Imagination helps rebuild Portales Springs

By Karl Terry: PNT managing editor

I’ve grown up knowing that the city of Portales was named for Portales Springs. But I’ve always had trouble believing that there was a time, not too long ago, when springs bubbled to the surface on the eastern New Mexico plains.

I remember old-timers saying after prolonged rains that — “maybe, if it keeps this up, the springs will recharge and come back.” It seemed a little far-fetched to me, though.

But my grandmother’s father brought his family to the Arch area to live in a half dugout because the water in the area was shallow and it was good water, according to tapes she made of coming to this area. There had to have been some hope that brought them to put roots down here. Easily accessible water in this parched land was a good reason.

A trip this week out to Portales Springs with Ruth Burns and her son Mike helped me get my mind around why people would have stopped here, but it still takes a lot of imagination.

Growing up, Art Jones owned the land where the springs was located, and I knew pretty early in my life that was where they were located. From the road you could see the white outcrops, but I’d never had the chance to go explore them closer and I didn’t have the knowledge of the places history assembled well enough for it to mean anything to me.

I thought it was pretty cool that Jones was raising what he called the “American Breed” on that ranch, a bison and beef cross that people referred to as beefalo. The place’s past escaped me.

Standing on top of the bluffs this week, it was a lot easier to see, in my mind, the lake that was once below the caves, the buffalo and antelope that frequented it, and the Indians that stalked them.

It was easy to imagine a tired, dusty cowboy stopping at the springs to water his horse in the heat of the day. Crawling up inside the caves out of the tormenting sun, he could stretch out for a siesta before resuming his work on horseback.

You have to use your imagination to erase the caliche pit and electrical substation to the north of the springs. You use it again to wipe away the fenceline, powerlines and graded road to the west. Close your eyes for a second and reopen them and the farm houses with trees set out by tough and tenacious sodbusters are gone.

The lake starts to appear and you hear the trickle from the springs. Suddenly the buffalo are there by the thousands on the plains near the lake, moving like brown waves on an ocean of golden prairie grass.

Just knowing the history better helped me experience a place I’ve known all my life in a much different and deeper way.

I’m grateful for people like Ruth Burns, who take on the task of interpreting that history so we can all understand and better appreciate what’s around us.

Karl Terry is managing editor for the Portales News-Tribune. He can be contacted at 356-4483, ext. 33. His e-mail address is: