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Historically Speaking: The story of little Chaves

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Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Mattie Griffith in front of her business — date unknown.

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

Many people may not be aware that there was once a small establishment, by the name of Chaves, about 30 miles out on the east side of the Vaughn highway. This was during the Depression days, when times were rough, people were trying to etch out a living as best they could. Some remnants of the old West were still alive during those times. Following is the story of Chaves, New Mexico.

In a Roswell Daily Record article, dated June 26, 1977, titled “Mattie Recalls Her ‘Nester’ Beginning,” we learn of the beginning of Chaves, New Mexico.

“Mattie Griffith was a homesteader who came to New Mexico in January 1930, three years after the death of her husband. She had been a resident of Breckenridge, Texas.

“‘When my husband died,’ she recalled, ‘I thought it was the end of the world. I lost my will to live, until finally, my mother told me I had to come out of it. My sister and her husband had homesteaded in New Mexico, so I decided to try it, too.’

“She settled about 30 miles from Roswell, off route 380, where she had a small cabin — with a living room, bedroom, store room, lean-to kitchen, and garage — built to accommodate her.

“‘I moved in the first day of March 1930,’ she remembered. ‘My sister and brother-in-law asked me to spend that first night with them at their house, about 3 miles south of mine. When I came back the next morning, I had nothing. Somebody had stolen everything but the shirt on my back.’

“In despair, she turned to the man who had built her cabin and asked if he would take ownership of it in payment for the work he had done.

“‘Are you going to let this run you off?’ he asked her, and since he put it that way, she decided she would stay.

“Another frightening thing that happened to her in the beginning was when she found a dead baby lamb buried beside her doorstep, with one tiny leg still exposed.

“‘I asked the lawman what that was supposed to mean,’ she said. ‘And they told me it meant that I would end up like that lamb if I didn’t get out of there. I told him I had news for whoever buried that lamb — I wasn’t going.’

“Mattie’s first order of business had been to create a business of some kind to support herself.

“She went to Roswell and talked to several oil companies about getting a gasoline pump so she could sell fuel to passing motorists.

“They all turned her down, but a Texaco employee decided that she ‘looked honest’ and gave her one pump to get her start.

“Mattie did so well with that one that she soon had another and eventually a third.

“‘I began to change oil and fan belts,’ she added. ‘I couldn’t fix flats though, because I had no air.’

“Her cabin had no heat, electricity, or running water, so she first hauled water from Roswell in 5-gallon bottles. Later, a cistern collected water for drinking purposes, and she hauled more water from neighboring ranches in 55-gallon barrels to service cars.

“She also hauled ice, 900 pounds at a time in her old Hudson. As it melted, she would collect that water to wash herself and her clothing.

“Despite its roughness, her cabin became a popular roadside stop. Regular travelers along route 380 persuaded her to make sandwiches and cook meals for them, so she found herself in the restaurant business.

“At the same time, she was picking up mail for other nearby homesteaders on her regular trips to town. Eventually, she added a post office to her growing responsibilities.

“‘They called it Chaves,’” she remembered.

“Then she got into the grocery business, she laughingly remembered. ‘The neighbors were always saying, ‘Miss Maddie, put in a grocery store.’ ‘I said how? I have no money.’ They said, if you can’t put in a big one, put in a small one.’

“She had to come to town for gas and, after paying for it, she had $2.50 left. She went to the grocery store and explained to the grocer that her neighbors wanted her to stock groceries for them.

“‘He told me to pick out what I could and he’d let me have it at cost,’ she chuckled. ‘I said, how much can I buy for $2.50?’ When I got to that number of cans, he told me.’

“She took those few items back with her and sold them. With the profit, she bought more and so on, until three months had passed.

“At that time, the grocer told her he had made arrangements with a larger grocer to sell her goods on account, with his word as a guarantee.

“She hauled groceries for three years before a truck route was added to support her growing business.

“It was a rough life. She never got to bed before 10 p.m. and always got up at 4 a.m. because ‘That was when I took my bath, it was the only time someone wasn’t knocking at my door.’

“Looking back on her pioneer days, she had no regrets. ‘It gave me back my will to live.’

“Her homesteading career came to an end when her mother became ill and she returned to Texas in 1936. Following her mother’s death, she served three terms as an auto license clerk. Mattie believed retirement was something one did later, in her opinion. At 69, she went to work in Ruidoso for the telephone company and when she retired from that job at age 76, she came back to Roswell and babysat for local residents. She was 90 years old, and still going strong, at the time of this article.”

Mattie Parkhill was born July 25, 1886. She married R.L. Griffith on July 14, 1907. She passed away in Roswell in September 1983, three years shy of her 100th birthday.

Clifford and Bessie Simpson bought the Chaves store from Mattie Griffith in 1936. Little did they realize they would see some rare events take place at the little outpost.

The Simpsons had been operating the Chaves store, filling station and post office for a year or more when a shooting happened. The shooting was a climax to a feud that had been brewing for some time between two area ranchers over stock water and grassland.

From “The Old Timers Review,” with comments from Bessie (Walker) Simpson

“Chaves Was Scene of Killing — at Least One!” Autumn, 1983

“According to the Roswell Daily Record report of Tuesday, November 29, 1938, a well-known rancher was fatally shot by one of his neighboring ranchers.

“It was about dark in front of the Chaves store on Sept. 24, 1938. Bessie Simpson recalled the incident clearly. ‘For a few days there, it looked like my husband Bill was on trial.’ She said that Bill had found a bullet near where the victim fell when he was shot and Bill had not informed District Attorney G.L. Reese about it. ‘The D.A. really gave my husband a going over on the witness stand when he found out. It really didn’t have anything to do with the outcome of the trial though. The man who did the shooting served only a few days in jail and was released. My husband had said he wanted to keep the bullet but the D.A. had other ideas about that.’

The actual article from the Roswell Daily Record on Nov. 29, 1938 read:

“BULLET TURNS UP IN PRICE MURDER TRIAL

“Bill Simpson Produces Slug He Hadn’t Previously Told Of Finding

“Defense witness Bill Simpson, on cross-examination by district attorney G.L. Reese, Jr., today testified in the murder trial of Henry Price that he had found a bullet near the place where J.N. Wells was fatally shot.

“Price, who is alleged to have fatally shot Wells, a neighboring rancher, at about dusk on Saturday, Sept 24th, at the filling station at Chaves, N.M., 30 miles north of Roswell, is being tried in district court here before Judge James B. McGhee.

“The finding of the bullet by Simpson, Chaves postmaster and proprietor of the filling station where the shooting occurred had not previously been ejected into the case, nor had Simpson notified authorities that he had found the bullet.

“Prosecutor Reese hammered on the finding of the bullet as he questioned Simpson at length on this point during cross-examination.

“Simpson admitted finding the bullet the morning after the shooting. Asked why he had not shown it to authorities before, he said it was because he wanted to keep it ‘as a souvenir.’

“Asked why he had not shown authorities the place where the bullet was found. Simpson said, ‘because I wasn’t asked.’”

The Old Timers Review article continues:

“Bessie said that times were pretty hard during the ‘30s.

“‘The settlers over that part of the country had filed on claims, and were trying to make a living on small plots of one or two sections of land. Nearly everyone hunted rabbits in those days and sold them for extra money. My brothers Jimmy, and Claude Walker, hunted cottontails, were cowpunchers, and were always working rodeos, roping and bronc riding.

“‘In those days, Chaves was a stopping place for the buses that ran north from Roswell. When they were building the highway past the store in 1938, the road crews would come to our lunch counter, too, and eat their meals. I guess though, that the most exciting thing that ever happened there was the killing. I’ll sure never forget that!’ said Bessie.

“Chaves, New Mexico is no more. It has taken its place along with all the other old-time outposts that once served the settlers at those far out homesteads. But if all the events that took place at that old store had been recorded, along with some of the colorful language that went along with the happenings, we would indeed have a very interesting bit of history. Yes, Chaves, New Mexico, made its mark at that old spot by the side of the road a long time ago.”

Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.