by John W. Murphey
Kenna, a small ranching community in Roosevelt County, started in name in 1899 as a construction camp along the Pecos Valley and Northeastern Railroad. Before the arrival of the railroad, famed Texas cattleman George W. Littlefield claimed much of the land surrounding future Kenna as part of his cattle empire spreading across Texas and New Mexico (figure 8-1).(6) Major Littlefield started the advance of the Texas-Anglo frontier across the Pecos River in 1882 when he purchased John Chisum’s Bosque Grande Ranch near Roswell. Later, following the advise of his principal ranch manager and half-nephew, J. Phelps, Littlefield, purchased water rights east of the Pecos between Fort Sumner and Roswell, permitting control of four over million acres of rangeland. This massive holding became the basis of his LFD Ranch. The “drought of 1866” struck the overstocked range. Despite this setback Littlefield, who lived by the “buy when people are selling” philosophy of business, continued to expand his holdings, purchasing and consolidating ranches up and down the Pecos River.(7)
A fortuitous discovery of a hidden spring resulted in moving Littlefield’s operations near future Kenna. One day, while searching the canyons of Kenna Mesa, an unnamed “Mexican” came across a patch of unusually green grass.(8) Prodding the patch with a shovel, the cowhand discovered that cedar poles and old blankets, apparently placed by Native Americans, concealed a spring. Offering him $700 for his discovery, Littlefield purchased the spring and gave the site to his younger brother William P. Littlefield, “a lovably irresponsible character” who did not posses the same business acumen as his older brother.(9) Established as the Hidden Springs Ranch (locally Littlefield Ranch), in 1886 William and his wife Euphemia K. Mathew built an adobe dwelling finished with lumber freighted down from Las Vegas.(10) This ranch served as his home for nearly 40 years until his death in 1927.
The short chapter of open-range ranching came to an end in 1899 with the arrival of the Pecos Valley and Northeastern Railroad.(11) Initially the railroad benefited the surrounding ranches, serving as a convenient shipping point for cattle. As the only shipping point west of Amarillo, some 170 miles to the northeast, thousands of head of cattle were driven to the stock pens at Kenna from Littlefield’s ranches and ranches from the surrounding area. After the turn of the century, use of the railroad changed from shipping cattle to carrying hopeful homesteaders to the closing range. In 1904 the federal government ordered ranchers to remove their cattle from public domain opening the region to settlement.(12) This event combined with two years of above average precipitation greened the open range, attracting hundreds of land-hungry homesteaders. Cowboys associated with the LFD Ranch settled nearby to start ranches in a move to preempt the homesteaders.
Their advance came too late. In 1906 — the year cowboys remember as the “last great roundup” — Wilson Orr, a land agent with the U.S. Government Land Commission opened an office in Kenna. So many homesteaders pushed into the region that William P. Littlefield’s son would later recall that his father’s “cattle were forced into the brakes” around Kenna Mesa, “virtually wiping out Littlefield Ranch.”(13) Ranchers spurned the newly invented barbed wire, and feared the homesteader’s plow would ruin their pastures. A feud broke out between the homesteaders — derogatively called “nesters”— and the ranchers. Stories of violent confrontations between ranchers and nesters are still recounted today.
That same year, a real estate agent from Hagerman and an undertaker from Roswell purchased 160 acres and platted a townsite named Kenna, after the vice president of the AT&SF.(14) Operating as the Kenna Development Company, the corporation sold lots and advertised Kenna as “the fastest growing town in New Mexico.”(15)
The Promise of Water
Word of a contemplated irrigation project, increased the homesteader’s rush to the grasslands. Under the Reclamation Act of 1901, the newly formed Reclamation Service began surveying natural lakes in the West to determine whether they could be turned into reservoirs for irrigation. Pressure from western farmers, land boosters, politicians and businessmen, increased their efforts to find suitable reservoir sites. Urton Lake, a large intermittent lake 16 miles northwest of Kenna, was one of several sites investigated in New Mexico. At Urton Lake, engineers studied the feasibility of taking water from the Pecos River near Fort Sumner, and sending it by canal 35 miles south to fill a reservoir, potentially turning 60,000 acres of dry rangeland into an irrigated Garden of Eden.
Despite a 1904 Reclamation Service report stating “three obstacles of greater than ordinary import” could hamper the project, land boosters quickly seized upon the opportunity.(16) In 1909 the Kenna Commercial Club published a booklet promoting Kenna as “the nearest railroad point to the great Urton Lake Reservoir… [which] is to be pushed to completion at the earliest possible date…[to become] one of the largest irrigation projects in the west…furnish[ing] homes for hundreds of families.”(17) Absorbing part of the land rush, Kenna’s population swelled to over 200 persons in 1910, most arriving from Southern states.(18)
Officially organized in August 1906, Kenna grew overnight with slapped together wood-frame buildings topped with false fronts arranged north and south of the railroad along Main Street. These building housed an array of businesses typical of any western boomtown, including a mill, grocers, a barbershop, two lumber companies, a weekly newspaper, a hotel, a blacksmith shop, saloons and a bank.
Primary to this story is the founding of the Kenna Bank and Trust Company. When charted on April 30, 1907, the Kenna Bank and Trust Company was one of only five banks in Roosevelt County, providing an essential service to new homesteaders.(19) The bank’s officials included Portales resident J.P. Stone, President, George T. Littlefield, Vice President, and W.B. Scott, Cashier. Billing itself as a “Home Institution,” the bank moved to permanent quarters in 1910, a “concrete” building facing Main Street, across from the Carmichael Brother’s store. The bank went through a succession of officers, and by 1923, the year of its closure, had holdings in excess of $53,000,000.(20) In 1924, the First National Bank of Elida, took over its operation, evolving in 1935 into the Portales National Bank, an institution still vital in promoting the economic growth of Roosevelt County.
In spite of the great hopes for the irrigation project, Congress selected the Pecos River Basin Project over Urton Lake and other less feasible projects as a future reservoir site.(21) This disappointment coupled with a run dry years and the “great grasshopper invasion of 1913,” eventually forced homesteaders to abandon their claims, selling land back to area ranchers.
Denton Brothers Mercantile and Gas
The promise of an irrigated Eden brought not only homesteaders but also merchants who would supply the new arrivals with building supplies and merchandise. One such entrepreneur, Lucisus C. Denton, moved in 1904 from Dandridge, Tennessee, with his wife and four children to Kenna to open a mercantile store. Born in 1876, Lucisus already had experience running a mercantile business. In Kenna, Denton eventually took over a business started by the Carmichael Brothers. By 1914, Denton operated the L.C. Denton General Merchandise, the leading “cash or trade” store, offering an array of goods, including groceries, dry goods, lumber, hardware, clothing, and livestock feeds, and a daily market for eggs, hogs, cream, poultry and hides. Just prior to his death in 1925, Denton had expanded his enterprise to include a boarding house and service station.
Denton’s sons, John, Earl and Edwin took over the business after his death, forming the Denton Brothers partnership. The brothers jointly operated the Denton Brothers Mercantile, the boarding house, and filling station. Located just south of the mercantile and oriented toward Main Street, the small, pyramidal roof service station, fueled cars traveling between Portales and Roswell on the Ozark Trails highway. Besides running the gas station with his brother Earl, John Stanley Denton and his wife Laura did second duty at the drugstore located in the old bank building across the street. For years the extended Denton family dominated this corner of the old highway, positioning both their businesses and homes close to the highway.
During the late 1920s and early ‘30s Kenna experienced a decline in population as the last wave of homesteaders left for better opportunities. Today, townsfolk say the Depression had little effect on their community, claiming circumstances actually improved in mid-1930s when U.S. 70 was upgraded to become a major transportation route.(22)
Prior to 1934, U.S. 366, the third branch of U.S. 66, passed through Kenna on its way to Roswell. Always a secondary highway, U.S. 366 connected Texico, New Mexico to El Paso. In the late 1930s, U.S. 366 was upgraded and renumbered as U.S. 70, a number formerly assigned to the alignment of today’s U.S. 60. The new route was conceived as a more efficient connector to U.S. 85, the dominant north-south route, and U.S. 80, a transcontinental route to California. The 23-mile section of U.S. 366 and former the Ozark Trails starting at Kenna, hindered the direction of the new highway, and in 1938, the highway department commissioned a new road, bypassing the old trail. When completed in 1939, Kenna hosted party celebrating the opening of the new highway.
The rerouting affected Kenna directly. Where the Ozark Trails once made a turn south along Kenna’s Main Street, the new road followed a more direct east-west course. The new highway’s 100-200 feet right-of-way considerably widened the former Scott Avenue, displacing a number of properties, including a post office, north of the drugstore.
Accordingly, the community shifted its orientation towards the new highway. The Denton Brothers Mercantile soon sported bright new awning advertising in large cursive letters “Café,” “Services,” and “Drinks” to the passing motorist. Other businesses up and down the highway followed suit. W.J. Crume, an enterprising businessman from Elida, built Conoco outlets in Kenna, the Antelope Service Station (no longer extant) and at nearby Elida, the Oasis Service Station and Garage, each facing directly onto the new highway. The new station at Elida boasted the first neon sign in region.(23) John Denton, operating his little three-pump gas station on the old road, jumped at the opportunity to work with Phillips Petroleum to build a new branded outlet. With his already well-positioned drugstore near the highway, John installed a new floor in the building, and worked with Phillips to construct a gas station across the north side of the former bank.
Phillips Oil Company, originally a producer of Oklahoma crude oil, started to refine and market its own gasoline in 1927.(24) Although a worldwide leader in the manufacturing of natural gasoline, Phillips had no market name with consumers and was considered by its founder, Frank Phillips “of little consequence to the public as long as the remained in the wholesale end of the of the business…”(25) Buying its first refinery — the “teakettle” — in Borger, Texas, Phillips quickly moved into the retail market, pumping 15,000 barrels of oil every day of the week by 1929.(26) The Phillips brand soon established a trade territory “from New Mexico on the southwest to Minnesota on the north to Indiana in the east.”(27) From the small start of 1,800 filling stations in 1928, Phillips increased its inventory in 1930 to nearly 7,000 stations, many as house-type designs.(28)
The new Phillips gas station in Kenna, built of brick in the Mission Revival style, opened in late 1939, and was publicized for several months in a half-page advertisement in the Roosevelt Record. The advertisement boasted that station not only offered a full array of Phillips products, but also café fountain service and “Certified Rest Rooms.” In order to provide the cleanliness of home, the Phillips Petroleum Company in 1939 launched the Highway Hostesses program. The Phillips 66 Highway Hostesses — each dressed in a military blue uniform, and driving a car with “Certified Clean Rest Rooms” emblazoned on the doors — inspected Phillips “certified” restrooms for cleanliness.(29) The “super service” station, claiming to have one of the largest canopies in New Mexico, appeared prominently on road maps of the day, prompting tourists to stop, buy gas and purchase fountain drinks.(30) Southeast of the store, the Dentons built a small tourist court, renting wooden cabins to passing tourists.
Decline and Survival
Kenna’s population experienced a small boost during the late 1930s and early ‘40s.(31) The discovery of a shallow water aquifer near the center of the county opened the Portales Valley to irrigated agriculture. Reversing a trend of nearly 20 years of diminishing agriculture returns, Roosevelt County in 1937 produced over two million dollars in agricultural receipts.(32) As the area’s supplier of livestock feeds, the Denton Brothers benefited from this upturn in agriculture. Exploration of the so-called Kenna and Elida domes brought new speculators to the area in the late 1930s, but neither produced oil.
John Denton died in 1954. His brothers, Edwin and Earl, decided to continue to run the gas station, but closed the drugstore. During the 1960s, the town and county again experienced a loss of population. Kenna, reduced to a few stores and dispersed houses, became “just a place to stop for gas.”(33) Proud to have once been the second largest shipper of cattle along the A.T.&S.F., Kenna in 1965 lost its distinction even as a cow town, when cattle shipment by rail ceased. By the 1970s, Kenna had become a ghost town. The Midway Service Station no longer pumped gas, but Edwin kept a sign up in order to reach the 50-year anniversary as a Phillips dealer. When Edwin died in 1982, both the gas station and store closed. A few individuals tried to run businesses out of the service station, but each failed.
The gas station took on new life in 1993 when Maurene Howard, Kenna’s postmistress, moved her operation from across the highway to the back of the old drugstore. Used by nearly 20 customers, the post office evolved into a community-gathering place, where locals meet to chat, attend Bible study classes, or just to buy a cool drink or piece of homemade cake. Howard, though no longer selling gas, keeps a few five-gallon containers of fuel for stranded motorists. Motorists driving down U.S. 70 are still surprised by the large service station, and often stop to inquire about its history. As the last standing commercial building in Kenna, the old Midway Service Station is an important symbol of Kenna’s will to survive.
(6) In 1881, in the vicinity of present Kenna, the Hernandez Brothers set up headquarters for a horse ranch at an area that became known as Hernandez Spring. Charles S. McCarty, one of Major Littlefield’s trail bosses, later purchased their claim, establishing the T 71 Ranch, a ranch still in operation today. Arriving in 1884 from Missouri, the Urton Brothers, W.G. and George, established another ranch northwest of Kenna. W.G. Urton became a stockholder for the Bar H Ranch, managing at the height of its operation 30,000 head of cattle. For years the locality went by the name of Urton. Reportedly at one time two settlements, Kenna and Urton, existed adjacent to each, causing much confusion as the area’s post office used both names.
(7) J. Evetts Haley. George W. Littlefield, Texan. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1943: 64.
(8) George A. Wallis. Cattle Kings of the Staked Plains. Denver: Sage Books, 1972: 88. Conflicting information is presented on the discovery of the spring. J. Evetts Haley, Littlefield’s biographer, infers that Littlefield sent “old Nate,” his African-American servant of Civil War days to search for springs near McCarty’s ranch. J. Evetts Haley. George W. Littlefield, Texan. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1943: 160.
(9) Ibid.: 272.
(10) “Natural Spring on Mesa Became Site.” The Portales News-Tribune. 11 March 1973. n. pag.
(11) In January 1901, the AT&SF took over the purchase and lease of the former Pecos Valley and Northeastern Railroad.
(12) Jane Wilcox Taylor. Kenna a Ranching Community. Elida, NM: no pub., 1991: 5.
(13) G.T. Littlefield. Untitled article reprinted from 1 April 1938 edition of the em>Portales Tribune.
(14) Ibid.: 6.
(15) Undated advertisement postcard published by the Kenna Development Company.
(16) United States Reclamation Service. Seventeenth Annual Report of Reclamation Service. Washington DC: GPO, 1904: 388.
(17) Kenna Commercial Club. “A Book that Will Interest You.” Kenna Record Print, 1909: n.pag.
(18) Kenna was first enumerated during the 1920 census. At that time, the community had a population of 133 persons. Of the 30 heads of household, the majority (12) claimed Texas as their place of birth, followed far behind by Arkansas (3) and Alabama (3), respectively. No heads of household claimed New Mexico as their place of birth.
(19) Jane Wilcox Taylor. Kenna a Ranching Community. Elida, NM: no pub., 1991: 9.
(20) em>Ibid.: 10. (21) Of the 79 irrigable sites investigated across the West between 1902 and 1907, only 25 were recommended for reservoir construction.
(22) Kenna residents who lived through the Depression claim that the period was no harder than “any other time on the ranch.” Only three homes were equipped with bathtubs, and most cooking was done over a kerosene stove. One resident stated the local high school was so strapped for money in 1935 that pen and ink sketches of students were substituted for the usual photographs in the annual yearbook. Jayne Taylor, et al. “Kenna: Looking Back…”. Kenna, New Mexico, No pub., 2001: 27; Earl T. Busby, et al. Personal interview. 8 Aug. 2004. Kenna, New Mexico.
(23) Roosevelt County Record. “Erects Neon Sign.” 19 May 1938: 1.
(24) John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle. The Gas Station in America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994: 117.
(25) Michael Wallis. Oil Man: The Story of Frank Phillips and the Birth of Phillips Petroleum. New York: Doubleday, 1988: 232.
(26) em>Ibid.: 247.
(27) John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle. The Gas Station in America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994: 117.
(28) Michael Wallis. Oil Man: The Story of Frank Phillips and the Birth of Phillips Petroleum. New York: Doubleday, 1988: 251.
(29) William C. Wertz. Phillips: The First 66 Years. Bartlesville, OK: Phillips Petroleum Company, 1983: 65. Highway Hostesses also directed “tourists to suitable restaurants, hotels, and scenic attractions; discuss infant hygiene with traveling mothers; cooperate with various state highway patrols; and last, but not least, help sell Phillips 66 by their courteous manner, pleasant personalities and willingness to aid anyone in distress.” Clean toilets became a major emphasis of oil industry in the late 1930s and early ‘40s. Between 1937 and 1940, the National Petroleum News 75 articles on the subject of clean toilets. Susan V. Spellman. “All the Comforts of Home: The Domestication of the Service Station Industry, 1920-1940.” The Journal of Popular Culture. Vol. 37, No. 3, 2004:
(30) Jayne Taylor, et al. “Kenna: Looking Back…”. Kenna, New Mexico, No pub., 2001: 28.
(31) Aside from the gas station, Kenna grew in 1938, building a new church, a WPA-assisted teacherage and contemplated developing a golf course.
(32) As calculated from agricultural statistics. George Wallis. “Roosevelt County — Empire of Opportunity.” Elida National Light. April, 1938: 1.
(33) Glen A. Lanier Jr. “Kenna — Ranch Town.” New Mexico Magazine. March, 1967: 40.
Busby, Earl T., Jenny Clemmons, Trudi Davis, Jakie Howard, Maurene Howard, Rowena (Crume) Preuit, Jayne Taylor. Personal interview. 8 Aug. 2004. Kenna, New Mexico.
Condie, Carol J. Inventory of Structures Along 101 Kilometers/63 Miles of Interstate 70 from Acme, Chaves County to Delphos, Roosevelt County, New Mexico. Albuquerque, NM: Quivira Research Center Publications, 1999.
Davis, Trudi, Jene Evans, Maurene Howard, Jayne Taylor and Mary Weigl. “Kenna, Looking Back…” No pub., 2001.
Gazetteer Publishing & Printing Company, The. New Mexico State Business Directory. Denver: The Gazetteer Publishing & Printing Company, 1915, 1921, 1926, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1936, 1940-41 and 1942-43.
“Fires do damage in Kenna Community.” Portales News-Tribune. 13 June 2000:1.
Haley, J. Evetts. George W. Littlefield, Texan. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1943.
Jakle, John A. and Sculle, Keith A. The Gas Station in America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Kenna Commercial Club. “A Book that Will Interest You.” Kenna Record Print, 1909.
Lanier, Glen A. “Kenna: Ranch Town.” New Mexico Magazine. March 1967: 32-33+.
“Natural Spring on Mesa Became Site.” The Portales News-Tribune. 11 March 1973: n. pag.
Roosevelt County Record. Various issues 1939-40.
Sanborn Map Company. Fire Insurance Map, Kenna, Chaves Count, New Mexico, 1909 and 1921.
Spellman, Susan V. “All the Comforts of Home: The Domestication of the Service Station Industry, 1920-1940.” The Journal of Popular Culture. Vol. 37, No. 3, 2004: 463-477.
Stanley, F. The Kenna, New Mexico Story. Pep, Texas: No. pub., 1966.
Taylor, Jayne, et al. Kenna: A Ranching Community. Kenna, New Mexico, No pub., 2001.
U.S. Department of Commerce-Bureau of Census. Fourteenth Census of the United States: 1920- Population, Roosevelt County, Enumeration District No. 171, Precinct 29 (Kenna).
.________ Fifteenth Census of the United States: 1930- Population, Roosevelt County, Enumeration District No. 21-30, Precinct 29 (Kenna).
United States Reclamation Service. Seventeenth Annual Report of Reclamation Service. Washington, DC: GPO, 1904.
Wallis, George A. Cattle Kings of the Staked Plains. Denver: Sage Books, 1964.
Wallis, Michael. Oil Man: The Story of Frank Phillips and the Birth of Phillips Petroleum. New York: Doubleday, 1988.
Wertz, William C. Phillips: The First 66 Years. Bartlesville, OK: Phillips Petroleum Company, 1983.
Essay taken from "Midway Service Station," National Register of Historic Places, September 2004.
Midway Service Station, PDF
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