Oasis turns fifty

Fifty years ago this week, Alexander's New Mexico Drug in Portales was gearing up for the "cough 'n' cold season" with a special on electric blankets — $12.95.

Food Town — "in the beautiful new Sands Shopping Center" — had coffee for 59 cents a pound. "Homegrown yams" were two pounds for a dollar.

Photo by Gordon Greaves, courtesy of Tish McDaniel

A group of Campfire girls enjoy the campfire pit and Oasis pond during the early 1970s in this view of the park looking west. The group shelter is barely visible in the middle of the photo, and the flagpole stands near the present-day visitor center.

But the front page of the Portales News-Tribune that week trumpeted the biggest news. In conjunction with the 50th anniversary of New Mexico's statehood, the newest member of the state park system, Oasis, was set for its official dedication.

Next Sunday, on its 50th birthday, Oasis State Park will be re-dedicated with a slate of festivities, according to Jim Whary, park manager since 1997.

Whary hopes to release a schedule of events soon, but he and the State Parks Division of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department will be hard-pressed to come up with a celebration that matches the original dedication event.

Photo by Judy Greaves Rainger

Sand surfing on the tall bare dunes was a popular pasttime for park visitors during the early years. This photo, taken in the mid-1970s, was a typical scene at Oasis.

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Reports in both the Clovis News-Journal and Portales News-Tribune estimated the crowd on Oct. 7, 1962, at 2,000. New Mexico Gov. Edwin Mechem gave the keynote address, and the Portales High School band, under the direction of John Bealmer, played "The Star Spangled Banner" on what both papers reported was an unusually beautiful fall Sunday.

The slate of other officials present included Lt. Gov. Tom Bolack, Clovis Mayor Ted Waldhauser, Portales Mayor Heck Harris, Cannon Air Force Base Commander Col. Peter Markham, ENMU President Donald Moyers and New Mexico State Park Superintendent Eastburn Smith.

Longtime PHS agriculture teacher Parker Woodul headed up the program, and served as master of ceremonies. His son, Jim, who now lives near Houston, was 13 at the time.

Jim Woodul said last week he attended the dedication 50 years ago with his father, but noted that "my memories are of bailing from the ceremonies to sand-hill surf and dig sand caves with Zale Woodward."

  • • •

Pioneer Will Taylor is credited with planting the original cottonwood trees around 1901 when the water table hovered close enough to the surface that it was possible to find a low spot and easily dig to it, Whary said.

For more than half a century, the area was called Taylor's Grove. The combination of bare sand dunes and the shade of the cottonwoods made it a popular destination for locals.

The idea of turning it into a state park is credited to James Downey, manager of the Chamber of Commerce at the time, according to "The Story of a State Park: The History of Oasis State Park," compiled in 1999 by volunteer park hosts Al and Jean Brookover.

In his memoirs of the park's beginnings, Downey wrote that "as a native from the State of Missouri, both my wife and I had been fascinated by the sand hills located in Taylor's Grove. I pointed out that the sand hills at Taylor's Grove were a most unusual sight to tourists from the Midwest and West."

By mid-century the land was owned by longtime area rancher Eddie White, according to Downey. An arrangement was made to buy 160 acres from White for $30 an acre.

White's daughter, Ruth White Burns, who lives in Clovis today, said, "Papa sold it mainly to protect it. People were building fires against the big cottonwood trees."

White also relinquished a state lease on 33 adjoining acres for the new recreation area, according to Downey's notes.

  • • •

Legislation to establish New Mexico's eighth state park was carried through Santa Fe by state Sen. R.C. "Ike" Morgan, and state Rep. Fred Boone. Morgan's daughter, Joy Best of Floyd, said recently that her father "always had a special place in his heart for the park," sharing numerous outings there with his grandchildren.

In an article called "Oasis of the Plains" from the June/July 1962 issue of New Mexico Magazine, Downey described the soon-to-be opened park as "the typical tourist image of the Southwest, complete with golden brown hills as light and fluffy as Pillsbury Pancake Mix."

Ed Fenton was appointed caretaker/custodian of the park in July 1961, according to the Portales News-Tribune, and a year later he was named the park's first manager, a position he held until 1976.

"Oasis meant everything to my dad," said Fenton's daughter, Sondra Fenton Kinsey, who now lives in California. "He ran the park with honesty and integrity. He turned it into a nice, clean place where families could go for a picnic or a week's stay."

Fenton's familiar sidekick, "Baron," a German shepherd mix, was a popular fixture at the park from its opening days, his daughter remembers. Fenton could "put Baron through his paces with various hand signals," and the duo often performed for park visitors.

Kinsey said the dog was featured in the Portales News-Tribune on numerous occasions, and was frequently mentioned by visitors.

Gordon Greaves, editor of the News-Tribune, was an early and staunch supporter of Oasis State Park, writing many of his "By the Way" columns about it, and using the park for numerous photo opportunities and editorials during the 25 years he covered it.

His daughter, Tish McDaniel, who works for The Nature Conservancy out of Clovis, said her father loved Oasis, a devotion he passed on to her.

"This is still one of my favorite parks," McDaniel said.

Whary said he happily assumed the manager role nearly 19 years ago after retiring from the U.S. Army and moving to eastern New Mexico from the Washington, DC, area.

"Working at Oasis is what I've always called a little boy's dream," Whary said.

Come February, he'll dig into a bowl of Boy Scout mulligan stew, again sharing a tradition with one of the many groups who have regularly used Oasis for special events.

  • • •

In the last five decades, Oasis has changed significantly. The wind-sculpted sandhills that lured out legions of sand surfers are shorter now, and mostly covered with native vegetation.

While many of Taylor's towering cottonwoods are gone — victims of age, numerous droughts, and a sinking water table — the park has elms, locusts and willows, and is home to thickets of sandhill plums and sumacs, making it a natural bird refuge.

Photo provided by Trish Fenton

Oasis State Park's first park manager, Ed Fenton, and his dog Baron were familiar long-time guardians of the park.

Dedicated bird watchers have identified more than 200 species within the park boundaries, Whary said.

The playa that Will Taylor knew was turned into a lined pond in 1971, Whary said, and enlarged during 1979 and 1980 to its present three-acre size.

Fishing, one of the most popular draws, is supported by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, which stocks the pond with channel catfish each summer and rainbow trout each winter.

"Jim Whary runs a jewel of a state park with camping sites and a small fishing lake," said Barney Francis, a retired Clovis firefighter and regular at the Oasis lakeside. "He has introduced annual fishing clinics. I love 'hooking' kids into the joy and skills of fishing."

Besides the fishing clinics, Oasis State Park and its support group, Friends of Oasis, host numerous events, attracting crowds to stargaze, listen to local musicians, and participate in outdoor education programs led by park technician Valerie Russ, who is also an interpretive ranger.

A modern shaded playground and 23 well-maintained campsites are regularly used, especially in summer months, according to Bennie Dennis and Norma Davis, full-time RV-ers who are in the middle of a six-month session as volunteer park hosts. This is their seventh season to serve at Oasis.

"Our main reason for being here is to help keep the park clean and make sure people have a safe, enjoyable stay," Dennis said. "We are the eyes and ears after quitting time."

Whary estimates park visitors today are about "50 percent local and 50 percent out of the area." The guest book last week included signatures from as nearby as Portales and as far away as the Netherlands.

Twenty members of the ENMU cross country team had run through for a visit.

The leaves on Will Taylor's cottonwoods are turning gold, as they have each year for more than a century, adding a touch of color to a park that has been the backdrop of many memories in eastern New Mexico.

"If you've been here a while," reminisces Francis, "you have hidden in your drawer or shoebox pictures of your kids or grandkids fishing, picnicking and relaxing at Oasis."

Asked what brings her back to Oasis year after year for multi-month stays, park host Davis said, "We love this small park because Jim Whary, Valerie Russ and (park technician) James Williams are the greatest folks in the world to work with. There is always something happening here, and we are included."

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