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Sunday, September 19, 1999
Pioneers Fought Dust & Hardship
By Fritz Thompson
Journal Staff Writer
In the summer of 1902, wanderlust seized J. Walter Moncus and wouldn't let go. He loaded his wife, Laura Isabel Carter Moncus, and their infant son, Herman, into a couple of covered wagons and headed northwest from south Texas, planning to wind up in Arizona. He hoped to homestead, do a little dry-land farming, raise some livestock, get a flock of chickens, maybe open a general store somewhere near present-day Phoenix.
"My grandmother didn't want to go," says Lynn Moncus, who has a hefty and now-typewritten manuscript that Isabel left in longhand as legacy to the family's sojourn into the Southwest. "She wasn't interested in moving out here at all. She thought she'd be leaving civilization behind."
Walter Moncus had no such misgivings, but a chance meeting along the way changed his mind about going as far as Arizona.
The Moncus family stopped, stayed and left its mark instead upon New Mexico.
From the rugged Moncus Canyon in a crease of the Caprock to the Quay County sheriff's office in Tucumcari, the sons and daughters of Walter and Isabel fought wind and dust and difficulty, wresting life from the uncompromising soil and from the endemic grama grass in northeastern New Mexico. Along the way, Walter and later his son Claude pinned on a badge and kept law and order in a territory that was known to harbor bad men and their moveable feuds, particularly those from Texas.
All the while, pioneers like the Moncus family straggled into the country, rolling their creaky wagons onto the vast, flat landform called the Caprock.
Off to a new land
Walter and Claude would establish a cattle ranch here, and they would learn in the meantime -- like so many others -- that dryland farming in an extended drought on the plains of eastern New Mexico could be disaster.
It was here too that Isabel Moncus confronted and dealt with a racial prejudice she had held all her life, later to wonder at Texas history books and her own failure to recognize the slanted way she had conducted herself until then.
By trying to make a living, the Moncus family eventually covered all the occupations important in those early days. They ranched right on through the Dust Bowl; father and son in different generations served as county sheriff; they ran a rural general store; and they birthed children and fixed broken bones -- the latter because Isabel Moncus brought with her a medical tome -- "she had the book!" -- and it gave instructions on treating all manner of injuries and ailments.
Granddaughter Mary Lynn Moncus (many of the Moncuses went by their middle name), now 64, is a retired professor of Southwestern literature and folklore at New Mexico State University. She remembers a childhood spent in her parents' then-dirt-floor, tin-roof house with no running water and a grandmother, on her father's side, who was her best friend.
"When they came here, they didn't even know what kind of wild critters to expect in this new countryside," she says. "But they brought 21 head of cattle with them, they were tough and exceedingly resourceful and they survived."
No such confidence flows from her grandmother's account, which she proclaimed as fiction but which Lynn Moncus says is in fact biographical. And how her grandmother lamented leaving the area around Hamilton County, Texas:
"I loved that home; I could see possibilities of our acquiring adjoining farms and becoming wealthy farmers and stock raisers. I didn't want to sell our home ... and go West! Of all places. I didn't want to go ...
"For the first few days, we traveled slowly. The cattle had wintered hard and were thin. They could travel only a few miles a day ...
"How hard and dreadfully lonely and dreary it could be ... "
As they made their way West, the little Moncus family (Isabel's brother Claude Carter drove one of the wagons) would stop at fledgling farms of acquaintances who had preceded them but had not ventured farther.
"Every time grandpa stopped, my grandmother hoped 'Maybe we'll stay here.' " Lynn Moncus says. "They'd do some canning, and my grandmother would make cuttings of fruit trees to plant an orchard. And then grandpa would decide it was time to move on ... "
Isabel Moncus thought Plainview, Texas, was civilized, but by the time they reached the aptly named Stinking Springs in eastern New Mexico, she knew for sure it was the end of niceties.
Isabel Moncus may have been tougher than she thought. Lynn Moncus says some of her grandmother's contemporaries were actually driven mad by the stark loneliness and the incessant wind that swept over the empty prairie.
"The men could get on a horse and ride away, but the women didn't have a chance; they had to stay there, often alone in a dugout with no one to talk to and every day was like the day before, only worse."
But her grandmother's adjustment to life in the New Mexico Territory was not itself without a hint of despair from the jolting journey of the wagon.
"In a few miles, we went off into a depression or basin several miles in extent ... such as sometimes occurs on the plains. 'This,' I thought, 'is like the true deserts I've read and heard of, and dreaded as much all along ...' Not a sprig of grass, nothing but greasewood, sand and gravel ... but plenty of that."
Walter changed his mind about where he was going not long after arriving in New Mexico Territory.
Someone rode into their trailside camp and told them about good ranchland between Fort Sumner and Tucumcari near the southern escarpment of the Caprock.
Walter Moncus decided to look into the report and he rode to Tucumcari, which was then little more than a tent city. People there had some encouraging words but warned him to stay off the fenced property of the big Horseshoe Ranch, which frowned on homesteaders, who they equated with squatters.
It was here that Isabel Moncus was introduced to the kind of country she was in. Already, she had recognized -- almost without realizing it -- the importance of water in this part of the plains.
"We drove across the basin, not so far as it seemed, and came to a big cattle outfit that had various wells in different parts of their range; but this was the first ones we'd struck, and we stayed there a couple of hours while the cattle drank and rested. They were almost fagged out. Some wouldn't have gone another mile, only that they sensed they were nearing water, and we ate our lunch while resting."
Adventure in the past
Lynn Moncus has nothing but pleasant memories of her life in the company of pioneers, and the hardships that her grandparents and parents had endured were for her the stuff of adventure in the Caprock country -- even when she had to make the torturous trip to the spring to fetch a pail of water.
Her assessment of her grandparents' character revolves mostly around her grandmother Isabel. But grandfather Walter evidently made quite an impression; he was a forceful and opinionated man, she says, and she could always calculate his mood by the way he set his hat.
"Grandpa was good to me," she says. "But Grandpa tended to raise his voice a little bit.
"He maybe liked to talk pretty big ... He had a high school education, which was unusual in that time. He liked to talk politics and religion. He had a particular interpretation of the Bible, and if you didn't agree, it was bad news. He was a real table-pounder. When I was little, I used to think 'Boy, I'll be glad when I get old enough to leave the table quick.' "
By contrast, her grandmother "lived her religion; she was a front-row Baptist."
Despite their different personalities, Lynn Moncus says, her grandparents came to be held in high respect by people in the Caprock country.
A place to settle
Right after their arrival, Walter and Isabel felt fortunate to find a live spring in a place called Charco Canyon. They staked a claim and, in time, the place became known as Moncus Canyon. It was further fortunate that it was outside, if barely, the boundaries of the Horseshoe Ranch.
Isabel tells about finding the place:
"(Walter) gave a loud whoop. He was babbling and almost raving in his delight. I'd never seen him so excited about anything and I wondered if he'd lost his mind. Then he stopped the team and finally gave me a chance to answer him. 'Old lady, just what do you think of this?' 'It's perfect,' I said. 'And house or no house, it just seems like home to me ... But when we do get a house, can you imagine anything nicer than our home on the range will be in this very location?'"
The first house was no fancy affair. It was built of closely set vertical posts, chinked with mud. It was followed by a large frame house with a shingle roof and a porch on three sides, built on the open top of the Caprock, Lynn Moncus says, where it could be struck by lightning and blasted by the wind.
Young Herman soon was joined by a sister, Ima, and then twins, Claude and Maude, and twins again, Ray and May.
For a while, Walter and Isabel Moncus were the first and only homesteaders in the area. But others came.
Walter and his brother Burnace erected a shack and opened the Moncus Brothers general store. A blacksmith set up shop nearby, and soon there became a need for a post office, which was established in 1908 with the postmark of Ima.
Walter later built an adobe house with a shingle roof down in the canyon, and son Claude and his wife Sara -- Lynn's parents -- established themselves in a half dugout around the bend in the canyon.
First Walter and later Claude were elected sheriff, and Lynn Moncus remembers moving back and forth between the ranch and Tucumcari as her father served three separate terms.
Claude the sheriff achieved a measure of fame, was even written up in a crime magazine, for solving a semi-sensational murder of a man whose body was dumped near Tucumcari in the 1950s.
Claude doggedly figured out the identity of the victim and traced his car to Amarillo, found no better clue than a matchbook in the car and, beginning with nothing else, used the matchbook to determine who the killer was and to track him to Sturgeon Bay, Wis.
The culprit was subsequently arrested in California and convicted in New Mexico, where he died in the electric chair.
Claude, a modest man, could have attributed his success to the streak of resourcefulness exhibited by his parents in challenging a new land with two covered wagons and a baby boy.
For all their struggles in those first years, it was perhaps Isabel who fought and won the biggest one.
"My grandmother was terribly frightened of Mexicans," says Lynn Moncus. "But later on she got angry at the misrepresentations of Mexican people she found in the history books."
"I was afraid of the Mexicans, too, in the land of New Mexico and Arizona ... I'd never seen a Mexican; but wasn't I a teacher? I knew my Texas history. I knew that the Mexicans were a race of cowardly cutthroats ... Oh, that history had me ruined, in that respect, for pioneering."
Later, as she came to know them in New Mexico, Isabel's perceptions changed.
"My preconceived ideas of the Spanish race were wrong. I found them to be as upright, honorable and sensible as my own race. Of course there were dishonorable ones among them, but neither could my own race boast of perfection.
"Then is when I began to wonder about my Texas history. Could these atrocious crimes as related in that history have been committed in retaliation for crimes equally as great, that we had committed against them? We made history of theirs but failed to mention our own crimes. Be that as it may, had I learned that lesson years earlier, I would have been spared the bitter hatred, fear and suffering that I endured until I learned the race among whom I am proud to acknowledge I have many good friends."
Since almost the beginning of this century, the Moncus family has had a presence in Quay County and eastern New Mexico. Lynn Moncus says she's the last Moncus left.
Her grandparents, only two generations removed, were reflections of thousands of other optimistic pioneers who loaded down their wagons with nearly every earthly possession and set off down a dirt road -- more confident than apprehensive -- to farm and ranch in the unfamiliar but expansive West. Some of them came to New Mexico.
The grass has not completely come back in fields abandoned to the fickelness of dryland farming. They lie in silent legacy to the unwise practice of taking a plow to some parts of the prairie, harvesting bumper crops of dust.
But even if the crops and cattle failed, the people endured.
"I have nothing but good memories of pioneer times," says Lynn Moncus. "They were hard times but we were all equal.
"We were all grubbing for a living. And even if some people were at war with each other, if one got hurt or in trouble or got sick, you went over to their place and brought in the crop or branded cattle or whatever needed to be done."
Walter and Isabel Moncus, facing advanced age, moved to Fort Sumner and then to Tucumcari in their later years. He died at 80 in 1955. She died at 90 in 1964. They are buried at a cemetery in Tucumcari.