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Water and Hard Times: 1913 - 1940

Elephant Butte Dam

Cycles of flood and drought around the turn of the century threatened the economic stability of agriculture in the Mesilla Valley. The newly formed Bureau of Reclamation conducted a feasibility study for a proposed dam at Elephant Butte, in 1903. The dam was completed in 1916. It was the largest of its kind in the world. The Elephant Butte Irrigation District manages water allotment.

The availability of water made possible by the dam affected both land ownership and cropping patterns. The dam attracted new families, from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. They worked hard clearing bosques and leveling sand dunes to create new farms. To pay their share of the construction and irrigation costs, Farmers switched from growing fruits and vegetables to more profitable crops such as cotton. Cotton, along with chile and pecans, are an important part of the county's economy.


Fabian Garcia, a young orphan, came from Mexico with his grandmother in the 1880s. They found work with the Thomas Casad family. The Casads owned 5,000 acres south of Mesilla. Casad sent Garcia to college, where he was a member of New Mexico College A&M's first graduating class. In 1914, he was named station horticulturalist and first director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at the college. He was successful in producing new varieties of chile, onions, and pecans. He championed poor Hispanic students and bequeathed the money to build them a dormitory at the college.

Another early farmer, Francis Boyer walked from Georgia to New Mexico in 1899. Near Roswell, the college-educated Boyer founded Blackdom. It was a settlement where Blacks could raise families, own land, and live in peace. By 1920, irrigation had proved unsuccessful, and many of the residents followed Boyer to establish a new town at Vado. Boyer leased 250 acres of farmland where he profited from growing cotton. Gradually, he bought small tracts of land, eventually owning 500 acres. Within a decade, Vado had two Baptist churches, a Catholic mission, and a school with 175 black students. Boyer also established a small college where he and his wife taught classes. Francis Boyer died in 1949 and his dream of a Black community faded.

In 1909 W.J. Stahmann, a buggy-maker, left Wisconsin for the southwest. Settling first near El Paso, Stahmann raised cotton and tomatoes, built a canning plant, and operated four cotton gins. In 1926, W.J. purchased 2,900 acres in the Mesilla Valley. It became Stahmann Farms. In 1932, Stahmann's son, Deane, bought a shipment of pecan trees at cut-rate prices from a farmer unable to pay for them. Deane expanded the farm to 4,000 acres, replacing cotton fields with pecan orchards. The farm included a processing plant, housing for 150 families, a store, a health clinic, a school, and a church. Today, Stahmann Farms is one of the largest pecan producers in the world.

John Nakayama joined about a dozen Japanese farmers in the valley in 1919. He leased land on the old Shalam Colony farm. By the time he had saved enough to buy land, a 1918 New Mexico land law excluded "persons ineligible for citizenship" from owning property. Therefore, he bought it in the name of his American born son, Carl. By the 1930s, his family and as many as fifty workers from nearby Doña Ana were harvesting 300 acres of cantaloupe on one of his farms. During World War II, Japanese farmers in the valley had their business assets frozen and their homes searched. Fear of a Japanese takeover prompted valley landowners to pledge not to sell land to Japanese-Americans. Four of Nakayama's sons served in the war, where the youngest, Roy, was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and held as a prisoner of war. When Roy returned home to finish college, he was refused admission. His former college professors challenged the decision. He was soon admitted. Roy's research in developing chile varieties contributed more than $10 million a year to New Mexico's economy by 1988.

Pancho Villa's Raid

The Mexican Revolution spilled over into the U.S. when Pancho Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico on March 9, 1916. Villistas torched and looted the town. They killed seventeen Americans. Soldiers stationed at Columbus quickly pursued the Villistas into Mexico. In the days after the raid, thirty New Mexico College A&M students were called to border duty. General "Black Jack" Pershing and 11,000 troops spent nearly a year in Mexico tracking Villa. Pancho Villa escaped capture and was assassinated in 1923. As a prelude to World War I, the Punitive Expedition marked the first time the army used trucks and airplanes under combat conditions.
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The Great Depression

In 1931, a threat of a run on the First National Bank of Las Cruces prompted its closing. They promised to reopen when the "hysteria subsides." It remained closed fifty-five days. In the 1930s, New Mexico's farmland prices dropped to $4.95 an acre, among the lowest in the United States. Mesilla Valley farmers, heavily dependent upon cotton, saw its price fall to four cents a pound. In hopes of raising prices, the government paid farmers not to plant cotton.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs put people to work. Young men in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built flood control projects at Elephant Butte Dam. Works Progress Administration (WPA) workers built three schools in Las Cruces, including Court Junior High. They also built numerous tourist and recreation facilities in the area.

Picacho Avenue earned the nickname "Little Oklahoma" when it became a thoroughfare for refugees bound for California. Stranded and destitute, travelers sold their belongings for gas money. This roadside trade was the precursor of Picacho Avenue's antique and second-hand stores.