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Memories of pioneer life in White Oaks; Life was hard, yet gratifying, in small Lincoln County town known for its mining

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An undated photo of men as they talk on a hillside overlooking White Oaks. (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, most settlers in these southeastern New Mexico mountains were either miners or homesteaders. Life was hard in those days and the homes were sometimes drafty and crowded. Children went to work at an early age, often working with their parents to help dig a living from the virgin earth. Or they were hired by someone, bringing their small income back to the family to help with expenses.

Wood for fuel was plentiful in the White Oaks and Bonito areas. It could be bought in White Oaks for $4 a cord delivered. Cutting to stove lengths and splitting cost extra, so most people cut their own. Timber and lumber delivered in White Oaks costs $10 to $12 a thousand board feet. By 1892, these prices had increased about 50 percent.

In the early days, kerosene (coal oil) lamps lit the homes and dwellings. Sometimes tallow or wax candles were used for lighting. Water from wells, cisterns or nearby streams was essential for the household. There was a water bucket and a dipper that was used by all for drinking.

Mother made us cough syrup and candy from the “horehound” weed that still grows wild in the area. The “tea bushes” or Green Ephedra and “tea weed” or canutillo that grows on the hillsides were used for making spring tea. A spoonful of wild honey was added to the teas if folks were lucky enough to have some.

Most all clothing was handmade by the women from patterns that they had created. In those days, the Sears and Montgomery Wards catalogs were the store. Shoes had to last a long time, and then they were half-soled (repaired from shank to end of toe) at home by the men in the family.

When financial help was needed for the school, the cemetery, or the church it was raised by pie suppers or box socials. The ladies of the community would bake pies or pack boxes with a complete meal and decorate the box attractively. The men would then bid for the pie or box of their choice. These events always drew a large crowd.

Travel was limited as horses proved the main mode of transportation. Oxen were used for hauling logs and freight. Wages in the early days were about the same as in the other mining camps. Miners and timber men were paid $3 a day; muckers (shovelers) and car men, $2.50; common laborers $2; mill amalgamator and battery men $3.50; blacksmiths $3 to $3.50; and master mechanics, foremen and shift bosses, $3 to $5. Day shifts were 12 hours seven days a week. Sunday was the hardest day of all, since it was reserved for clean-up and repair jobs. Sunday night was the only regular time off. Overtime was paid at a standard rate.

The winter days were so short that they began and ended in darkness — going and coming with lighted lantern in one hand and lunch box in the other.

It was a big day when the men from all over the country rounded up to brand cattle. In the spring, these men would rope, brand, cut and mark. At the roundups there were chuck wagons, line riders, wives, children with their dogs and saddle ponies. The wives would prepare food, keep the branding irons “red hot” and cook “mountain oysters” as requested.

At night around a campfire, folks would tell stories, play guitar, fiddle, french harps or accordion. There was a chance for the young cowboys and girls to dance out in the wide open spaces nearby.

Some of the ranchers would haul beef and deer meat to El Paso, Texas, by wagon, where the meat would be traded for fencing materials, clothes and food. The only road going to El Paso was through the sand dunes and mesquite. Usually, the family depended more on the mail order catalogs.

Easter was a day for church, basket dinners and easter egg hunts. On the Fourth of July, there was a big celebration with picnicking, foot racing and horseshoe pitching, as well as sack races and other forms of recreation. Short horse races were also very popular with the young and the old.

Horseback riding was always enjoyed. Camp outs in the cool pines along the creek banks, fishing for trout in the deep pools and wading the shallow waters were delightful summer experiences. The good old days had their compensations, as raw nature was there to enjoy a campfire cookout, singing and star gazing. This was time to smell the flowers, to watch the birds, butterflies and squirrels. One learned to commune with nature at an early age.

In the fall, cattle buyers would come to the ranches to bid on the cows and calves. Cows brought about $10 each and calves would bring about $8. When the bidding was over, shipping the stock was next. On a certain day, the cattle would be driven to Capitan or Carrizozo to be shipped out by rail, sometimes as far as Kansas City (the railroad came about the turn of the century). Prior to the coming of the railroad, Fort Stanton bought a greater portion of the beef from local ranchers.

Washing clothes on a washboard for the family was no small task. The old black iron pot in the yard was used for heating water for the wash. It also served for scalding pigs, cooking hominy, making homemade soap or for scalding turkeys or chickens.

In the fall, the cellars were stocked with home canned goods from the summer gardens. There were also fruits from the orchards, and canned meats. There would be potatoes and carrots packed in sawdust, home cured hams, sausages, salt pork or “sow belly.” The sausages were made with pork, beef and beef suet. Eggs were stored in large crocks filled with brine or were coated with wax for longer storage in crocks filled with water.

The children who lived out of town walked to school, or rode if they had horses. The horses were brought in from the pasture and fed and saddled by the older children. Dressing warmly was a must in winter. To help keep the feet warm, “gunny sacks” were wrapped around them. Sometimes children would ride double. Just getting to school was a major event!

Games were played, such as blind man’s bluff, red rover, hop scotch, hide and seek, mumblety-peg, marbles, sled riding, baseball with homemade bats and balls, taffy pulls and spelling bees. Christmas trees and programs were celebrated in the school house at Christmas time by the entire community. The school teacher was in charge of the program. What cold nights they could be. Families had warm blankets and good sized rocks that were heated perhaps for days in their fireplaces for the event. The rocks got wrapped in paper and gunny sacks and were placed in the beds of the buggy and would keep the feet and hands warm for hours.

The good old days were all right. The folks worked, managed and saved during those days. Some were able to just get by. There wasn’t any social security, welfare or relief. You had your family and friends and somehow you made it through.

Those grand old days were wonderful to a point, yet I’m sure most of us are glad our children and grandchildren are now able to attend modern schools and enjoy our present day society, instead of trudging miles on foot or horseback to school. Of course, they also enjoy hot school lunches instead of sitting around a pot-bellied stove and munching biscuits, sandwiches, and cold beans for lunch.”

That was life in the heyday of White Oaks, New Mexico. Now a ghost town.

Editor’s note: Former White Oaks resident Ruth Birdsong passed away in 2014. According to another resident interviewed the the Roswell Daily Record in 2016, White Oaks it is not a ghost town because it was never completely abandoned and around 40 people now live in the former mining town. White Oaks’ only “downtown business,” the No Scum Allowed Saloon, it is world famous and has been featured in American Cowboy Magazine.

Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or by email at jdunna@hotmail.com.