UPPER PENASCO PIONEERS - THE DAVIS FAMILY by James Mason
For several years in the early days of the observatory one of the employees was Bill Davis. He worked as a photographer, but first he was a rancher. In 1948 when the Air Force decided to establish a solar observatory in the Sacramento Mountains Bill and Jean Davis owned the ranch between Atkinson and Fenimore canyons (now the intersection of Sunspot Hwy and Upper Penasco Road). It had been Bill's home since his father Bodie Davis bought the property from a man named Johnson in 1920. Bill was two at the time and his sister Frances (Young) was four.
As you know if you've read Joann Ramsey's fine book "In the Beginning", for the Air Force personnel and other folks traveling to the new observatory in those early days the Davis home became a stopping place. For the first two years it was literally the end of the road, and there was always a pot of coffee on the stove and usually a fresh pie on the window sill. This story starts with Bill and his wife Jean, but more than that it is about the Davis family and others on Upper Penasco and a way of life that no longer exists in the Sacramentos - at least not on the Penasco.
Bill's grandfather Shelby Davis came to New Mexico from Medina County TX in the Winter of 1899 at best guess. Shelby and his wife, Anna (Rippy) with six children came by wagon, settling first in Fresnal Canyon. According to Frances Fenimore of Alamogordo, Anna gave birth on the way to their seventh child, a daughter which they named Genoa, and who would die two years later of whooping cough and be buried at High Rolls.
Cloudcroft was just being planned then and the railroad had just reached Tobaggon Canyon in June. High Rolls, besides being the site of a grist mill and recent railroad development also had a tuberculosis sanatorium known as cottage row. The air in New Mexico was good for TB sufferers and there were many such hospitals here in those days.
Shelby and Anna made the move for the health of their son Douglas whose asthma had become so bad that in the south Texas nights he could no longer sleep lying down. Douglas' health apparently started to improve almost immediately. In Fresnal Canyon Shelby farmed and raised goats but mainly he was a rancher and soon began to look for a ranch. Records show that in 1903 he bought a ranch in Wills Canyon from Tom Flemming. (Flemming's father John McQuarter Flemming had settled the place in Wills in 1873 according to Flemming family history as recorded in "Pioneer Families of Otero County, vol 1". I have so far been unable to identify any settlers in Wills Canyon earlier than this date.) In 1908 the Davises moved to Wills Canyon and the Penasco.
The Rio Penasco is a tiny river by most standards. It rises at 9500 feet in the Sacramento Mountains of south central New Mexico, descends to 4500 feet in a distance of some forty miles and somewhere along the next forty disappears into the dry desert soil before reaching the Pecos River a few miles south of Artesia. That may not seem like a river to some people but in the desert it was a life's blood.
The 'Upper Penasco' is that part of the river from its source down to the entrance of Cox Canyon, a distance of about fifteen miles, although to the early settlers the term may have referred generally to the river above the village of Mayhill. The first source of permanent water in the Rio Penasco is a spring on the Bill Davis ranch. Two and a half miles below the ranch Water Canyon usually adds a small flow, and a mile and a half farther are the Bluff Springs, long a source of good water and red clay. Another eight miles and perhaps ten springs brings you to the entrance of Wills Canyon and from there it is another mile to the entrance of Cox Canyon and pavement. Today many of these side canyons are mostly dry, their springs being used up before reaching the Penasco.
This description of the river has been as the water flows and grows - from top down; but the early settlers usually approached the Penasco from the lower end. Their first sight of it was not in the mountains. Its first appeal was to cattle men trailing herds up from South Texas in the 1860s - first Loving and Goodnight then the Chisums in 67. Although there was plenty of water in the Pecos, the grass by late summer would be diminished and drovers would often have to turn aside to find grass and bed their herds. Maybe a few of these men noticed the Penasco and would return later to establish ranches along its upper reaches but in the 60s the Sacramentos were the domain of the Mescalero Apaches.
Not until the 1880s did settlement in the mountains begin in earnest. In the 1850s Forts Stanton and Sumner were established and garrisoned to 'neutralize' the Apaches, but the war took away most of the troops and the Apaches remained. After the war the garrisons returned and in 1882 Nana and the last of the hostile Apaches left the Sacramentos.
In 1880 the census of Lincoln County identified thirteen households as being on the Penasco. In fact in that year Dona Ana County included the Penasco, but that county's census was confined to the Rio Grande valley. The names included the John James family, for whom James Canyon is named and the James Walters family. The rest were mostly single men including Albert Coe and his brother Austin. Albert would later go back to Missouri, marry Molly Mahill and return, her family later to follow and open a store and post office and giving their name to what had up to then been known as Upper Penasco. In all there were 43 souls in 1880 of which 18 were farmers, 4 cattlemen, one sheep herder, one miner and one tailor. There were six women keeping house. It's clear that these households were in James Canyon which might be considered the north fork of the Penasco. If a census taker canvassed the upper Penasco in 1880 or indeed there were households to be canvassed I have not found the record.
Not until the 80s did ranching begin to move into the mountains. The Brownings came to Elk Canyon in 85, having to clear their own road from the Penasco as they went (J.A.B. manuscript). The McNews came to the rim settling the ranch that in 1899 would become the village of Cloudcroft. The three McNew sons-in-law would take the first wagon down the west side from there. (Otero Pioneer Families).
Thus until probably as late as 1890 the upper Penasco was pristine and unsettled - nearly uninhabited. There were no fences. Ranchers would brand their cattle and turn them loose in the Spring to be rounded up in the Fall and herded down to winter pasture. No doubt this activity would have extended into the high country before snowfall, and by 1890 a few permanent settlers were established up the Penasco at least as far as Wills Canyon.
The first large scale migration into the high country was the result of the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad being built by Charles Eddy in 1897 to connect the mining boom town of White Oaks to El Paso. The railroad required water and timber for ties. The mountains were the obvious source of both. Consequently with the completion of the line to Cloudcroft in 1899 spurs began to spread into the remoter parts of the mountains. Russia was a busy logging camp by the turn of the century. (See The Cloud Climbing Railroad by Dorothy Jensen Neal)
Surveyors were busy shooting lines for new track and blocking off timber for harvesting. One of these was Ben Longwell who would later build a logging camp in Water Canyon and whose railroad bed would become part of the route by which astronomers would reach the new observatory on Sacramento Peak. The railroad would come down the Upper Penasco and a small logging camp named Marcia would first be built at 'the summit' (mile 6), then move down to Johnson Canyon (Davis Ranch site about 1915) and later (1919) to the site below Water Canyon.
This is how it was at the turn of the century. The formerly pristine Sacramento rim, long the sanctuary of elk, bear, turkey and puma, visited only by those who passed through with little trace, was about to give entrance to the settler's wagon and the rail, to be startled by the axeman's stroke and the locomotive's whistle and to gaze apprehensively upon builders, site seers and developers. In a few short years it would be changed forever, but not just yet. As the nineteenth century drew to a close there was still silence in the Sacramentos, still that luxurious lingering nodding before wakefulness. This is how it was when Shelby and Anna Davis first saw it but they wouldn't have noticed.
Bodie Davis was fourteen when his family moved from Devine TX to the New Mexico Territory. He left many cousins and friends behind in Texas but the move was necessary for the health of nine year old Douglas. Besides, several families had moved from the hill country to the mountains of southern New Mexico and the reports of the new land were good. Born William Dubose Davis, Bodie was the eldest of Shelby and Anna Davis' children. To him and twelve year old Lola would fall much responsibility as the move would require building a new home and life for the family.
There must have been a sense of anticipation and wonder for the youngsters as the family in two wagons left Medina County behind. Fifteen miles was a good day's travel so the trip would take two or three months. Some ingenuity would be called for to counter boredom. Travel then was harder work but at least you could put the kids out to walk when they got restless, and of course there were plenty of chores they could do. Somewhere along the way they celebrated Christmas with the birth of a brand new sister Genoa. (Nona Davis Caukins) Five-foot-eleven Anna Davis must have been of sturdy stock.
It was probably January, 1900 when they arrived in the Sacramentos and if so they would have found the mountains a busy place for the railroad had reached Toboggan Canyon and the Lodge in Cloudcroft had just opened. There was road of sorts down the rim from the old McNew place (Cloudcroft) - had been since the eighties - but the route via Mescalero was probably better for wagons. Since their original destination had been the `oasis' of La Luz that Shelby had heard so much about, their path may have been up Elk Canyon to Mescalero and then to Tularosa.
All the new industry probably had little effect on ranching except that the new town of Alamogordo afforded a closer point of supply for many Sacramento (and Penasco Valley in particular) ranchers; and it would prove a convenient place to spend Winters. Bodie's family were ranchers and while they settled initially in Box (Fresnal) Canyon, purchasing a small herd of goats and leasing a small house and orchard, his father was soon looking for a place to ranch. Meanwhile Bodie, Lola, Bert, and later Ivel and Dalton would start school at High Rolls. Doug's asthma would keep him at home unless it improved.
In 1902 Bodie's dad found a ranch he liked, the Flemming place over in Wills Canyon. He signed a promissory note on it that year trading a herd of goats and agreeing to pay a balance of $237.50 for 160 acres. He apparently moved the family to High Rolls so the kids could go to school, but Shelby went to Wills Canyon to improve the place and to start a herd. Nona Calkins says (Pioneer Families of Otero County, Vol ) that initially he moved there with one child who was sick and not expected to live (Doug) and that instead the child improved rapidly and was soon cured.
Bodie would have been out of school by then no doubt helped his dad on the ranch too. He probably made friends with a young man named John Waldrip, the son of neighbors James and Allie Waldrip. In 1908 the Davis family moved to Wills Canyon and in that year Bodie's sister Lola and John Waldrip were married.
In the year before, south of Alamogordo a man was shot in the thigh in a dispute over water. He was, it is said, repairing his hen house roof when the shot was fired. James Roney Fenimore was small of stature, only five feet seven and was a good natured likable man. His grand daughter (Frances Young) has described him as a peddler by instinct - always selling something. He and his brothers had come to New Mexico Territory from Arkansas by way of Oklahoma and he was `squatting' on land whose water rights had long been claimed by a local rancher. His wife Mary was pregnant at the time. That Winter while James was slowly recovering the family lived largely on rabbit stew. When daughter Virginia was born there was a birthmark on her thigh exactly where her father had been shot.
The Fenimore trail has been difficult to uncover. It is thought by some that they were in La Luz Canyon for a time but the 1910 census indicates that by then they were living at the head of the Penasco in what today is called Fenimore Canyon. At the time it was strictly ranch country; logging had been stopped by the new National Forest Service before reaching the Penasco. Later, their son James Otto would take over the ranch and also the mail route along the ridge and down the Penasco. He would carry mail by horseback in Summer and by sleigh in Winter. But it is James' sister Nell that we are interested in here. Nell, or Nellie Mae, was fourteen in 1908 when Bodie's family moved to the Penasco.
When or how she and Bodie met is not known. One story survives from their courtship that sheds light on the times and on their personalities. One rainy day in Alamogordo Nell and Bodie had gone to the movies (talkies) and were walking home together, Bodie leading his horse, when Nell felt her garter snap and her stocking, which came just above the knee, began to slip down. She tried to prevent it by keeping her legs together which only resulted in snapping the other one. By the time they reached her front porch both stockings were around her ankles. If Bodie noticed it he never said a word, but years later she and the girls would laugh about it.
Bodie and Nell were married June 6, 1915 and soon made their home on a small farm on the Penasco at the mouth of Cox Canyon, the site of present day Sivell's Camp. They raised potatoes and other vegetables and a few livestock. In September 1916 their first child, Frances Carley, was born at the Hefker home in Cloudcroft; Mrs. Hefker was a midwife. In 1918 Billy was born at the same place.
Farming was good in the Penasco valley but it was not what Bodie Davis wanted to do and he was working to build up a small herd of cattle. In 1920 he and two other men, John Waldrip his brother-in-law and John Haynes, decided to go to Arizona and try ranching. He sold the farm, shipped the livestock by rail to Globe, loaded all their belongings in a covered wagon and with the other two families set out for Arizona. Two months later about 60 miles from Globe the three families made camp under a bridge in their wagons and stayed there for two months while the men looked for a place to settle. Summers in Arizona then were like Summers today yet they endured this - something most of us cannot imagine today. You might call it ‘suffering’ but if helped make people what they became - just like today.
The trip took two months, and what is remembered by Frances today is not suffering but events that made it interesting. For example one day a little jila monster wondered into camp and after sufficiently impressing the children Nell captured it and, that night, put it in one of Bodie's boots. Next morning there was a little excitement when Bodie found it. He was not as amused as the rest were.
Another time Nell noticed something red in the mud of the road. Picking it up she found it to be a bandana and rolled inside were three twenty dollar bills, probably someone's life savings. Since Bodie would not spend any of the money they had because it was needed to make a start, this made a nice treat for Nell and helped pay expenses of the trip too.
Then there was the time when they forded the Salt River south of Phoenix. They had made camp for the night and when they were finished with the cooking fire they covered it with soil to keep until morning. Two year old Billy managed to walk through the hot coals burning his feet pretty badly. Nell had no medication for burns and so she improvised, making a paste of flour and water to cover the wounds. When it dried it caked so hard that she couldn't remove it and had to just let it wear off. The burns healed just fine though.
Unable to find suitable opportunity Bodie sold his cattle and, with the Hayneses, returned to New Mexico. The families must have arrived in late Summer of 1920. They were back in time for the census which shows them living on the Shelby Davis place and Frances remembers that there was no snow when they returned.
By 1920, logging had reached down the Penasco and into Wills Canyons. Benson Ridge had been logged and the rails extended down Penasco to Willie White Canyon and over the ridge into Wills. The logging company had just moved its rail camp from Johnson Canyon to below Water Canyon (Marcia) and the old site was for sale. Bodie bought it (about 20 acres) with its good spring water, putting down the money he had gotten for his cattle in Arizona and ‘working on section’ to pay off the rest. This was the beginning of what we know today as the Davis Ranch.
This is chapter three of the Davis Family series. The following is compiled from conversations with Frances Davis Young, daughter of Bodie and Nell Davis, her aunt the late Lora Fenimore, her sister-in-law Jean Murphy Davis, all of Alamogordo and Jacque Davis Day, Jean's daughter.
MAKING A START
In the census of 1920 Bodie and Nell Davis with two children and John and Lola (Bodie's sister) Waldrip with three children were living as renters on the Shelby Davis place. This census was taken in mid June so the families must have been preparing to leave for Arizona at the time. Frances remembers the trip taking six months so it must have been mid December when they returned, and moved into a boxcar near the track on their new ‘ranch’ at Johnson Canyon. Like 1999 it must have been a light Winter because Frances remembers there was no snow.
It wasn't really a ranch; there was no ranch house or barn or corrals. Instead it had been the site of a railroad camp (call it Marcia #2) which had moved the previous year to a little below the mouth of Water Canyon (site #3) some three miles down the Penasco, and all that remained in the little valley at the mouth of Johnson Canyon were several railroad cars in a double row along the track and a shop building. I have seen two pictures of Marcia #2, one looking south showing the track and cars in a book by Ray Hitchcock who grew up there and one that Phil Wiborg has looking up Johnson Canyon.
Bodie and Nell and the two small children spent that first winter in the railroad car while he worked on section for the railroad to pay off the land. In his spare time he converted the shop into a ranch house, closing up the large doors and dividing it into four rooms. It was not a large building as one might envision today, as locomotives were much smaller then, but it was certainly more room than a rail car. It was located just south (to the right) of the present house which was built in 1951 by Bill and Jean Davis.
The rail cars were also home for a time to Frank Jones, some Mexican families and to the family of George and Annie Brown. The Browns soon moved their large family down to a house at the base of Water Canyon and Frank Jones moved just above Marcia. He would later sell his brand to Bodie. The Browns would provide Frances and Billy with several playmates.
At that time there was also a camp in Rice Canyon (no trace today) and Nell started Frances, who was four, in school there but she was too young and had to stop. The next year the school at Marcia had opened and Frances and later Billy went to school there through the eighth grade. She remembers it as a two- teacher school with 30 or 40 pupils, which at some time was expanded from one room to two. Some teachers she remembers were Era Morris, Cleo Dowdle, Mr Bradley and Blanch Walker. Another who remembers the Marcia school is Ray Fenimore of Alamogordo, Frances' cousin.
Bodie would have been a busy man for some time with a house to finish, a herd to build, crops to plant (even ranchers had to plant some crops) and working section at the same time. When he had enough of a herd he stopped section work and began selling beef to the logging camp. When he would slaughter a beef Frances says, some of the Mexican men would come and collect the blood to drink and it seemed a very strange thing to a small girl.
When they were old enough (six or eight would do) Frances and Billy would ride to school together on Brownie, one of their four horses. There was a community barn at Marcia for such animals. Prince and Bill were the work team and Cruz and Brownie were the riding horses. The lumber train with empty flat cars passed their house every morning on its way to Marcia for the first load of the day. When the weather was bad they would wait by the track and the engineer Mr. Galloway would stop and give them a ride in the warm cabin between him and the brakeman.
The big Shay engine would have been an exciting ride for a couple of curious children. Built in Pennsylvania, it rode on three trucks of two axles each, and all six axles were driven by shafts having gears that meshed with teeth on the outer rims of the wheels. To negotiate the mountain curves (as much as thirty degrees) the drive shaft had universal joints to make it flexible and splines and sockets to make it extensible. The shafts were driven by three cylinder (six stroke) steam engines located between the first and second trucks.
Behind the cab and riding on the third truck, was the tender, a small car that carried the water supply for the boiler, and fuel (either coal or wood) for the fire box. Between the tender and the cab was a walkway that fireman Bill Moss would use to get fuel from the tender. It was his job to keep the fire box alive and to maintain the water level in the boiler. The latter he did by means of tri-cock valves positioned one above the other on the boiler wall. If the water level in the boiler was right the top valve should vent steam, the middle a mixture of steam and water and the bottom water only. If the bottom valve vented steam it meant get more water and fast! Sometimes there would also be a glass cylinder that registered the water level but the valves were more reliable. If the water level fell below the crown plate, a network of pipes that carried the hot exhaust gas through the boiler, the metal would overheat, soften and rupture and the boiler would explode. (Thanks to Phil Wyborg for help with this description.)
A TRIP IN WONDERLAND
On snowy mornings it must have been a treat to ride down the canyon in the warm cabin and look out at the silent snow, the strange shapes, the timbered slopes disappearing up into a veil of white on each side. Snowfall in the mountains is special; so quiet and the landscape blanketed in soft white seems like another world.
As the engine started to roll the long barn would glide by just up the hill on the right, shadowy through the snowy veil. This had once been a stable, I believe, and may at some time have been converted into living quarters for two families. Folks' recollections are a little vague on this point. Past the long barn the rails curved left across the mouth of Rice canyon to follow the left side of the valley just as the road does today.
The Ranger Station was next - the ranger was Gus Work - then on the right was the Brown place. Here Mr. Galloway would stop again to pick up Opal, Bud (John David), Shorty (Doris) and maybe Top Brown. There was a full load huddled around the fire box when he reached Marcia - and how did they do it without seat belts?.
Just behind the Brown place was the mouth of Water canyon and curving down from it was the spur from the Longwell logging camp a mile or so up. More schoolmates could be seen walking down the spur, some balancing on the rails. They may have included Edith Haught (now Roach) and her brother Wesley. If you would like a fine description of life in a logging camp read Edith's account in "Things Remembered in Otero County".
Then the buildings of Marcia would be sliding by; a few houses, then the commissary on the right, then the community barn, then another row of smaller section crew houses. On the left across from the crew houses was the cook shack where Abe's wife Flossie held forth with good food and good humor. For a time the cook shack provided employment for grandma and grandpa Fenimore. Jacque (Davis) Day says;
As the cook shack passed Mr Galloay was already slowing down the big Shay to stop at the water tank on the left; across from it and beyond was the large shop building. Across from the shop was the little school house where the teacher was waiting to 'take up books'.
Frances tells of one incident at the school that involved Billy and Mrs. Morris. One little girl, Angela, had caught Billy's eye (or maybe it was the other way around), and one day as she was walking by his desk, he put out his foot intending to trip her but instead caught the hem of her dress. "Mrs. Morris, he just pulled up my dress", she exclaimed. "Billy, what did you do that for?", the teacher said with a frown and a laugh. Billy would have crawled into the desk if he could.
The little school at Marcia was responsible for starting a lot of youngsters on the right track, Frances and Billy Davis included. However Billy's most important training came from watching his dad who was a good father and businessman as well as a good rancher. Frances says;
Billy learned about livestock of course but he also learned about ranch management; he might not have recognized it by that name but a ranch is a business and it doesn't succeed by itself. He learned to be resourceful as he watched his father ‘work on section’ or butcher beef to sell to the railroad. He would have helped Bodie plant and cultivate vegetables in the little patch above Marcia. Bodie's goal was to be a rancher and he was willing to take whatever work was available to reach it. Ranching in the mountains then, as now, was often a borderline affair - not much margin for profit - and the extra cash could often make the difference. Later Billy would do the same thing. Bodie's good business sense and his generosity would come back more than once.
Frances remembers many of the Marcia residents too. Abel Zekefoos was a brakeman and his wife Flossie, "a big floosy blond, noisy and loveable" ran the cook house. Dr. Shields and his wife Nelly were there too, and later moved to Weed. Saturday nights there were dances at school house and sometimes fights afterward. Sunday mornings there was preaching if there was a preacher. The first regular preacher was a Mr. Deering from Mayhill, who would drive up after his service there.
They always had a car and you could drive by car down the Penasco to Mayhill and to Cloudcroft along the ridge or up Cox Canyon as long as Frances remembers but the favored mode of transportation by far was horseback. Kids would ride into Cloudcroft for the rodeo on Friday and if they didn't have a place to stay could sleep in the school gym. On the way to Cloudcroft along the ridge she remembers that the road passed grandpa Fenimore's house (mile 7), then the Carner place at the summit (mile 5), then came Russia Camp after which it left the RR, went down Hudman Hill passing two ranches; Earl and Bessie Hudman (Mauter place today) and Henry and Maggie Talley (present Aspendale Ranch). Below Talley's it joined the road up Cox Canyon and into the village.
Lora Fenimore, who had been orphaned and was raised by the Talleys, told of one time when she and Frances were on their way to a dance in Cloudcroft on horseback. In front of the Talley place there was a gate in the fence and a bridge over the creek. Trying to open the gate without dismounting, Frances managed to back her horse off the bridge. Both tumbled into the mud below, the horse on top of her. While Lora rushed for the Talley house yelling for help the horse rolled over and Frances, apparently spared by the soft mud, found she was unhurt. By the time Lora returned with help she was up again but they had to borrow a dress for her from the Talleys.
LIFE TAKES A TURN
“The snow was much higher then”, Frances says and in Winter they would move the cattle down the west slopes via Atkinson Canyon to Alamo Canyon for the Winter, and many would move themselves as well to Alamogordo or Tularosa for the milder Winter. The Davis family always spent some time in Hot Springs; the healing properties of the water there were the best relief Bodie could find for his rheumatism. The trip to Hot Springs was made via Rhodes Canyon, now closed to the public by the White Sands Missile Range.
In 1928 Tommy was born; there had been another child, a little girl, and the Marcia cemetery bears the grave (unmarked) of Anna Belle, who died of pneumonia at three months. There is also an unmarked grave of a cousin there, the child of James and Lora Fenimore. Nellie's brother James Otto Fenimore returned from Arizona in 1929 to live in the house his father had built in Fenimore Canyon (this may be when grandpa and grandma Fenimore moved to Marcia to take over the cook shack). James had gone to Arizona prior to 1920 and there married Lora Ferris, also from the Cloudcroft area on January 8, 1920.
In September of 1931 Nell and the children as usual moved down to Alamogordo but Bodie stayed in the mountains to take care of his crops. It was a rainy Fall and he got sick and had to be brought down in a buckboard. By the time he reached the hospital he had pneumonia. He lingered for a month before he died. Frances was 15, Billy 13 and Tommy just three. The family was devastated; Nellie wanted to get back to the mountains as soon as possible - needed to. For most of a year, Frances recalls, she seemed to be in shock - "Bodie, I wanted to go with you!". Anne Brown was a comfort to Nellie during that year.
In the year that followed banks closed, the cattle market collapsed and there was no rain and no grass. Nellie and the kids spent much of the Winter of 1932/1933 in a little log house in Alamo Canyon and gathering sotol and burning spines off cactus to feed the cattle. Then the herd brought only $8 a head. The
government eventually paid ranchers to slaughter their cattle. The CCC set up a camp at Marcia, using the school house as a dormitory and at 14 Billy found work with the WPA.
In the Fall of 1932 Nelly and the kids moved down to Alamogordo and for the second time Frances started her sophomore year. Three months later she contracted typhoid fever and spent six weeks in the hospital, followed by three months recovery during which she had to learn to walk again. They moved to High Rolls in the Spring where they lived in Cottage Row, a row of small cabins that had been built about the turn of the century for tuberculosis patients, and which had not been used for several years. Years later Frances would contract tuberculosis of the kidney and always wonder if there was a connection.
One day at the hospital Nellie was handed the bill; it was more than she could take. She broke into tears and Dr. Evans overhearing, asked what was wrong. When he learned of her plight, he told the administrator that Nelly would pay the following year after the stock were sold. Frances never forgot that kindness. Dr. Evans' son Fred still lives in Alamogordo.
In the Fall of 1933 Frances would start her sophomore year for the third time and this time she finished. In the Fall of 1934 Nellie bought a small house on the corner of 8th and Florida in Alamogordo. Billy, now 16, ran the ranch with help from uncle Bert. Frances went to school that year (junior year) in Weed, staying with a family who had owed a debt to Bodie. Tommy, 6, started school in Alamogordo.
By the following year Billy was able to handle the ranch alone and Frances finished school in Alamogordo. Nell and Tommy still came to the mountains in Summer, but for Frances it was a goodbye of sorts. Upon graduation she went to work in the County Agent's office and soon after would meet and marry a handsome young feed salesman named Claude Young and they would live for fifteen years in Clovis before returning to Alamogordo.
Although there were hardships growing up on the Upper Penasco her recollections of life on the Davis Ranch are anything but bitter. Life in those days came with hardships; one expected them, didn't welcome them but learned to meet them. Life on the ranch continued in this way until January 1939 when Bill brought his new bride, Jean Murphy, to live there, and so began a new chapter for the Davis Ranch as it was known to the early Sunspotters.
This article brings the Davis family up to the present as I have come to know them. Most of the information comes from Jean Davis and Frances Young, both of Alamogordo.
AN UPPER PENASCO RANCHER
William Irwin Davis on May 28, 1918 at the Hefker home in Cloudcroft. Mrs. Hefker was a midwife and Nellie Davis, as with Bill's sister two years before, had gone there to stay for the birth. At the time Bodie and Nellie Davis and two year old Frances were living on a small ranch on the Penasco River at the mouth of Cox Canyon (the present site of Sivell's church Camp). Four miles farther up and in Wills Canyon, a tributary to the Penasco, lived Bill's grandpa and grandma Shelby and Anna Davis where they had settled in 1908. The maternal grandparents, James and Fannie Fenimore, were about fifteen miles farther up the Penasco near mile eight on what today is the Sunspot highway.
When Bill was two the family left the place near Cox Canyon, shipped their cattle by rail to Arizona and, together with two other families, followed by wagon with the intention of setting up ranching there. However, after two months without finding suitable land they sold the cattle, returned to the Penasco and bought twenty acres of land at the mouth of Johnson Canyon. That was in 1920. Twenty acres may not sound like much of a ranch, but with the land came grazing rights to National Forest land, the real asset. When one bought a ‘ranch’ what one really bought was the brand and the grazing rights assigned to it.
There they stayed and there Frances and Billy, (he was Billy then) and later Tommy, would grow up. It would be a relatively short growing period for when Frances and Billy were in their teens Bodie would take pneumonia and in a short time be dead. The measure of their growth would then be tested, but first lets look at those eleven years.
Three miles down the Penasco from the Davis "ranch" in 1920 was the new railroad camp of Marcia, just past the mouth of Water Canyon. It had shops where the engines were maintained, a cook shack and eventually a school house, a mercantile and about twenty houses, most of which had been railroad cars in an earlier life. Up Water Canyon was the Longwell lumber camp, named for Ben Longwell who I am told had surveyed the area. A rail spur ran up to it from Marcia. There was a lumber camp in Rice Canyon too and it had a school (Billy's sister Frances remembers it), but today there is no trace and I have not as yet been able to learn more.
The appearance of camps in the mountains was paced by the progress of logging. Logging was halted in 1908 by a lawsuit brought by the Forest Service and no new camps or tracks extended beyond Russia at that time. In 1912 when New Mexico gained statehood, logging began once more. At that time a rail spur was run down the Penasco, probably to the (now) Davis Spring, and eventually a rail camp would be built there. The spur up Rice Canyon probably would have followed, and then Water Canyon, then Marcia Camp and later Willie White Canyon.
Ranching and farming in the mountains proceeded, and was independent of, the railroads or logging. Both had been active in the lower Penasco valley since the 1860s but settlement of the upper Penasco seems to have been scant before 1880. The Lincoln County census of 1880 listed thirteen households on the Rio Penasco, but that count seems to have been confined to James Canyon. At the time the southern Sacramentos were in Dona Ana County but census takers from Las Cruces seem to have been reluctant to leave the Rio Grande Valley and some names almost certain to have been here then cannot be found.
The 1880 list included Tom Tillotson, Albert Coe and John James, who with others built the road from the rim, near present Cloudcroft, down Fresnal Creek in 1881 [Eidenbach in "Things Remembered, Otero County", p87]. That road might have been followed by Billy's grandpa, Shelby Davis, in 1898 when he came from Devine TX to settle in Fresnal Canyon.
On the Upper Penasco (that portion above the mouth of Cox Canyon) there were probably few homesteads in 1880. One was that of John McQuarter Flemming of San Saba County TX, who is said (Otero County Pioneer Family Histories, Vol 1 p. 184) to have settled in Wills Canyon in 1863 and two of whose children were born there in 1864 and 68. It was his place that that Shelby Davis bought in 1903 after it had passed to his son Tom Flemming. Tom seems to have raised his family mostly in San Saba County TX and to have come back to the Penasco to take over the ranch from his father, but soon moved to Weed to open a mercantile.
In winter there wasn't enough grass in the high country to sustain livestock - still isn't - and ranchers took their cattle below to winter pasture. For Billy's dad this was Alamo Canyon and from the time Billy was a shaver he went along. Bodie and George Brown would drive their cattle together via Atkinson Canyon to West Side Road where they would divide, George going south to the Rincon and Bodie to Alamo. Any cattle to be sold would have to be driven to Tularosa to be weighed as that was the nearest scale. In Spring the cattle would be rounded up for branding, then driven back to the mountain by the same route. A six year old on a horse could be a lot of help on a drive like that and feel like he'd done a man's work.
In Fall after the cattle were moved down the family would often go on to Hot Springs where the mineral baths were a relief for rheumatism (Bodie was always troubled by it) or whatever else ailed. Frances and Billy would start school in Hot Springs or Alamogordo, depending on the schedule, but in the Spring they would transfer back to the school at Marcia.
Life was good then. From a distance it's easy to be nostalgic but I've talked to no one who hasn't said life in those days really was good. To be sure it was more basic and the approach to it more pragmatic, often punctuated by a sense of focus, the result of some crisis. There were risks of course and, by today's standards, inconveniences but, as those who hike or backpack in the wilderness today know, nature is unforgiving of mistakes and one learns to live by her rules. As for the inconveniences - who noticed?
Evenings families often spent together in the same room (the one with the stove), and they talked; talking today is a lost art. They would talk about someone's new calf or new baby or dress or saddle, about who had measles or appendicitis, about what happened that day in the village or in the pasture or down at the roundhouse. They might chuckle about Jimmy running from that 'little bit wild' cow and hitting his head on that low board over the gate, or worry about how Mr. Galloway would get along after losing a leg in that train accident up at Russia. Library cards were important too and many people received newspapers from ‘back home’ and would read them cover-to-cover - and talk about that. Children grew up listening to such talk and related to it.
‘Singings’ on Friday or Saturday night were a popular activity. Robin (Davis) Fesmire tells how folks from all around would gather at someone's home and sing songs. These singings were advertised by word of mouth. Some would bring instruments, some pies or cakes and others just their voices. The music was mostly folk songs and western ballads, and definitely bluegrass. There was often a Scottish or Irish flavor; many of the settlers in the southern part of the Sacramentos were Scots. In later years Bill Davis played the guitar and kept a book of ballads that he loved to sing. Such singings, I am told, still take place in some parts of the mountains.
One popular musician was Clarence Weems; the Weems were an old pioneer family down the Penasco near Weed (a spring there still bears the name). Isabel Weems married Homer Davis, Billy's youngest uncle and they lived on the old (Shelby Davis) home place in Wills Canyon until their deaths. But this is about Clarence; he was blind and played the fiddle and was widely loved. He graduated from the School for the Blind in Alamogordo where he learned to tune pianos and would ride with Billy's future son-in-law, a young Kieth Clements, to piano tuning jobs on ranches throughout the county. Without his eyes Clarence could remove and replace any part in the piano. He married Claudia (don't yet have her maiden name) and they had a lovely little daughter whom they lost when she was run over by a milk wagon in Alamogordo. "After that they moved to San Francisco where they adopted and raised many children. They were kind people and their story would make a fine book." [Frances Young!]
Another family that produced much music was that of Anna Mae (Davis) Ehart. She was the youngest of Shelby and Anna's children and just a few years older than Frances and Billy. She married Tom Ehart from another Penasco pioneer family and had a lot of children all of whom played music.
During the week work kept everyone busy. Men and women alike began the day before sunup as a rule and finished at sundown. In the evenings before electricity came, everything had to be done by the light of a kerosene lamp and the school children usually had that to do their homework by. When mama and papa sat down at day's end, more often than not it was to mend some item to be used next day.
A TURN IN THE ROAD
Such is how Billy grew up, at least until November of 1931. Billy was thirteen when his father died in the hospital at Alamogordo. Nellie took the family immediately back to the mountains. Frances and Billy did not return to school that year. In fact Billy, who had finished the eighth grade (all they had at Marcia), had seen his last school room. To go farther would mean going into town and there was work to do now.
In the Spring uncle Bert (Davis), helped with the ranch. He and Billy brought the cattle up from Winter pasture with uncle Homer's (Davis). But it was a dry Spring - followed by a dry Summer. Eventually the government paid ranchers eight dollars a head to slaughter their stock. Because of the drought the WPA came in and Billy at fourteen got a job with them. Logging was on the decline and people were leaving the mountains. The CCC took over the old school house in Marcia for use as a dormitory.
By 1935 Nellie had bought a house on Eighth St. in Alamogordo and spent most of the year there for young Tommy to go to school. In Summer she and Tommy would move up to the ranch. Billy remained on the ranch, especially while the cattle were in the mountains, but in the Winter would still move down to Nellie's where presently he began to work for an old friend, Buster Lane, whom he had gone to school with at Marcia and who now had a plumbing business in Alamogordo. This not only added to the income from the ranch but meant Billy spent more time in town. One day, after work, he came in the back door to find a young lady borrowing a cup of sugar from Nellie. She was Jean Murphy and naturally she was the prettiest sight Billy had ever laid eyes on.
They became acquainted and then began to spend more time together. Friday evenings often found them with a group down at Alameda Park where Billy would play his guitar and they would sing ballads. Most of them went to the same church which increased their chances to socialize. On Jan 19, 1939 Bill and Jean were married and that Spring began life together on the Davis ranch. For the next eleven years they lived in the house that Billy had grown up in and that had once been a RR shop.
A RANCHER'S WIFE
Jean wasn't exactly a stranger to the mountains; she had known the Browns for a long time and used to visit them in Summers at their ranch at the mouth of Water Canyon. They were a happy family with a bunch of kids and Jean always loved a chance to visit them. She remembers going there once to stay for a week. They had biscuits and beans every meal. Then George brought in a barrel of molasses one day; it was like a birthday party. The kids ate all those molasses.
The Browns had hens of course and there were always little chicks running in and out (few houses had screen doors in those days). It was customary to waste nothing so table scraps all went into a ‘slop bucket’ and what the dogs and cats didn't eat was fed to the hogs. One day the kids found that a little chick had fallen into the slop bucket and drowned. Someone suggested they ought to have a funeral. So they fished it out, cleaned it up and, carrying it on a board, all went in solemn procession up the hill to hold a burial. Then one of the older boys brought out a marker for the grave on which he had written;
Here lies chick Brown.
When Bill (here is probably a good place to start calling him by the name known to Sunspotters) and Jean married one thing she didn't know a lot about was living on your own in the mountains. For example she didn't know how to make scratch biscuits and Bill had to teach her. She learned about neighboring in the mountains when Bill came in one day and said the Talleys, a young couple at the house down by the long barn, had a new baby and that maybe Jean ought to take some food down and maybe help her with the baby. After that Jean often went down in the mornings to help out.
Jean also had never been alone at night so when as occasionally happened, it was necessary for Bill to be away over night working the cattle somewhere in the mountains, she had to get by as best she could. Once she was awakened by an unfamiliar noise in the yard - a kind of moaning and grunting sound. Nervous, she went to the window and peered out to see an apparition, a willowy whitish object that swayed back and forth and bounced up and down, all the while making these sounds. Suddenly it bounced across the yard and into the pasture where if disappeared. Not about to go out to see, Jean waited until morning, when she discovered in the pasture one of her dresses from the clothes line and tracks that told the tale. Seems a bull had walked under the line, hooked the dress sleeves on his horns and then with his face covered spent a desperate few minutes trying to get rid of the darn thing.
Another time, when Bill was home, Jean awoke to the dog's growling and decided to check on it without waking him. The door was Dutch and in gown and slippers she just opened the bottom half, bent down and went out on the porch and assuming it to be raccoons, without straightening up began looking under the lilac bushes along the porch. Then she heard a grunt and turned and stood up to find herself facing a large black bear standing full height on the other end of the porch, almost between her and the door.
Now she knew bears were generally bashful and more curious than aggressive, but her dilemma was how to keep from waking Bill because he would never let her live it down, but she couldn't be sure about that bear's mood either. She cast a glance at the car which was just off this end of the porch - no she'd be safe enough there but sooner or later Bill would realize she was gone - that wouldn't do. Finally she decided to make a dash for the door and succeeded without arousing the bear, but after that she used both halves of the door.
GROWING FAMILY AND NEW NEIGHBORS
In 1940 a daughter Jacque was born. In 1944 a second daughter Jeanelle was born. Bill decided if he was going to have girls working the ranch they would have to have boy's names so he called them Jack and Frank. Then in 1945 Linda was born and she became George. The girls made ranch hands as good as boys. In 1951, with their growing family Bill and Jean decided it was time to build a new house (the present one) and took down the old ‘railroad shop’ that had seen so much change in the valley. Jean still has a model of the front porch made from wood taken from the old house. Also in 1951 grandpa Shelby Davis died in his nineties in Alamogordo. Times were changing.
In 1948 the decision to set up a solar observatory on Sacramento Peak had brought more change as the Davis Ranch became an important stop to those hearty souls who spent the first Winters there.
In 1957 when the last daughter Robin came along she became Sam and with her sisters rapidly growing up she would often find herself the lone hand. Usually though, there was help because Jean's youngest brother Dave Woods was spending Summers with them and kids from the observatory were often around.
One ‘hand’ was Wayne Evans, the son of Dr. Jack Evans the director of the Observatory at Sunspot. Wayne decided one Spring that he was going to be a cowboy and hence didn't need any more schooling. As a result his grades soon began to reflect his interests. One day Jack and Betty Evans showed up at the ranch with some daiquiri mix and a proposition; if Bill would let Wayne work cattle that Spring, on strict condition that his grades improve, he could have the daiquiri mix. Wayne moved in and one Summer was enough to solve the problem with the help of some phonics practice on the side. Wayne made a top hand and his grades improved too so that he eventually got his Ph.D. in wildlife science.
Wayne learned from ‘Jack’, ‘Frank’ and ‘George’ too. The girls collectively inherited their dad's penchant for practical jokes. Once they discovered that he didn't know about spinning around and then blowing on your thumb. Naturally they had to teach him and all had a good laugh while he was waking up.
The observatory provided work for the Davis family too. Jeanelle often baby sat for Dr. Dennison who would then give her a history quiz and homework assignment to read before the next time. Both Linda and Jeanelle worked for NSO in the 60's and Bill himself was the observer at the Big Dome in charge of the flare patrol from about 1960 to 1979.
You can get in touch with the author, James Mason, by email - jmason@sunspot. noao.edu.