Move to New Mexico A Family Transition in 1949

In the spring of 1949, my father, Donald Sheldon Overturf1, made a big decision which affected the entire family. We were living in Fairbury, Nebraska, where my father was the Dean at Fairbury Junior College. He had worked there since 1946, and he enjoyed strong support from his colleagues and students. A letter written by the alumni association to my father, expressing their respect for his skills and abilities, was sent to him after he had left. It2 said:

Dear Dr. Overturf:

In recognition of three years of outstanding service to our college, the Fairbury Junior College Alumni Association wishes to extend its most sincere appreciation to you.

The alumni feel that your unselfish devotion to duty was primarily responsible for successfully re-establishing the college following its period of inactivity during the war. Your enthusiasm as dean of the college was an inspiration to students and alumni alike, and will not soon be forgotten by us.

When you assumed the leadership of the college after the war, it was almost as though you were establishing a completely new school. Through your efforts, however, the institution has attained a status of which its alumni can well be proud. We believe that this was accomplished mainly by your skillful administration.

We are sorry that the ability you demonstrated here has taken you from us. However, we sincerely hope that your proficiency will continue to be recognized in the future and that your career will continue to reflect the high quality demonstrated at our own college.

Respectfully yours, F.J.C. Alumni Association, Dean Terrell, President

My father graduated in 1938 with a BA degree in education from Hastings College in Hastings, Nebraska. He taught in two small Nebraska towns for four years. In 1943, my parents moved to California where my father had accepted a job at Santa Ana Junior College, but Pearl Harbour had already occurred and my father felt increasingly that he could not continue to live in an ivory tower and not do anything for the war effort. Reluctant but determined, he resigned from his teaching job, and for the duration of the war, he built airplanes at Boeing.

As soon as the war ended, my parents returned to Nebraska where my father first took a position as superintendent of schools in Cherry County, Nebraska3. But in less than six months, he accepted the job with Fairbury Junior College.

Now, three years later, my father was seeking a higher-level position and he accepted a job with New Mexico Western College in Silver City, New Mexico, where he would be Registrar and Dean of Men. My dad bought a Jeep — he thought the roads would be rough in New Mexico. He built special seats in the very back for my brother and me (this space was originally intended for extra cargo or gear). My two older sisters sat in the authentically named "back seat" and my parents, of course, were in the front. Dad bought a small trailer to pack things we wanted to take with us, but our other belongings would travel by moving van.

The Jeep and trailer are ready to go, and as my mother gets into the car, my father takes a photograph of his young family, new car, and the beginning of our adventure. I wonder how many know what the bag hanging on the fender was for.

I was two months away from being four years old, and I don't remember a lot of the trip, though we had the Jeep for several years and I rode in it many times4. As well, throughout the 50's, my father worked on his Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska, so we drove back to Nebraska from New Mexico almost every summer. The distance is about 1000 miles (1500 km) and with today's roads and faster cars, the trip takes approximately 15 to 16 hours. Back then, it took us three to four days of driving. Dad liked to get on the road early, and he would carry me to the car, still in my pajamas, and I would sleep in the car for a few hours before we stopped for breakfast.

Driving south through Kansas and Colorado, and then into northern New Mexico, we usually went through Santa Fe and Albuquerque. On that first trip, we travelled south on Highway 25 from Albuquerque. The "shortcut" to Silver City was turning west on Highway 1525 — also known as the Black Range Road — and driving through small mountain towns like Hillsboro and Kingston. This road was unpaved in 1949 and was steep, narrow, and twisty. This was our first introduction to the area where we would be living — and it was very different than Nebraska.

Thanks to the Black Range Lodge for this map. See their website here. On the map, the "highway" looks like an easy way to get to Silver City. Today it is a paved road, but it was not paved in 1949.

The Black Range District is very large — more than 550,000 acres. The Aldo Leopold Wilderness area and the some of the Gila Wilderness lies within it. The Black Range Mountains — through which the road meanders — is a popular area for picnickers and hikers. Elevations range from about 4000 feet to over 10,000, while precipitation varies from only 12 inches a year in the lower elevations to over 20 inches in the mountains. On a single day's drive a person may travel through desert and grasslands and then find themselves in a forest of spruce and fir. (At higher elevations, pinon, juniper, and ponderosa pine are the common species.)

I don't remember much about that road — except that I probably got carsick, and most likely my sister did, too. We arrived in Silver City — all in one piece — and it no doubt seemed to my mother as though we had gone to the ends of the earth. It would become my hometown — growing up and attending school there, all the way through university.

My parents had been born and raised in Hastings, Nebraska. Moving to Silver City, New Mexico, was a huge change for them in many ways. Silver City was founded in 1870, after both silver and copper were found in the area, but it had once been an Apache campsite. In the beginning, it was a fairly typical "wild west" town and the famous Billy the Kid lived there with his mother before he got into a lot more trouble.

Civilization came to the area with the establishment of New Mexico Normal School in 1893 — this would eventually become New Mexico Western College, where my father would be Registrar and Dean of Men, and later, Dean of Student Affairs. My father was much involved with the change of its name seventy years after its formation — it became Western New Mexico University in 1963.

The town's streets, laid out by Captain John Bullard and his brother, ran north and south. Unfortunately, the town was built in the way of a normal run-off for the summer rains. When downpours would occur in the summer, people just coped with the occasional high water running through the town. But during the night of July 21, 1895, after a heavy rainfall, a flash food came right through the main street and dug a deep trench as it came. Afterwards, it could no longer be the main street, and so businesses turned their back doors into front doors and the arroyo dug out by the flash flood became known as the Big Ditch. It is today a city park, and has deepened with each year that water roars through it during the summer rainstorms.

This hand-coloured black and white photograph is a postcard of Silver City which, based on the buildings in the photograph, was taken sometime between 1938 and 1949. The five buildings on the Teachers College campus can be seen in the upper right. Bullard street and the downtown area is in the lower right corner, as well as the trees surrounding the Big Ditch. The large white building near the centre is the Grant County Courthouse. (These images on linen cards were based on photographs, but the artists who coloured them added their own ideas).

Our family of six had difficulties finding housing. We rented first a small duplex on Bayard Street and then moved up the street to rent a larger home at 701 North Bayard Street. In 1953, my parents bought a home at 1105 West 6th Street — at the corner of 6th and C — and that is the home I best remember.

This was the family home from 1953 to 1969. I lived there until 1966. Alas, it is a scan of a photocopy of a photograph, and so there are lines on the white adobe walls of the house. Despite the poor quality of the scan, you can see the front porch and our dog, Toni, sitting on the left edge of the porch.

There was a huge cottonwood tree in our yard on the C street side (somewhat fitting as cottonwoods are common in Nebraska and considered a state symbol) and the elm trees were on both streets. I shared a bedroom with my two older sisters (the window on the far right) and the living room is behind the window to the left.

My father's decision to move to Silver City, New Mexico, completely changed my life. From the age of four to twenty, I lived in Silver and attended school — all the way to a BA degree in education at Western New Mexico University.


Other articles I've written which tell a little about my life in Silver City are:

Other articles of interest:

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  1. For the full story of my father's life, see Donald Sheldon Overturf 

  2. This letter was found among his belongings after his death. 

  3. For more about this period in his life, see Valentine, Nebraska

  4. My brother and I eventually grew too big to crowd into the back homemade seat, so my father purchased a 1953 Ford station wagon. Then my brother and I could sit in a normal car seat — but we were still in the back. 

  5. The alternate route would have been going further south to Las Cruces, then west to Deming and then north up to Silver City.