The lonely place people once called home

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, July 17, 2010

If you stray off New Mexico Highway 20 about a dozen miles south of Fort Sumner and stay close to the BNSF Railway tracks, you’ll eventually come upon a crumbling two-story building 100 yards north of the railroad. It was once an eight-room hotel and is all that’s left of the community called Ricardo. Today the name is associated with a set of crossovers two miles to the east on the Clovis Subdivision. I enjoy visiting Ricardo and living in my mind what life was like there a century ago.
Hard to imagine today, looking at this vast, dry, empty, and utterly lonely landscape, but people once farmed in and around Ricardo. The town was settled starting around 1900, and the Santa Fe Railway in 1908 built a two-story stucco depot bordered by flowerbeds. The 1910 census showed 233 people living in the area around Ricardo. One of them was a 7-year-old girl named Zorene Todd. Her family had come to Ricardo from East Texas in hopes the dry air would cure her father’s tuberculosis.
I get out of my car and photograph the old hotel, empty of guests these many decades and now probably inhabited only by snakes (I’m not about to step inside and find out). Behind me, an all-trailer Z train roars east. I barely notice, because I’m imagining the rest of Ricardo, as described late in her life by Zorene Todd Thompson: besides the depot and hotel, a general store, post office, barber shop, blacksmith shop, and “four or five” saloons.
Wow, I say to myself. What happened? Where did everyone go? Ms. Thompson’s son Ray uploaded on a DVD narrated by his mother ( I think to myself that this has got to be the most godforsaken place on earth to call home in 2010. But in her narration, Ms. Thompson’s voice softens as she shares her memories of that place back then. On the family’s homestead, there were milk cows, dogs, ponies, shade trees, and even a crude swimming pool. Ricardo was, she said, an almost idyllic place to be a kid.
Eden it may have been, but it did not last. Apparently, as years went by the climate in this part of New Mexico became drier and drier. Farms began to fail. Zorene Todd’s dad, cured of tuberculosis, left to farm successfully near Pecos, Texas, which says quite a lot, because the Pecos I know today is as dry as the moon. Anyway, by 1940, the population of Ricardo fell to just 115.
World War II jacked the number of freight trains between Clovis and Belen, N.M., from maybe a dozen a day to 30 or more, and Ricardo’s stucco station remained open to hand up train orders. A widely published photo by Jack Delano pictures Ricardo in March 1943, as 2-10-4 locomotive 5000, the Madame Queen, waits in the siding for an eastbound train. By then the landscape looked barren indeed.
But in 1944, Santa Fe began installing Centralized Traffic Control between Clovis and Belen. The station, now unneeded, was closed and destroyed in 1945. And as the years went by, the last of the dry-land farmers gave up and left until today the surrounding land is as empty of people as Saturn.
A westbound doublestack train is grumbling up the modest grade. Amarillo, Texas, my destination tonight, is a long drive away. I turn away that old hotel, and Ricardo is again population zero.— Fred W. Frailey

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