The following article was published in THE ROADRUNNER, Journal of the ARIZONA & NEW MEXICO POSTAL HISTORY SOCIETY (American Philatelic Society Affiliate #188) Vol. 37 No. 1, Whole No. 146, February 2022.
The cover seen above is probably the latest-known from the now-deserted town of French, New Mexico. Borne on the dreams of an Irish immigrant, French saw its share of hype and hope, as described in the article below.
The lure of the American West brought Captain William French, seen in Figure 1, from Ireland to New Mexico in 1883,whereby he managed the WS Ranch near Alma, NM. After becoming a successful cattle baron, the year 1900 saw him move to Cimarron and form the French Land and Irrigation Company (FLIC). This new company was in competition for the same water resources the Springer Ditch Company used to irrigate a large area west of Springer, NM since 1889.
FLIC established its own town at the intersection of the Santa Fe Railroad and the Dawson branch of the El Paso & Southern Pacific Railway. Lands to be irrigated and promoted by the company were to the west of the new town. Irrigation company headquarters were located in a building that also housed the bank. From 1900 through the 1920s, normally semi-arid northeast New Mexico experienced a period of above-average
rainfall. This same anomaly was enjoyed by their neighbors to the east, in and around the Oklahoma Panhandle. This bullseye covering a five-state area would, in 1934, be the epicenter of the American Dust Bowl.
FIGURE 1. Captain William French.
Prior to 1934, land promoters leaned heavily on the falsehood that “rain follows the plow.” Propped up with good weather and healthy commodity prices, countless homesteads and small towns appeared in what was previously known as the Great American Desert. People came from all around, chasing a dream that would prove to be short lived.
The trade journal, The Irrigation Age said in 1909, that the French area is “waiting only for someone with pluck, energy and foresight necessary to develop them by putting on these lands the only element they lacked, an ample supply of water.” This is what they did; build irrigation channels and other improvements to gather, retain and distribute this precious resource. Everything seemed to be more or less getting along in the early days of FLIC, with the good rainfall as a contributing factor to keeping fights over water rights generally at bay.
Continuing to feed these dreams were promoters like J. Ralph Jett of Pittsburg, NM, who proclaimed in his 1920s development magazine The Western Empire that “In bringing Colfax County before our readers…no part of the United States will show a greater return to the acre than will our non-irrigated lands, irrespective of location, value or nature of crops grown. No part of the United States will produce finer quality in any crop grown than will our irrigated lands.”
FIGURE 2. An early attempt at "photoshopping" shows Jett and a man and woman standing in a luscious field of supposedly locally-grown corn.
Jett would have been more than happy to sell you a piece of this alleged second Garden of Eden. He also apparently had no qualms using photographic fakery to show people standing in what appears to be twenty foot tall, Colfax County corn – see Figure 2 above.
July of 1908 saw the creation of a post office in French, with John B. Fiege as the first postmaster. Mail was delivered daily via the Santa Fe Railway Post Office. The post office was first located in the rear of the same building that housed the bank and FLIC headquarters.
Thomas Todsen lists just two devices in his New Mexico Territorial Postmark Catalog, a Type A/2 4-Bar postmark and a "Registered" double-ring circular date stamp, both shown in Figure 3 below.
FIGURE 3. The (only) two devices listed for French in Todsen's Catalogue.
Most of the other devices reported in use after statehood were a variation of this standard four-bar. Figure 4 shows this evolution of different four-bar devices utilized, from a Todsen Type 1 used about five months after statehood in 1912 to a pre-WW2 cancel. The front cover shows a four-bar cancel from 1943, near the end of postal operations in French. Five years before the Dust Bowl really hit, the brewing fight between the French Land and Irrigation Company and the older Springer Ditch Company came to a head. In December of 1929, the Colfax County District Court heard a statutory proceeding to adjudicate water rights of the Cimarron River system. The argument was won by the Springer outfit. That decree (Cause No. 5054) took away FLIC’s access to any significant water – that was the death of the company and Captain French's aspirations.
FIGURE 4. These four post cards display the various 4-bar cancels used in French over the 25 years until at least 1937.
Due to its strategic location at the intersection of two railroads, the little town of French continued on. The Great Depression took a toll on the town, and by the 1940 federal census, the population was just 110 persons. World War II saw many of the able-bodied residents of French leave for the war effort, possibly even the recipient of the letter on the front cover. The post office closed for good in July of 1945, just as the war came to an end. Not too many came back to French after the war, and the town faded away.
In the summer of 2021, the author and his family were given a rare opportunity to visit the remains of French. It is never enough to just put a cover in my album and check it off the list. I want to visit these ghost towns, see the lay of the land and imagine what it was like to try to eke out an existence in that environment. I again thank my family for humoring my interests.
FIGURE 5. Map showing the location of the remains of French.
Modern maps don't show it, but French's location can be seen on the old map in Figure 5. The remains of French are immediately north of a railroad junction, just east of SH85, about 30 miles south of Raton, 8 miles north of Springer and 20 miles east of Cimarron.
Our short philatelic detour from the regularly scheduled summer vacation was very interesting. Seen in Figure 6, the 1909 Norton livery stable is still there and in use by the current landowner. Figure 7 shows that the remains of the three-story Brown Hotel are just a giant hole in the ground. While the post office and bank building is gone, Figure 8 shows the lonely vault sitting on the open prairie with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the western horizon beyond. As for "treasure," we were lucky enough to find a long-lost marble and bottle of “French perfume” – French, New Mexico that is. They are shown in Figure 9.
Such was the fate of many other farming communities in the Dust Bowl region. Brought in by half-truths and outright lies, Mother Nature humored them for a couple of decades with good weather. Powered by man’s greed, the dust storms of the 1930s did their best to wipe the prairie clean. While a few hardy Colfax County farmers remain today, for the most part, fields of crops are now replaced with what comes organically – sparse native grass, cacti and the occasional passing antelope.
FIGURE 6. French's last remaining structure with a roof, the livery stable.
FIGURE 7. Brown's three-story hotel is now a concrete-edged hole in the ground, filled with debris.
FIGURE 8. The bank vault, without a door, still stands.
FIGURE 9. People once lived their lives here – a marble and a bottle of "French" perfume prove it.
The author has more information on the old townsite, including an old plat map. You are welcome to reach out at [email protected].
Anderson, D.H. (1909). The Irrigation Age. Volume XXV, Number 1. Chicago, IL.
Arning, Charles and Gaylord, Hulda (1985). Plat Map of French Townsite and Residents. Self-published.
Clark, Ira G. (1987). Water in New Mexico, A History of Its Management and Use. University of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe, NM. French, William (1927). Some Recollections of a Western Ranchman, New Mexico, 1883-1899. Methuen & Co. Ltd. London, UK. Jett, J. Ralph (Undated). The Western Empire - The Development Magazine. Pueblo, CO.
Todsen, Thomas K. (1994). New Mexico Territorial Postmark Catalog. 10th Edition, Self-published. Las Cruces, NM. White, James W. (2005). The History of Colfax County Post Offices. Self-published.