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Historically Speaking: The town of Cumberland

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Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives The photo's caption reads, "A horse hitched to a buggy patiently waiting for his owner to purchase food and pick up mail from the general store." — date unknown.

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

In the early days of the 20th century, there were many small startup communities in this area — for many varied reasons. For one reason or another — usually water, though there was plenty underground — they failed. This week, I would like to feature one of those communities in our state: The town of Cumberland.

Cumberland was located geographically about where Midway is today, 9 miles south of Roswell.

In a Friday, March 4, 1966, Roswell Daily Record article, staff writer Jean Huff described Cumberland as “A New Town on a New Plan in New Mexico,” which is what they called their “start-up” community, and what they aspired to be.

Huff’s article reads further, “… The promoter of the community, the Reverend Richard Lewis, an evangelist described by some who knew him as ‘one of those people kids were scared of,’ arrived on the townsite in the early 1900s to build a ‘moral community’ along with a college.

“The reverend traveled a great deal, holding religious meetings throughout the southern United States to raise funds for the construction of ‘Cumberland College.’ However, some rumors indicate that in 1913, the Rev. Mr. Lewis vanished with the college funds tucked safely in his pocket.

“Early Development

“The plat of the townsite was filed in the Chaves County Courthouse in 1903 by the Cumberland City Real Estate Town, Trading, and Development Company, for which the Rev. Mr. Lewis was secretary.

“The plat described Cumberland as a famous fruit-growing country, with ‘cyclones unknown,’ in a ‘Colorado-like climate.’

“Near the bottom of the plat, in a ‘special features’ section, ‘the sale of intoxicants was forever prohibited. The avenues are all named for noble Christian women, the streets for Godly men. Six little parks for public use … room for all good people — none for the bad ones,’ it says.

“The townsite, about halfway between Roswell and Dexter was split by the Santa Fe railroad, then called the Pecos Valley and North Eastern railroad.

“People from the East and Midwest began drifting to the new town. Professor and Mrs. W. F. Welty arrived in Cumberland from their home in Arkansas. Welty was apparently summoned by the Rev. Lewis to teach in Cumberland College when it opened. Mrs. Welty was a music teacher.

“A post office — general store, was established August 14, 1907. In 1909, members of the community banded together to construct Cumberland’s church. A little parsonage followed — and at the same time, Cumberland’s 14-room, two-story hotel was opened.

“Homes sprung up here and there.

“John Haddon of Roswell, who moved to Cumberland with his family in 1902, says the ‘college was in talk’ in 1909. Professor Welty later conducted several college-level courses in the Rev. Mr. Lewis‘s home, which was described by Mrs. Glenn Wheeler of Roswell as containing ‘nine to 12 rooms in its 20-foot high structure.’

“An orchard planted in 1910, near the Rev. Mr. Lewis’ tall cement-block residence, fitted into the college’s work-study program. Students were to work in the orchard and at the same time attend college classes. Early residents recall the apple orchard covered some 160 acres.

“But life in Cumberland was not all educationally oriented. The professor’s wife, Mrs. Welty, frequently threw ‘Christian endeavor parties, in the hotel and church,’ Mrs. Wheeler said. ‘But there were no such thing as dances, Welty and Lewis wouldn’t stand for it.’

“Ellis Whitney of Roswell, who arrived on the townsite in 1913, said he was baptized in the Cumberland Presbyterian church, only ‘minutes after the preacher married my brother and his sweetheart.’ He recalls Rev. Lewis as a medium-size, square-shouldered man who was ‘always out of town drumming and promoting.’

“Early day residents remember traveling into Cumberland proper, via horse and buggy over rough roads dotted with ‘salt bumps.’

“The little town enjoyed some growth for a short period. E.R. Duval, who migrated to Cumberland for his health in 1908, said at one time the hotel was ‘overrun with people here for health reasons.’ Cumberland’s assistant postmaster for a short period, Duval recalls ‘a little friction between Welty and Lewis. ‘I was friends of both men and wasn’t supposed to know … I never asked questions,’ he said.

“The post office served approximately 50 of the area residents, according to Mrs. James Young of Roswell. Mrs. Young’s late husband was postmaster from 1911 to 1917. She remembers the ‘train chugging by and without stopping the vehicle, the conductor grabbed the mailbag, hanging on a crane very near the railroad tracks … the incoming mail was thrown off the train. …’

“DECLINE

“But soon things quieted, and the little community begin to decline in the early 1920s.

“The college foundation was never laid, even though Cumberland’s residents had hauled in 100 yards of gravel. The orchard faded from lack of water. Turbine pumps, which could have brought the water to the surface, were not yet in existence.

“The church was torn down, the general store was moved. On February 15, 1933, Cumberland’s post office was closed, and mail was routed to Dexter.

“And in 1935, late one night, the hotel which was owned by Welty, burned to the ground. The remains of the old structure lie between the Y made by the old and the new Dexter highway about 9 miles south of Roswell.

“Professor Welty, who early residents said, ‘worked himself to death on the college,’ met a tragic end one day as he crossed the road to get his mail and was struck by a passing car.

“TODAY (1966)

“Today, the tall yellow weeds rise feet above the ground, hiding the old foundation from sight. Scattered on the ground are pieces of thickened glass, fused by the heat of the fire and purple with age. One can find large chunks of tile which perhaps lined the hotel fireplace — and halved doorknobs.

“Ten strong foundation rocks — the basis of the church — still stand about 300 yards due east of the hotel site.

“Travelers pass by the early site only yards off the busy highway. However, Cumberland’s remains are so small they scarcely fracture the landscape.”

“Time is like a handful of sand — the tighter you grasp it, the faster it runs through your fingers” — anonymous.

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.