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Historically Speaking: Uncle Rufe Dunnahoo talks about Roswell — a town in the making

Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives The caption on the photo reads, "Capt. J.C. Lea's house with: Jack Galbreath, M.L. Pierce, Rufe Dunnahoo, third from left, Mary Lea, Judge F.H. Lea, Pearl Lea, Pinkie Camp, George J. Davis, Martha Hood, J.S. Lea, Campbell Fountain' s Child, Mallis Moore, Mrs. Ella Pierce, Earnest Edwards, Oragon Bell, Mrs. Ada Edwards and Ms. White."

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

Rufus H. Dunnahoo was my husband’s great-great-grandfather. He was the town’s first blacksmith, and came here with the cattle drives in 1880. He played music for dances at the Chisum ranch and was close friends with Capt. Joseph C. Lea, known as the “father of Roswell.” Among his progeny in Roswell — besides the Dunnahoos — were the Chewnings, the DeBordes and probably a few others. He was also the father of the first sheriff killed in the line of duty, his namesake, a few years after this article was published.

“Aug. 2, 1931

“Chaves County Sheriff Deputy Rufus “Rufe” Dunnahoo was shot while trying to disarm a thief near a wrecked car near Hagerman.”

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Following is an Oct. 2, 1928, Roswell Daily Record article, based on an interview of Uncle Rufe’s reminiscences and remembrances of the beginnings and building of Roswell.

It seems all the old-timers called each other “uncle,” as you will see.

“By Rufus H. Dunnahoo

“When an old-timer tells anything, he hast to be sure who takes it down, or the dapper young fellow who writes it up will make him out the biggest liar in fourteen states. I am going to give myself a little bit of latitude in dates and sizes of things by inserting ‘about’ along, so that one faction won’t be saying, ‘Jim Hinkle don’t remember that as you told it,’ or the other side say, ‘that is not the way Frank Coe or Mrs. Sallee Robert, or Jim Miller told it to me or us.’ Just please remember that this tale is the way your Uncle Rufus remembers it and that he didn’t ask anybody how to tell it or whether he might tell it at all. There are no strings on your uncle. He has voted for Jim a number of times and is going to vote for Jim’s son because he is on the ticket your uncle supports, always, being an old Confederate soldier, this is preliminary stuff and no arguments will be matched about any of it. So many people have asked for early day recollections, these are given.

“When I arrived in Roswell, early in 1880, from Bandera and Uvalde, Texas, there were no houses except what is known as the old Clem house, where Captain Lea lived and a store building made of adobe. The first residence, as I recall, was built by Captain John Sansome, who came from Llano, Texas, and got here in 1880, with Judge A.C. Rogers, who was driving a bull team and brought some supplies. Captain Sansome later sold this house, which was about where the Hall-McNally filling station now stands, on a big ditch, next to Captain Lea. I think my own house was the next real residence built in Roswell, it being also of adobe and on the lot across the street (Richardson Avenue) from the Federal building. This was built in 1881. ‘About’ that year also A.H. Whetstone, the first surveyor to locate here, picked out a building site on what is now the corner of Main and Fifth, facing on Main, (then a cow trail to North Spring River) buying the land from Captain Joseph C. Lea, it being a part of the Colonel Wildy homestead and by him given to the first Mrs. Lea, who was the mother of Mrs. Ella (H. M.) Dow. ‘Whet’ built ‘about’ ‘82. The old Whetstone house still stands, being of adobe, but is so covered over and dolled out with plaster he’d never recognize it.

“Uncle Frank Lea came from White Oaks in 1884, bringing his family, a bunch of the prettiest girls anyone ever saw. That started the agitation for a school, but this is not a school history and others who have access to records can dig up that part of it, suffice it to say that they elected me a school director.

“Uncle Frank Lea built on a plat which seems to have been just at the rear of the Cummins garage, his house facing east. After the town became city proud and was surveyed, it was found the house fronted on an alley, and Uncle Frank said, ‘They got me facing the backyard, ‘by jeminiy.’ Ha!’

“Neighbor Gayle came in 1882, and he and Uncle Frank Lea were on the school board with me. Neighbor ‘took up’ a claim on what is now South Main street and built his residence where the big sign board is at Hondo bridge. He also has some pretty girls and the town began to grow, that being one thing that always attracted the range riders.

“W.B. Meeks, called ‘Uncle Bill’ by all old-timers, arrived in ‘84 and bought land across from where the Gilkeson Hotel now stands, and built a house on it, later on, about ‘89, erecting a two-story adobe, Jim Hampton, later his son-in-law, putting it up. Uncle Bill was a lover of good horses and always had some that could run and matched races with any and all comers, the sky being the limit on stakes. He built race tracks, beginning near neighbor Gayle on the Hondo, and ending about where those beauty parlors are at the rear of the Federal building, so that beauty takes the place of the beast on that terminal. Many exciting races were run one those tracks, one being between Pat Garrett’s dun racehorse called ‘Jersey’ and Uncle Bill’s sorrel, an 800-yard horse brought with him from either Menard or Angelo, Texas, the sorrel winning. This race was run on Christmas Day, I think ‘88.

“Pat Garrett built the two-story adobe now standing at the head of the Great Northern canal, at the mouth of the Hondo, soon after he killed Billy the Kid, and Barney Mason lived there some time, Pat residing in Lincoln while sheriff. As soon as he had seen John Poe elected as his successor he moved here and began preparations to build the canal that now supplies from Orchard Park to Hagerman with water. That covered several years before Pat sold out and left going to Uvalde, Texas, and later to Las Cruces, New Mexico.

“Roswell was all, or nearly all, in a pasture when I arrived, that is, what is the town proper now, was.

“George Blashek came ‘about’ ‘81, maybe a little bit earlier, and secured from Captain Lea a site for his grist mill, that being the first grinding mill in Southern New Mexico.

“Whetstone, or ‘Uncle Whet,’ was our first surveyor. Down in the valley, rocks were scarce and timber scarcer, so when he would establish a corner, he would stick up an empty quart bottle and dig four pits around it, the glass being immune to weather action, being the reason. From this, however, came the old saying at sight of a whiskey bottle, ‘There is a Whetstone corner.’ No real gentleman is going to think any worse of Uncle Whet for being told that he sometimes emptied a bottle to get a corner. ‘They all did it’ those days.

“My first trip to Las Vegas, our nearest grub supply, was in July ‘81, and it rained on us going and coming. On the way up we met Billy the Kid and his gang at Fort Sumner and on the way back still in the rain we found them at Bosque Grande where Dick Diettrichs lived and had some cattle and horses. The Pecos was up so he (Billy) made me a raft out of several dry Cottonwood logs and put a wagon box on it for a ferry. Billy the Kid and his men worked all day helping us ferry our loads across the river, all being as wet as rats. One man had some whiskey in his load and the freighters opened up the barrel and paid the man for what they got so they could have a nap after a ducking in the muddy, icy water. Nobody took too much. The Kid had killed a yearling and had it cooked for us to eat that day. Aleck Bly’s mother was working for Diettrich and cooked the dinner for us, having a lot left over which the Kid gave us when we left, to save cooking our supper that night. He and his men then swam our work teams over the river to us, told us goodbye, wished us luck and rode off into that cold water like it was going to dinner. Billy was a fine looking young man and dressed nice and used better language than the rest of us, in that he didn’t swear any that day. He was one of the most gentlemanly young fellows I ever met. He was later killed by Pat Garrett that very month.

“In ‘82 I started blacksmithing in Roswell on the lot where Luff Candy kitchen now stands, later, bought more ground and when George T. Davis arrived that year, with a bad case of the ‘bugs’ and looking for ‘health or a good cemetery,’ he bought in with me and we ran a blacksmith and wagon repair shop. And George may not look the part but he can fill a wagon wheel that will carry you around the world. It was in this shop that we were all blown up from a careless kid laying a big package of blasting powder near the forge and a spark exploding it. That crippled and singed the whole shop force, Mr. Davis, Elisha Orr, myself and, I believe Charlie Grant. My hands were so badly burned I could never grip the hammer again so as to do good work on an anvil. George Davis is still with us, and a granddaddy, but I have him beat one notch, I am a great-granddaddy several times already and going strong.

“The young fellow, who is taking this down, asked for some recollections of the Civil War, when I was a foundry man at Austin, Texas, but that is Texas history and can be told at a future time. We made cannon for General Magruder, though, and some of them were used at Mansfield when Dick Taylor cleaned up on General Banks and gave Grant a scare, but not now, fellers.

“Somebody will ask if that was where Edgar Harrell got his title but as Edgar was a very small arrival some years after that, he must have been tagged with that ‘Magruder’ by some puncher who had seen the old fortifications at Austin and knew something on Edgar. No tale is out of school from this source, if you please, and none if you don’t please.

“This feller keeps asking about things, so must be one of these ‘space writers’ that papers talk about. He has filled enough space from me, though, so is going to stop after he expressed thanks for me to those who invited me and afterwords fit me at the ‘Pioneers Day Dinner,’ I think they call it, at the Southern Methodist church, the other day. I want to thank whoever invited me, then the Parson for a splendid sermon, spoken so I could hear every bit of it, and in language anybody could understand. It was about ‘Faith’ and about all I would add to what he and the speakers at the lunch said is about thusly:

“We old-timers had the faith in this country and you newcomers have the substance of what we hoped for. As we won’t be worrying much about either in a few more years, here’s hoping those who have the substance of things we hoped for will pass it on to those coming after them, as we of the olden times have passed it on to them — to make this a better country in which to live and better and better people and more of them. In an old-school reader of my boyfriend days was a piece of poetry for a Scotch seer told Lochlie, the Highland leader:

“‘It’s the sunset of life that gives me mystical lore

“And coming events cast their shadows before.’”

“You will, then, forgive me for seeing in the distance of great city named Roswell, for once with enough school rooms and a happy population that retains the neighborly spirit of us who blazed the way for you and them. I thank you.”

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.


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