the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a historian said during a Saturday presentation at the refuge.

The first open house sponsored by the Friends of Bitter Lakes organization drew about 50 people. The event included presentations by the University of New Mexico Regents Professor of History Richard Melzer and retired U.S. Bureau Land Management Outdoor Recreation Planner Mike Bilbo.
The event was held to increase awareness about the wildlife and plant life reserve and its friends organization, which has about 127 members, and as an official introduction of two new exhibits in the visitors center, one about the CCC and the other about the bison that once numbered in the millions.
Bobby Monk’s father, Manley D. Monk, was one of the CCC workers in Roswell, although not at Camp Bitter Lake, to the son’s knowledge. Being one of the more educated and skilled of the workers with a high school education and typing abilities, he was a company clerk for the unit stationed at Second Street and Sycamore Avenue, Monk said. He said his father met his wife while in Roswell and returned after serving in the military during World War II to work as a civil engineer at Walker Air Force Base.
Many people in New Mexico have relatives who enrolled with the CCC, which provided $1 a day jobs, housing, meals, educational courses and vocational training for 52,000 people in New Mexico and 3.5 million in the United States, Melzer said, whose books include “Coming of Age in the Great Depression: The Civilian Conservation Corps’ Experience in New Mexico, 1933-1942.” In fact, Melzer’s father-in-law, Eduardo Chaves, was a CCC member.
The CCC was a welcomed source of money to young men, ages 18 to 25, and their families at a time when unemployment in the state, even among skilled workers, was 25 percent.
“The rest of the story is, this is New Mexico,” said Melzer. “It was already poor. For many people in New Mexico, things got better during the Great Depression” once New Deal programs were implemented.
New Mexico Gov. Clyde Tingley and Sen. Dennis Chaves lobbied successfully for a great deal of federal money to come to New Mexico at that time, Melzer said.
During its years in New Mexico, the CCC built dams, levees, small bridges, cabins, picnic areas, lookout stations and state parks, including Bottomless Lakes State Park east of the city. CCC workers also planted millions of trees throughout the country and fought forest fires.
“We need to be grateful to this group,” said Melzer. “We are grateful to our veterans and we should be grateful to the guys in the CCC.”
Bitter Lake, while known for its dragonflies and varied species of wetland vegetation and bird species, is also the resting home of bison bones from centuries ago. Bison herds once roamed the area in abundance from prehistoric times until at least the 16th century.
Bilbo talked about areas near Bottomless Lakes that are Native American kill sites for bison, with bones still found among the sediment and rocks of some of the arroyos.
According to Bilbo, native hunters would herd bison into arroyos, having already constructed corrals at the end of the runs to capture the herds. Spanish colonial expedition members wrote in their journals of finding the corrals.
Dressed in Spanish colonial-era costume and gear, Bilbo also showed photos of rock art he has found on the arroyo walls in the Bottomless Lakes area. He believes that the drawings likely depict the Spanish men, known to be in the area in the 16th century. He said he also thinks the drawings and etches were made by Jumano tribal members.
The areas on federal public lands, not far from Lea Lake, are reachable but not highly publicized.
“Most of the time, people are pretty respectful,” Bilbo said. “But once in a while, someone comes out and just jerks a bone out.”
Interested explorers should also be prepared about the best times to explore. Bilbo recommends cool, overcast days as the best time to avoid the rattlesnakes and to see the rock art, which he says can be difficult, if not impossible, to see in bright sunlight.
Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.