By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor
Eastern New Mexico State Park No. 5 is almost forgotten, but an Eastern New Mexico University graduate student believes its history is an important link to the area’s past and the recreation residents enjoyed 70 years ago.
The state park was located on land that now belongs to ENMU, between the present-day site of Greyhound Stadium and the Blackwater Draw Museum. According to newspaper reports from the time, construction on the park was started in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps., a federal work relief program introduced by President Roosevelt as a part of his New Deal.
Paul (Chip) Lemaster, an ENMU graduate student from West Virginia, has been studying the park and its history for the last year, with plans to complete a thesis by the end of the fall semester. His studies are in anthropology and applied anthropology with a focus on historic anthropology. What he is learning shows that the property has a long and varied history.
“At one time it was a major focal point for the two communities of Portales and Clovis,” Lemaster said. “The whole property seems to be forgotten (today).”
Lemaster says the feature of the park was a swimming hole that measured 600 feet by 900 feet. CCC constructed a bathhouse and caretaker’s house from adobe and native flagstone to serve the park. Those structures survive today, though the remains of the bathhouse are mostly just the walls.
According to newspaper reports, the swimming hole was the site of several water festivals. Besides swimming in the unlined pond, boating, fishing, picnicking and other activities were allowed at the park.
Another CCC project planted 12,000 trees on the property around 1935.
Despite its apparent popularity, Lemaster says the swimming hole only operated from 1936 to 1942. It fell into disrepair after a windstorm in 1940 took out the 30-foot-tall pump tower and adobe pump house. According to reports in the Portales Daily News, the structures had been undermined by cave-ins under the surface of the pond, caused by pumping.
“It was really pumped up (by newspaper reports) the whole time it was there, then it was gone,” Lemaster said of the park.
The grad student says that New Mexico State Parks only has park operation records from 1936 to 1940. Lemaster says that aerial photos dated in the early 1950s show water must have remained in the pond for a long time, though.
Even though its life as a state park had ended quickly, its rich history had just begun, according to Lemaster. With World War II looming, ENMU petitioned the Legislature to use the property for training federal civilian pilots. In 1940 a flight line and a metal hangar were constructed. In 1942, it was changed to a Navy program for beginning, intermediate and advanced flight training. By 1943, its status had changed again, this time to an Army Air Corps long-distance program.
Lemaster believes most of the trees were removed to build the flight line, with the two structures and the pond remaining.
The New Mexico Legislature deeded the property to ENMU in 1951, and the stadium and museum were eventually built in the late 1960s. ENMU deeded part of the 400-acre property to the state transportation department to construct the roadside park that exists today.
Lemaster says part of the goal of his thesis study is to get the site placed on the National Historic Register. Doing that will require a complete inventory of the site and more interpretive research, including talking to people who remember the park or people who might have photos or documents from the time it was in operation.
“It’s not necessarily that we want to save everything that is historical,” Lemaster said. “But we need to save a representative part.”
Lemaster realizes there are two camps of thought on the property. Some see the old structures as an eyesore and some say they should be preserved. He says he’s just hoping to bring about a compromise.
John Montgomery, ENMU professor of anthropology and one of the professors overseeing Lemaster’s studies, says the work could provide an important link to the area’s history under the New Deal. He says he can point out the need for that quickly to most people, simply by asking them what they know about that subject — which is usually nothing, he says.
“Most people wouldn’t consider it important until you tell them about it,” Montgomery said.
“In order to provide that sense of history we need people like Paul to document these things before they’re lost,” he said.
Lemaster says he would welcome contact from anyone with more information about the site, in particular the water festivals or people who personally took flight training there. He can be contacted at 562-4191 or 356-6391 or by e-mailing him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.