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Historically Speaking: History of the Clem Boarding House

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Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives The caption reads, "Captain J.C. Lea's home, 1887; 17 people are in the photo, including several young children."

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a researcher in California who had been researching her ancestral ties here in Roswell. She wanted to know if the home of Capt. Joseph C. Lea, might have been the same as the Clem Boarding House, which her great-grandparents operated after the turn of the century, in the early 1900s.

The question intrigued me, in that, Capt. Lea’s house was known as the first house built in Roswell, and was also known to be a boarding house of sorts when it was occupied by the Lea family. The lady who contacted me only had a location of it being “across from the courthouse,” which was the exact location of Capt. Lea’s house, in those days, probably the only one. Its history is amazing: In 1869, it was first the home of Van Smith, a gambler, who bought this land and the four-room adobe structure. Mr. Smith added extra rooms and a sleeping loft to the structure. He then built another structure just to the south of the boarding house that he used as a grocer/gambling hall, and later post office. This “store” would be about where the John Chisum statue is located now. Smith named this town Roswell, after his father, Roswell Smith. Not long after establishing the first post office in his store, being the gambler that he was, he moved on.

In 1877, Capt. Joseph C. Lea acquired this property and much of the land that we now consider downtown Roswell. Lea was from Tennessee and a former Confederate army officer and had even ran with Quantrill’s guerrilla band at one time. Lea moved his wife and child here with him from Texas. He was ready to settle down after the war, and was very smart in his planning to start a city here. He became known as “the father of Roswell.” Lea promoted the growth of this newly formed town, even donating some of his land for the county courthouse.

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Under Lea in 1903, Roswell became a municipality, and in the first city election, he was elected mayor. His comment in his campaign speech was, “I would rather be elected the mayor of Roswell than be the governor of New Mexico.”

Lea County was named after Lea, the New Mexico Military Institute named a hall after him, and we have a street here in Roswell named after him. He died in 1904 with only $1 left in his bank account — his banker wouldn’t let him overdraw. He still owned the town of Roswell at the time of his passing, even though he had given much of his land to the development of the city.

I thought I would share some of my research from the Roswell Daily Record articles I found on the Clem Boarding House, along with the dates of publication. Lots of history happened in that one block over the years. So, the next time you’re driving down Main Street and you pass the Chisum statue and Pioneer Plaza, across from the courthouse, think about all the “happenings” of that one little block in years past.

Oh, and yes, the Clem Boarding House was indeed the same house that had formerly belonged to Capt. Lea.

April 1, 1905

After Twenty-Four Years

“J.J. Swartout, of Kansas City, a traveling hatter who is looking for a location, came in last night to look over the town and to see what the indications for an opening here might be. He and his partner, who is with him, decided not to remain, but will go from here overland to Capitan.

“Mr. Swartout is a visitor of interest in Roswell for the reason that he can remember when this town was noticed more on maps than in reality. He was here 24 years ago coming overland on a prospecting trip through the country. He well remembered the first house that was built in town. It was the Lea adobe, now known as the Clem Boarding House and readily recognized as the pioneer building of Roswell. He can tell many interesting facts concerning Roswell in the time of almost a quarter of a century ago, and is deeply impressed with the great change and improvement in the place. What was then practically a desert, is now a beautiful town, growing and prospering day by day.”

March 7, 1905

WELL-KNOWN COUPLE WEDS

“Jesse Rogers and Mrs. Inez C. Vickers are Happily United.

“Jesse Rogers, one of the old settlers of this section of the country, and Mrs. Inez C. Vickers, of this city, both of whom are well-known, were united in marriage at 9 o’clock this morning, the wedding occurring at the Clem Boarding House on N. Main St. Probate Judge Evans conducted the ceremony in the presence of the Clem household and a few friends. The happy couple left immediately after the wedding for the groom’s home, 12 miles southeast on East Grand Plains, where he has a nice home, and where they will reside.”

April 5, 1906

A Fatal Shooting

“Victim of the Gun of Sam Houston, a Cook who has Been Here for Nine Months. Houston gave Himself up and is Now in Jail. Inquest Held After the Killing.

Charley Johnson the well-known Porter at the Elk Saloon who was familiarly known as “Chicken Charley” and “Plymouth Rock Charley” for having been arrested a number of times for stealing chickens, was shot through the heart and almost instantly killed at 7:45 last night by Sam Houston, who arrived last June from Ft. Worth and has been employed as a cook at various places. The shooting occurred at the rear door of the Clem Boarding House on North Main opposite the courthouse where Houston has been employed.”

April 18, 1907

Married By Elder Hill

“David H. Carson and Miss Cora Anna Clem were married at 8:30 last night at the home of the bride’s parents Mr. and Mrs. J.A. Clem, at the Clem Boarding House on North Main Street. Elder C.C. Hill, pastor of the Christian Church, performing the ceremony in the presence of relatives and a few friends. After, the wedding party was served with a nice wedding supper. The couple will make their home at the Clem Boarding House for the present. The groom is the proprietor of the Pecos Valley Feed Store and Grocery on South Main. He and his bride have been residents of Roswell several years, and many friends congratulate them.”

September 27, 1907

“The old Lea building now occupied by the Clem Boarding House is the only adobe in the business part of Main Street and as it is the only adobe in the business part of town, should be preserved through the years to come.”

April 15, 1908

“M.Z. Miller states that if the man who exchanged hats with him at the Clem Boarding House Sunday will return his new Stetson, he will give him his own property and a dollar to boot; but the other fellow probably knew what he was doing.”

June 13, 1908

“The request for permission to set up a sleeping tent at the rear of the old Clem Boarding House, by Mrs. C.L. Overman, was refused on the ground that the place is within fire limits.”

Sept. 7, 1908

“Mrs. L.R. Hartley has taken charge of the Clem Boarding House on North Main. Mrs. Sallie Overman Beavers, formerly in charge, has moved to her residence on South Hill.”

April 27, 1909

“His First Visit In Thirty-One Years

Elmer Blazer, who runs a grist mill at South Fork, at the edge of the Mescalero reservation on the Rio Ruidoso, spent Sunday in Roswell with his old friends Mr. and Mrs. Jack Thornton, who lived at South Fork twenty-one years ago. Mr. Blazer is 44 years old and although he has lived at South Fork since childhood, has not been to Roswell since he was 13 years old, just thirty-one years ago. It was in the year 1878 that he was last in Roswell, and he could hardly believe his eyes when he saw the town upon his arrival Saturday night. The old Lea residence, now the Clem Boarding House, was the only building he was able to recognize. One day was enough for him and he left Sunday night for his home. His father formerly ran Blazer sawmill at the site where his grist mill is now located.” Blazer’s Mill was the site of the gun battle between Billy the Kid, his gang and Buckshot Roberts.

Feb 23, 1910

“L.R. Hartley has returned from La Cruz, Mexico, where he has been for the past year and thirteen days, drilling wells and setting up windmills. He has done a good business in the southern republic but now plans to move to Bakersfield, California. He will move west and take his family as soon as he can sell out the Clem Boarding House, which his wife has been running during his absence.”

March 1, 1910

“G.W. Hartman, of Las Vegas, who has been here selling art goods, went to Fort Sumner today. Mr. Hartman built the oldest house now standing in Roswell, the Clem Boarding House on Main Street, now occupied by Mrs. L.R. Hartley, and known as the Lea house. Mr. Hartman was then working as a cowpuncher and selling art goods. He built the Lea abode for a hotel and it is carrying out well this original purpose.”

April 30, 1910

“For sale – household goods of the Clem Boarding House. Bargain if sold at once. 416 North Main.”

April 30, 1910

“J.C. Stark who formerly ran a barbecue at the rear of Mrs. Clem’s Boarding House, opposite the courthouse, is now located at the meat market of Clem & Stark, near the station, where a full line of fresh and barbecued meats are always for sale. Courteous treatment, full weight, and prompt delivery.”

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.