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Historically Speaking: Life on the Flying H Ranch in World War II

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Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives The caption reads, "Road to an old ranch in Roswell" — date and exact location unknown.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

Ernestine Chesser Williams left a treasure trove of her stories to the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She shared many memories of growing up, her young married life, being a rancher’s wife, and teaching school on ranches around this area. I would like to share two of her stories this month from a collection she wrote called “Long Ago and Far Away.” These are stories she compiled after she had turned 90 years old. They are true, they are heartwarming, they depict life as it was in those days, lots of hard work, sometimes frightening, sometimes funny, but the way life was, and the kindred spirits of those who helped to settle this country.

This week, I share with you a copy of a letter she wrote in 1944 to two of her lifelong friends, Edith and Adelaide.

Next week, I will share a true, but funny Christmas story from the frontier times in southeast New Mexico.

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“Flying H, New Mexico

“November 18, 1944

“Dear Edith and Adelaide,

“Well, I’ve been intending to do this every weekend since I last saw you and I am just now getting around to it. Believe me, when we signed up for this job, we signed up for a full-time job. But we are very happy here — like it fine — feel better about what we are doing than we have since we moved away from Yellow Lake.

“Have thought so many times how I’d tell you about what we are doing, and then would put it off till a more convenient season, which seldom comes. This ranch is about 75 to 80 miles from Roswell, depending on where you live — think we must be about 70 or 80 miles out. It is about 3 1/2 hours drive from Roswell, in a good car, when the road is good.

“It took us about seven hours in the truck. You come out the South Main Street road nearly to Y O Crossing, and turn west up Eagle Draw.  It is about the worst road you can possibly imagine. After a few miles you reach the Felix spring and follow it the rest of the way. It flows a small stream of water all the time, and runs the entire length of the ranch.

“We live in a two-room ‘dobe house about two miles above the ranch headquarters. I like the house. The rooms are big, newly painted on the inside and stucco on the outside. It has six big windows, so it is light and airy. It’s plenty big to arrange a kitchen in one room and a bedroom in the other. It has a good yard fence, and a store room, which takes care of washing machine and all other stuff we can’t find a place for in the house. The yard is rocky, so it’s very clean. The dust can’t blow — all the land is heavily turfed, or is solid rock. We are only in sight of one house, an old, old couple live there, so certainly are not bothered with neighbor kids.

“The school house is 3 1/2 miles up on the Feliz. It is a typical one-room school. The building is a fairly new ‘dobe, and in good repair. At present only have eight pupils including me, however, have had as many as 12 part of the time. It is an easy school, if there can be such a thing as an easy school. The children all belong in some way to the Flying H Ranch. They are employees, leasees, or kin folks. So that narrows it down to where I don’t have to please but one person — the owner of the ranch, Clement Hendrick. He doesn’t seem to be too hard to please — takes a great interest in the school, but it all seems to be friendly interest. One boy is in the eighth grade, all the others are in the second, third, and fourth. Lena Mae is my only beginner. The eighth grader is a boy 12 years old, not unusually smart but an extra good reader. The children are all well clothed and fed, that is more than I can say for any other school I ever had. The kids and I catch a bus at 8:30 AM and get home about 4:30 PM. That makes it very convenient, as housekeeping has to have some consideration.

“Lena Mae is the wiggle worm, she is really too little to start to school, but have to make her do something to keep her from running me crazy. I still have her in the pre-primer. She has read the basic, and 10 others besides. Started her in her primer yesterday. Boyd thinks she is the smartest thing in the world the way she can read. She also works in an arithmetic workbook. She has known her letters and numbers for months, so that isn’t a worry. I also gave her some simple spelling. Koger is less trouble than you can possibly imagine. I have fixed her a corner behind the piano, and she doesn’t bother anybody. She has a small desk, a primary table, and two primary chairs. Sometimes she is a little reckless with the cut and paste and construction paper — but I figured that is cheap peace, so I just let her alone. Sometimes she takes her doll or teddy bear — the children don’t pay much attention to her. The teacher last year had a small child so they are used to it.

“I do a fair job of housekeeping. Always get the dishes done in the morning, and nearly always the beds made. I have to pack lunch for the kids and myself, but Boyd eats at the ranch kitchen, or they send him a lunch. I wash on Saturday and iron on Sunday. Boyd leaves early and comes in late. Very often he leaves the house in time to be to the back of a pasture several miles away by the time it is light enough to see. Other days he tries to leave about seven or a little before. He seldom gets in until after dark. He either goes horseback or they pick him up in the ranch car. We seem to have very little use for our car — have only untracked it twice since we got here. This late coming and going has made me have to take over the afternoon chore of milking. Hadn’t milked in 12 years, and it really does hurt my feelings, but find I can do it as well as I ever could.

“The ranch furnishes us two milk cows and feed for them, along with the pasture, and hay. They also furnish saddle horses and feed for them. They have furnished us with vegetables of all descriptions ever since we have been here — carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, greens, etc., also apples. There are several big orchards — we could have all the apples we wanted to pick and put up. Surely wish I could send some to each of you.

“At first I really did dread to go back to this old packing water, firing up the cookstove, and washing lamp globes, but by now it is just part of a routine and I think nothing of it. We get our water from a little concrete hole just outside the yard gate. The water flows into and out of it all the time, from the Felix spring. It is good soft water but sometimes tastes a little of ditch moss. Guess it won’t hurt us as all the ranch drinks it.

“Tell Raymond that we all like to give Boyd a hard time about herding sheep for the Flyng H’s. He takes it, but don’t think he appreciates such humor. He has always despised sheep, and had never worked any until he came here. They don’t actually herd anymore, as they have all the sheep proof pastors. We also laugh at him about his wages. He has never asked Clement what he was going to pay him and Clement has never mentioned it. This outfit doesn’t ever pay you — you just go to the office and get it when you want it. That is the way nearly all these big ranches handle wages. He hasn’t needed it yet, so hasn’t asked for it, so doesn’t even know what his wages are. “However, we do know that the lowest wage man on the ranch gets $100 a month — so I’m sure Boyd gets that much if not more. We talked about my salary — what the deductions would be. I did not know until I got my first check, it was $140.80 — deduction $9.20. If I have earned $450 since I have been out here it is the easiest money I ever made in my life. One board member has already asked if I could take the school next year and offered me a raise of $15 a month making it $165. Then tax would be deducted.

“I haven’t been to town or anywhere else since I came up here. Don’t know when I’ll ever get to go. It doesn’t matter much as I can buy all staple groceries at the ranch commissary, and faithfully search the catalog for any other articles I need.

“My fingers are about to give out as I don’t type much anymore. The kids are always asking to come to aunt Edith’s house and tell those other little kids to come too, meaning Adelaide’s.

“Do write to me when you have time, and tell me all about what you are doing. Don’t worry about us — we may be suffering some inconveniences, but we are getting well paid for them. We are perfectly satisfied with this while we wait for the war to be over so we can do our own business again.

“Much love to you all,

“Ernestine”

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.