Where water and oil do successfully mix, Artesia, with its various industries and community-spirited, innovative residents, is the little city (like the little engine) that could.
Sallie Chisum Roberts, daughter of John S. Chisum, was one of the first settlers in the Artesia area, and on her land a fledgling settlement began. She was its first postmistress, and the first to drill a well, in 1903. That well struck gold of the most vital, liquid thirst-quenching kind: Water. New Mexico gold. Artesian water spouted in great quantities, and the community named Artesia was born.
Because of the area’s plentiful water supply, people began to move into the area from all over the U.S. and the community’s first major industry was agriculture. At an altitude of about 3,380 feet, this sheep and cattle prairie country began growing alfalfa, cotton and other crops. Soon after the artesian wells were discovered, the first dairy was established near town, about 1905.
The town soon began to be settled by “a superior class of people” with high standards, wrote Gertrude Dixon Enfield in a 1958 issue of the New Mexico Magazine. She and her husband, who came to found a bank, were some of the 1905 arrivals. She wrote that those early settlers were multi-talented and socially conscious; they brought with them various types of culture, like music clubs, and productions of concerts, cantatas, oratorios and operas.
Many of the artesian water wells showed traces of oil, frustrating farmers and ranchers.
The large quantity of water wells that was drilled and the agriculture that brought heavy irrigation took their toll upon the water supply, which no longer spouted in great quantities. By the early 1920s, the boom was nearly a bust.
In time for the area’s survival, in 1924 another kind of liquid gold, black gold, was discovered: Oil that lay dormant beneath the oil fields of the Permian Basin was tapped.
The third well spudded in by Flynn, Welch and Yates in the spring of 1924 was a winner. It became the first commercial well in southeast New Mexico and resulted in the first oil royalty check written to the State of New Mexico. The oil drilling and exploration boom began.
Artesia is the center of oil and gas country. Black preying-mantis-like pump jacks dot the landscape, dipping their heads up and down in slow monotonous rhythm on the otherwise barren plains.
Oil and Gas is an industry of ups and downs, booms and busts. While many communities nearly shut down during bust periods, Artesia’s major independents tightened their belts and rode out the hard times without laying off employees.
During the “Cold War,” the construction of Abo Elementary, the world’s first underground school and mass bomb fallout shelter, brought Artesia into the atomic age and also brought the town international attention. “But even the building of the future has roots deep in the New Mexico past,” stated a May 1964 New Mexico Magazine article, Underground School, by Bob Koonce. The article said the school was christened after a geological formation 7,000 feet below Artesia. From that great Empire Abo oil field, flows some of the area’s riches. The geological formation and the oil field that produces from it, in turn, was named for one of the prehistoric ruins of Gran Quivira.
Mack Energy located at Riverside east of Artesia, Yates Petroleum and Marbob and their related companies are the Artesia area’s major oil and gas independents, but there are other independents, along with oil- and gas-related service companies in Eddy County. Then there is the huge Navajo Refinery that processes 60,000 barrels of crude oil a day just at its two plants in Artesia (it also has plants at other locations). Navajo plays a dominant role in downtown Artesia and its economy, and is the major cause of “The Sweet Smell of Success” billboards that greet visitors approaching town.
Another major industry has arrived to nurture the area. More than 100 dairies have moved into southeastern New Mexico, many of them located between Artesia and Roswell.
Artesia has other types of industries and enterprises besides those related to oil and gas. The companies of Rapid Temps and Tech Net Medical place medical professionals in jobs all over the U.S. The town has its own Vocational Training Center, and FLETC — Federal Law Enforcement Training Center — trains federal law enforcement officers from all over the U.S. in its huge and still growing complex. FLETC has recently been named the training facility for the nation’s Air Marshall Program aimed at bolstering aviation security. Penasco Valley Telephone Co-Op, which began in 1949 in the living room of a home in the neighboring community of Hope, is the parent of Artesia’s PVT Networks. PVT offers advanced telecommunications services, including Internet service to thousands of customers. The list of successful industry and commercial enterprises would be incomplete without adding Deans’ Inc. and Deans’ Electric that provide the Pyro Team which gives the community its annual firework displays.
Out-of-towners travel many miles to dine in Artesia, where there are several excellent restaurants from which to choose for their dining pleasure.
By the way, the city of Artesia and its surrounding area also does football. Their color is orange and their mascot is a bulldog, as anyone visiting downtown during season on a Friday knows. Football may not be an industry, but fostering an all-out community effort to raise kids with winning attitudes is as important to them.
A Jan. 1977 article in the New Mexico Magazine, Putting the Art in Artesia, by Mary Woodlee, describes huge murals painted on two buildings depicting some of southeastern New Mexico history. The artwork covers a space 20-foot high and 184-foot long. A beautification project that could have taken 18 months was done in four by a local artist, Helen Mapes, the Junior Woman’s Club of Artesia, 71 volunteers and many donors.
Depicted in the mural are life-size figures of Indians, Conquistadores, farmers, cowboys and oilmen, and includes a covered wagon, stagecoach, steam engine, windmill, fields under cultivation, buildings and local animals like sheep, cattle, a snake, a roadrunner and dogs. The mural, a means of brightening a dismal area of foot-traffic between two buildings, was how Artesia’s Heritage Walkway began, and ever since, more has been done to enhance the Walkway area.
Haley Klein, Artesia MainStreet Manager, was quoted in an article of the April 2001 Artesia, Our Town as saying that the Walkway is an artistic portrayal of Artesia. In that same Current-Argus publication article by staff writer, Stella Davis, Klein credited tile artist Shel Mymark of Embudo as the designer of the five fountains connected by an irrigation ditch. The Artesia Well, Cotton Fountain, Land of the Sun Fountain, Alfalfa Pool, Geologic Fountain, Corral Fountain and Irrigation Ditch each has its own story to tell because each represents crucial elements in the development of Artesia, Klein was quoted as saying.
Artesia rebounds. Soon after Main Street’s newest business, the Well Head Restaurant and Brewpub, was opened, the town’s nearby historic Ward Building caught fire. Instead of just mourning the loss and hauling off debris, construction for an enhanced Main Street facade began. The ongoing “beep beep” sounds and sights of huge cranes against the skyline herald continued construction.
The new Yates Building, with its glass-enclosed high-level walkway that crosses the street to join it to another Yates building, is something one would not expect to see in a small town. The Ward family is rebuilding their two-story brick building that was destroyed by fire. The Land of the Sun movie theater sign is restored, and further west, Marbob built a huge new complex, adding to the enhancement of Main Street.
Artesia’s MainStreet Project recently hosted nine UNM graduate architectural students, who came from Albuquerque to offer ideas for the downtown buildings as part of one of the University’s programs. Their ideas will be considered in the continuing design plans for downtown Artesia.
Signs of change and expansion are everywhere. After US-285 enters town from the north and becomes First Street, you will see the beautifully restored Atchison-Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Depot and a new attached building. Home to the Artesia Chamber of Commerce, it also houses a mini-museum showcasing some of the area’s local industries, including a wing dedicated to dairies. PVT Networks’ growth includes a downtown retail store. Construction at FLETC continues in order to accommodate the increasing numbers of federal law enforcement officers and personnel drawn to the area.
These changes and expansions, in turn, create other needs, such as housing and transportation, that will add to Artesia’s economy.
Corporate and private donations play vital roles in the Artesia MainStreet Project and other community projects like the Depot.
Artesia, home to approximately 13,000 residents, has a loyal, close-knit, small town atmosphere, but a huge can-do spirit. Artesia prospers because its residents have always thought it could.