By Janice Dunnahoo
Special to the Daily Record
There are some things we don’t always think about when sharing the history of our area, unless you are a farmer or rancher, or possibly a lineman or weatherman. One of those “things” we don’t think about too much as being a part of our history is weather, and in today’s case, thunder and lightning.
Last week I shared with you the article, “Cloud to Ground Lightning in the Summer Months in New Mexico,” published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)/National Weather Service in Albuquerque by Earl K. Fosdick and NOAA/National Severe Storms Laboratory out of Norman, Oklahoma, by Andrew I. Watson.
The article was followed by the beginning of a story I found in regard to our weather and history, a thought-provoking and interesting read, shared with permission from New Mexico Stockman Magazine’s office manager Margarite Vensel. It gives a very close and personal — sometimes fun, sometimes sobering — account of what it was truly like. Here is the second part of the story first published in The New Mexico Stockman, March, 1960:
“Thunder and Lightning
“By O.M. Linn, Silver City
“… And speaking of hail, I once owned an apple orchard at South Springs, near Roswell, New Mexico. I bought this from J.J. Hagerman. This was when apples were one of the many crops in the Pecos Valley farming area. Trees everywhere were loaded with the oncoming crop. Just across the road from my place was a two hundred acre orchard belonging to one of the Chisums — a nephew of the noted John S. Chisum. A thunderstorm came up — it started hailing and when it was over, the Chisum orchard of big fine trees was stripped of all fruit, leaves, small limbs and most of the bark. The place was a complete wreck, but none of this hail at all fell on my place.
“Thomas Campbell, the Montana Wheat King, said that last year hail wiped out two hundred and fifty thousand dollars worth of his wheat in ten minutes. Just who is a gambler and who isn’t?
“Well, going back a good many years, and several hundred miles to this T X Ranch, referred to above, consisting of about four hundred sections lying east of the Pecos, between Horse Head crossing and Odessa — this was one of the few fenced ranches at the time. It had been owned and improved by General Benson and sold to the Western Union Beef Company, by whom I was employed. This company later sold this ranch to J.T. McElroy, whose estate still owns it. We used this place for a holding pasture, this was not our headquarters, as it lay just north of the fever-tick quarantine line, which was the Pecos River in that area. There were only three months in the year that you were permitted to cross cattle to the east side.
“One day we rounded up some fifteen hundred steers on this ranch to be driven to Odessa and shipped out. That afternoon the cook and horse wrangler had moved the wagon on north a few miles and had camped for the night. It was evident that we would be about dark getting the herd to the wagon. One of the cowboys, a young man from South Texas was sent on to camp a little before sundown to help the wrangler catch the horses. It had been raining slowly for several hours. When this boy loped up to within about forty yards of the wagon he was struck by lightning. The cook said when he ran out to him that neither the horse nor the man moved a muscle where they lay. The man had a blue spot on the back of his neck, the hair on his chest was scorched and the soles of his new handmade boots were torn off. There was no mark on the horse or on the new Gallup saddle. (In those days a man with a S.C. Gallup saddle, made in Pueblo, Colorado, carried about the same respect as the owner of a new Cadillac car now.) Well, we rolled out this man’s bed by the side of the wagon, put him on it and spread the tarp over him — there he stayed until morning. That night a man was sent to get a buckboard and a pair of mules to take him to Odessa the next morning. A wire from his folks ordered him buried.
“Most of the country I have mentioned here is now oil fields — they have some trouble with lightning too.
“Several years later, I was with the trail herd of two thousand big steers that started north from this same area headed for Montana. When we went near the Colorado line one night, a storm came up about 10 o’clock, all hands were out with the herd. After the first hard dash of rain it continued a steady cold drifting rain for several hours.
“You can hold a herd together, but you can’t hold them in one place in a driving rain storm. Most of the men were in the lead moving slowly along ahead of the cattle holding them back the best they could, singing and talking to them as they drifted with the storm — it is very necessary that you make some kind of noise that will have a quieting effect on the cattle at night. It was so dark you could not see inches before you, except when the lightning flashed. Then you could see the whole situation for a minute. Lightning was striking here and there all around us. Static electricity was playing on the horns of the steers and on the tips of our horses ears. We were wet and cold. Slickers do not turn that kind of rain. I was wondering if there wasn’t some other way of making a living.
“Lightning struck on one side of the herd causing them to stampede, but we held them. They only made the one run that night. After a while we discovered we were short one man. A man that had been put behind to follow along in the rear of the herd came around to the lead and said he came up on a man and his horse and about ten head of steers dead from the stroke of lightning. This man had not been with the outfit very long and no one knew his real name, or where he came from — you did not ask a stranger too many questions in those days.
“Years later, when I ranched in the panhandle of Texas, grass grew tall then and the damage from the prairie fires, started from lightning, was terrific. With the only methods we had for fighting fires, they were hard to control and often burned thirty or forty miles of grass that was badly needed for winter.
“We in New Mexico know the distressing thing lightning is in the forest — continually setting fires all summer. But, with the modern methods of fighting these fires — chemicals, along with helicopters that get there fast and drop smoke jumpers — these fires in most cases do not destroy large acreage now as much as they once did. …
“Well, life is pretty much of a fight anyway you take it. No matter who you are or what you are doing, rich or poor, big or little, you are fighting something nearly all the time.
“You will win some of these battles some of the time (except with your wife or with a bumblebee), and it is possible you can have some fun doing it. So keep going and playing your part ‘till the curtain comes down and the show is over.”
Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at email@example.com.