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Historically Speaking: An old house holds more than memories

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Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Old house — date unknown.

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily

Record

What is it about old house that intrigues us so much? Is it the mystery, the history or the architecture? Maybe it’s the way they hold themselves after many years of freezing rains, winds or even the welcoming light of spring. Is it the patina of the weathered wood?

Possibly, the intrigue is more the emptiness of the old house standing all alone, the people who once inhabited it, now many years gone? The laughter and cheer that once filled the rooms now only echoes inside the emptiness. The memories and stories are all that’s left of the people this house once sheltered. It has withstood the tests of time and weathered the storms, now standing alone for many years, too many to count. Perhaps it is still worthy, as it still shelters the birds that nest under its eaves, or a few little mice that have lived under its floors. What is it about an old house?

Such a house as this stands in the countryside east of Roswell. This house has not been forgotten, it has not been razed and abolished, but has recently undergone a restoration process, not to change it, not to add to it, not for someone to once again live in it, but for the simple reason of saving it; to appreciate its history; to appreciate its rough-hewn beauty, and to help it fight back the tests of time.

This old house stands on the country property of David Sorenson, who, along with his nephew Jeff Nibert and a contractor, Phil Scarpa, cared enough about the history of it and those pioneers it sheltered, to breathe new life into it.

It was built in the year 1878 by Sam Cunningham, a migrant from Missouri. It was his first homestead, a log cabin in the middle of the prairie. Every log is hand hewn by an ax. There were no trees in this valley at the time, so the logs would have been hauled here from the mountains by wagon, some 60 to 70 miles.

The construction of the structure was fitted together with wooden pegs and dovetail fittings. It is one and a half stories tall and is located on what was once the Slaughter/Hill farm.

In 1898, the property was sold by the Cunninghams to Col. C.C. Slaughter of Texas. He also purchased several adjoining farms which amounted to 2,000 acres. He purchased this land for the sole purpose of raising alfalfa for his vast herds of cattle in Texas. Slaughter was at one time known to be the “Cattle King” of Texas, owning the most cattle in the state.

In 1890, he owned three large ranches in West Texas with more than 500,000 acres, which made him the single taxpayer owning the largest estate in the state of Texas. He was also heavily involved in banking in the Dallas, Texas, area.

In 1898, Slaughter sent his son George to manage the farm in Roswell and to establish the Slaughter Hereford Home for cattle breeding purposes. He brought the first registered purebred Herefords to the state of New Mexico. In 1899, he paid a then-record sum of $5,000 for the Hereford bull “Sir Bredwell.” Sir Bredwell and his registered herd were established at this historic farm near Roswell.

At the time of Col. Slaughter’s death in Texas, his estate was divided among his 10 heirs. George Slaughter, who was also president of the old American National Bank in Roswell at the time, gave his share of his farm to his sister, Mrs. Curtis Hill and the Hills moved onto and ran the farm. This place then began to be called the Slaughter/Hill Farm. Upon Mrs. Hill’s death in 1975, it was sold and no longer remained property of the family.

This building is significant, not only historically, but architecturally, in that it is the only hand-hewn log and peg construction building in the Roswell area.

The building has a loft, which was probably used for sleeping in the early homestead years. The type of construction used was dovetailed, with board and batten for the eaves. There is a hole in the ceiling for a stove pipe and the wooden floor was probably the original floor.

The history of this building and of the Slaughter pioneer family can be found in many books and articles in the archives of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico.

In speaking with Jeff Nibert, Jeff and Phil Scarpa removed each piece of the building, from north to south and east to west, numbering each log. He stated that it was like Lincoln logs with the dovetail fittings and wooden pegs. There were 3-inch square topped hand-pounded nails for the gables, floorboards and roofing. They were able to save everything.

The chinking of the mortar between the boards, he said, contained rocks, shirts, jeans, etc., anything to help fill and insulate the space between the boards. They even saved the rubble underneath the flooring, in which they found old bottles, a lady’s shoe, a 1930s journal, a potato sack from the San Luis Valley, one side of the glass from an old pair of eyeglasses, and many other artifacts. These pieces will all be put into shadowboxes and displayed inside the reconstructed old house.

In the reconstruction, they have applied many, many coats of linseed oil to each log and put each board back exactly as it was.

The very few things they’ve had to replace such as the wood shingles, they have kept as true to the original as they could. At some point in the near future, the house will be opened for the public to come and view. The Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives will keep you informed of when this will happen.

 

The House with Nobody In It

by Alfred Joyce Kilmer

Whenever I walk to Suffern

along the Erie track, I go by a poor old farmhouse with its

shingles broken and black. I suppose I’ve passed it a hundred times, but I always stop for a minute, and look at the house, the tragic house,

the house with nobody in it. I never have seen a haunted house, but I hear there are such things;that they hold the talk of spirits, their mirth and sorrowings.

I know this house isn’t haunted,

and I wish it were, I do; for it wouldn’t be so lonely if it had a ghost or two. This house on the road to Suffern needs a dozen panes of glass, and somebody ought to weed the walk and take a scythe to the grass. It needs new paint and shingles, and the vines should be trimmed and tied. But what it needs the most of all is some people living inside. 

If I had a lot of money and all my debts were paid, I’d put a gang of men to work with brush and saw and spade. I’d buy that place and fix it up the way it used to be, and I’d find some people who wanted a home and give it to them free. Now, a new house standing empty, with staring window and door, looks idle, perhaps, and foolish, like a hat on its block in the store.

But there’s nothing mournful about it; it cannot be sad and lone,

for the lack of something within it that it has never known. But a house that has done

what a house should do, a house that has sheltered life, that has put its loving wooden arms around a man and his wife, a house that has echoed a baby’s laugh and held up his stumbling feet,

is the saddest sight, when it’s left alone, that ever your eyes could meet. 

So whenever I go to Suffern

along the Erie track,

I never go by the empty house without stopping and looking back.

Yet it hurts me to look at the

crumbling roof and

the shutters fallen apart. For I can’t help thinking the poor old house is a house with a broken heart.

A huge thank you to David Sorenson, Jeff Nibert and Phil Scarpa, for saving such a wonderful piece of Roswell’s history.

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.