By Janice Dunnahoo
Special to the Daily Record
Have you ever driven the back roads — the Old Dexter Highway — down to Artesia, just to enjoy the drive, the green fields, the dairies, the old buildings of Dexter, Hagerman and Lake Arthur? Do you ever wonder what those little communities were like 100 years ago, or 50 years ago? What about the people and the commerce, and the “busy-ness” of everyday life that have kept these little communities alive in that 100-year timeframe? It is a sort of balm for my spirit to take this drive on occasion, and soak in the smell of the fresh cut alfalfa and just enjoy our neighboring communities. Following is a remembrance of the early days and settlement of Dexter, but first a short article from the Alamogordo newspaper dated July 26, 1902.
“New Town of Dexter
“The Pecos Valley Railroad Company has put in a spur and last week set out the first carload of lumber for the first building in the new town to be called Dexter, 16 miles southeast of Roswell. The people of the community have petitioned for a post office to be called Dexter and the request will no doubt be granted. M. H. Elford & Company of Hagerman will put in the first store and it was their car of lumber that was unloaded last week.”
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One among many of the greats who have contributed to the preservation of our history, and whose writings are among many of the files and folders in the archives of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico, was Georgia Redfield. Her writings were featured, not only in the Roswell Daily Record, but the El Paso Times and the New Mexico Magazine, among others.
An El Paso Times article, dated Sunday, Aug. 31, 1952, was written by Redfield, sharing her memories of the town of Dexter, New Mexico, and its beginnings.
“By Georgia B. Redfield,
“Roswell, New Mexico-Settlers in the plains country of the southwest who arrived too late to watch the little settlements gradually grow into wide awake modern cities missed all the thrills of pride in achievement of every development in the progress of growth.
“The progressive pioneer citizens of the modern little city of Dexter on Highway 285, 16 miles south of Roswell, have united in efforts to build, year by year, an attractive village settlement, and then a town with all improvements available, and, in a few years, a modern little city in which their pride and appreciation has been fully demonstrated.
“With the writer, a young girl came to Roswell in 1893, there was not a house, not a tree, not any signs of life to be seen, not even cattle, in the area where Dexter was afterwards settled.
“Here the driver of the stage coach slowed down on the last lap of a full days 80 mile journey from Eddy, (now Carlsbad) in order that the Louisiana passengers might fully enjoy the dazzling beauty of a famed New Mexico’s sunset, as the sun, a great ball of fire, sank slowly behind snowcapped Old Baldy in the White Mountains 85 miles away.
“Settled On Barren Plains
“Dexter was settled in 1898 by Albert E. Macey, and was named by him in nostalgic memory of his old hometown, Dexter, Iowa.
“There were no wide green fields of alfalfa, corn, cotton, and modern stock farms that are the pride of Dexter farmers and ranchers. There was beauty and scenery, however, in the White Mountain ranges in the west, El Capitan in the northwest, and the colorful Pecos River bluffs, surrounded by wide sweeping plains and green river valley.
“Altitude of Dexter is 3,600 feet. The growth of the town has been slow but steady. Population in 1926, when the only bank at that time closed, was about 300. In 1936, the population was 500, and at the time of the last census, the population was 1,100.
“Principal industries are agriculture and stock raising. Outstanding natural phenomenon is the Artesian belt that extends 22 miles north; 6 miles north of Roswell; 12 miles east to the Pecos bluffs; 15 miles west to the foothills of the White Mountains and south to where the Pecos River meets the Guadalupe Mountains — about 400 square miles altogether, from which thousands of acres are irrigated.
“Has Natural Lake
“Lake Van, covering 60 acres about one mile east of Dexter, is one of the largest natural lakes in New Mexico. The Lake Van Country Club is a popular center of social activities for club members, who are very liberal in granting free use of the club house, the grounds and the lake for adjoining community clubs, schools, churches and Scout organizations.
“The lake stocked with game fish of all kinds is open at regular intervals for public fishing. The $50,000 club building has recently been remodeled, and a modern home built for the club caretaker.
“The Federal Warm Water Fish Hatchery is one of the most important institutions situated one mile east of Dexter, covering 100 acres of land, that produces over 1,000,000 fish annually — bass, crappie, bluegill, catfish, and sunfish — and specializes in large size bass 4 to 8 inches long. These fish are distributed in bodies of water in streams throughout New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and Colorado.
“Good School System
“Dexter has always maintained a good public school system. A one-room school building erected on land donated by the late J.J. Hagerman, located a mile south of town, sufficed until 1904, when it became necessary to build a two-room building of brick on the present school site. In 1909, a two-room addition was constructed to accommodate a constantly increasing attendance.
“One of the early school masters was James Bickley, who afterward was superintendent of the Clovis public schools. The first four-year high school class graduating under Bickley included Kate Whitman, Lela McMains, George Flanders, George Wade and Frank Wortman.
“Other pioneer teachers, still teaching are Miss Violet Smith and Miss Blanche Pollick. The present school superintendent is Benwood Field.
“The high school is in use until this term of school was open for attendance in September 1921. In 1938 the building was enlarged and a new gymnasium and grade was completed. When school opens in September, the students will occupy a new school building, across the street from the present high school. This is one of the finest school buildings in Southeastern New Mexico, equipped with every modern school convenience, and devices for health and comfort.
“There are seven churches of various denominations in Dexter: two “east” and “west“ Churches of Christ; Assembly of God, Dexter Baptist, Latin-American Baptist, First Methodist and First Presbyterian.
“National interest has been attracted to the Presbyterian Church Gardens in Dexter, about a block west of the highway, because it was awarded third place from among 4,000 contestants in the “More Beautiful American Gardens,” contest in 1934; and second to the Cathedral gardens in Washington, D.C., in “Beautiful Church Gardens” of the United States.
“Service gloves include: Dexter Federated Women’s Club (the town library is a cool project;) Federated Garden Club, Parent Teacher Association, Dexter Lions Club, Extension Club, Beta Sigma Phi, Alcoholics Anonymous and Double R Junior Service. There are Masonic and Oddfellows organizations and Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops that are active in town and state work.
“The Dexter woman’s club will open the full social season in a meeting scheduled for September 4, with Mrs. F. L. Melhop in charge of the program giving a talk on Constantino Brumide, who is called the Michelangelo of the United States. He’s at work and fine fresco paintings adorns walls of the Capitol Building at Washington D.C., and other important executive buildings.
“Dexter officials are Mayor Theo C. Garrison, alderman George Sterritt, John Moore, Sam Boyce and Jack Coats, clerk and librarian Miss Minnie Campbell and Fire Chief Howard Dorman.
“Four Gins and Mill
“There are approximately 19,000 acres of land in cultivation in the Dexter community. Cotton and alfalfa are about equal in acre production. The yield of cotton per acre is over a bale per year. Many acres yield as much is two bales.
“There are four cotton gins, one inside the town, and three just outside the town limits. The Pecos Valley Alfalfa Mill has been operating in Dexter for over a decade, and a modern dehydrator was installed several years ago that has made a big contribution to the hay production of the community.
“Ranching and cattle raising have been an important source of income in the Dexter County since the earliest days of settlement. Some of the pioneer settlers who aided and were instrumental in the growth and development of Dexter were: Roy Lockheed, first owner of the alfalfa mill; his manager, Jim McNeil; Tom and Jim Caffell; Miss Bertha Caffell; Louis Callaway; Attorney F. L. Mellhop; his wife, Effie, active in social and cultural development, and Mr. and Mrs. Harry Holley, who for more than 30 years have conducted one of the most successful poultry farms in Southeastern New Mexico. The town has grown so that the farm now was almost in the center of Dexter. Holley, an early resident of Roswell, is one of the three living classmates of the writer, who attended school in Roswell when Major Mark Howell taught there, nearly 60 years 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.