A Day of Exploration One Hundred and Thirty-One Years Ago

Casa del Ainsworth, if you will, rises on a small bit of ground about midway in elevation between the Organ Mountains to the east and Las Cruces to the west. From the downward slope of the range’s west side, the geological strata are slightly higher above sea level than the nearby capital city of Doña Ana County. Ironically and with a touch of human hubris, this bench is referred to as the East Mesa, due to its location relative to the man-made settlement. More properly, though, this natural feature ought to have a more poetic name. In bland binary terms, the East Mesa is so-named to distinguish it from the West Mesa, which rises beyond the right bank of the Rio Grande. Thus, an east-west cross-section of Las Cruces reveals the Organ Mountains, a mesa at the foot of its western slopes, the town itself, the river, and then an uplift to complement the opposite bench. Bland or not, though, those are the names of the mesas we’re stuck with. Missed was the opportunity to call them Tierra Seco or Conejo Wash or Sagebrush Plains or some such whimsical and intriguing name. “So it goes,” sayeth Linda Ellerbee.

Despite the uninspiring appellation of “East Mesa,” its natural beauty awed a three-man party in the spring of 1891. From faraway Boston, Massachusetts, Charles H. Ames had learned of the Organ Mountains in the Territory of New Mexico, and as a climber, he set out to see this range for himself. He brought along a fellow enthusiast named B. K. Benson, a denizen of New Orleans, Louisiana. Ames was a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club, a group organized in his hometown whose members reveled in the thrill and danger afforded by mountaineering in the late-Nineteenth Century. The club published a journal containing accounts of their exploits of discovery, often writing about the difficulties and hardships of climbing into unknown reaches of one mountain range or another. Undoubtedly, one reason Ames traveled to the Territory of New Mexico in May of 1891 was to write about an excursion of his own design to regale his kindred climbers in New England.

For Ames and Benson, the journey to the Chihuahuan Desert from their distant locales surely was an arduous trip. Not only were the miles long, but upon arriving in El Paso they bore the brunt of a common hazard of travel in the West. “Ordinarily the connection is easy by rail,” Ames later wrote of the route between El Paso and Las Cruces, “but extraordinary floods had prevailed, and both railway and carriage-road had been washed out so seriously that I was obliged to make a wide detour and to approach Las Cruces from the north.” He and Benson, therefore, “went on northwest by rail by the Southern Pacific to Deming, some fifty or seventy-five miles; then northeast nearly as many more, to Rincon, where we again crossed the Rio Grande to its eastern bank, only to find that on the north as well as on the south approach to Las Cruces by rail was cut off by the turbulent river. There was no way for us but to secure the best conveyance we could and make the forty-mile trip across the desert,—there known as the Jornado del Morte [sic], or the Journey of Death, in grim commemoration of disastrous expeditions across its waterless and treeless expanse in early times.” At long last, though, upon slowly approaching Las Cruces one long mile after another, the two wayfarers constantly observed the jagged uplift “which presented a very striking and peculiar appearance of vertical ribs of stone of great size and regularity, and at once provoking the comparison to organ-pipes; and later on we were interested to know that they bore this very name in both the Spanish and English tongues.”

A view of the Organ Mountains from west of the Rio Grande a few decades ago. [Photograph courtesy of the Rio Grande Collection, New Mexico State University]

The mountaineers arrived in Las Cruces on about May 15, 1891, and their inquiries of the local populace about the routes to ascend into the Organs proved fruitless. No one they spoke with had ever attempted such a foolhardy act due to their conviction that it was impossible to climb to those lofty summits. [Editor’s note: The leopard in Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” assuredly would have disagreed!] Their thwarted efforts to gain any first-hand knowledge of the mountains was somewhat lessened upon making the acquaintance of Elmer Ottis Wooton, a professor of botany on faculty at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts. Only sixteen months earlier, in January 1890, Wooton had received an appointment as the Territory’s first resident botanist when much of the flora of the Chihuahuan Desert and the Organ Mountains remained to be discovered. During his two decades at the college, Professor Wooton identified and cataloged numerous previously unknown species of bushes, trees, flowers, and weeds native to the region, but I ought to keep on with the story at hand.

Settled only forty-two years earlier, Las Cruces embodied many of the attributes of a town on the frontier. Its appearance likely startled Ames and Benson somewhat, being more accustomed to the architecture, streetscapes, and society of Boston and New Orleans. The town’s dusty lanes stretched out along the one- and two-story buildings fronting Main Street and indeed throughout the town. On the north end of the town’s main thoroughfare rose St. Genevieve’s Church, while the Loretto Academy anchored the street’s south end. In between these two edifices, as the two wayfarers strolled along this Western promenade, their eyes were not treated to the visual delights of the architectural blending of Spanish and French tastes of the buildings on the banks of the Mississippi River nor to the fashionable and elegant buildings fronting Boylston Street and Clarendon Street in Boston. Rather, their eyes feasted on rough-hewn but comfortable jacales, adobes with thick walls and flat roofs, and a scattering of wood-frame or adobe residences displaying the peacock feathers of the Italianate, Queen Anne, and Territorial styles. In his written account of his time in the West, Ames neglected to mention where he and Benson hosteled, but chances are pretty good they found accommodations at the Rio Grande Hotel, standing majestically on the west side of Main Street. For three days, they assembled their outfit, made inquiries about the Organs to the local populace, met botanist Wooton, and braced themselves to ascend into the mountains.

St. Genevieve’s Church, the corazon of the Catholic community in Las Cruces, as it appeared in 1891. [Photograph courtesy of the Rio Grande Collection, New Mexico State University]

“Main Street, 1891. Las Cruces, NM, Looking North from Convent.” With the photographer’s back to the Loretto Academy, one sees Martin Lohman’s residence on the east side of the road, while the Rio Grande Hotel stands on the opposite side further away. [Photograph courtesy of the Rio Grande Collection, New Mexico State University]

The Rio Grande Hotel, when she was majestic and grand. [Photograph courtesy of the Rio Grande Collection, New Mexico State University]

“Our start from Las Cruces was made on the morning of May 19,” Ames later wrote. “For days the Organ range had confronted us on the east, like a file of tall sentinels, and challenged us. To-day we accepted the challenge.” At 7:30 that morning, they rode out, Professor Wooton on horseback, and Ames and Benson in a buggy drawn by two horses. “Straight eastward by a wagon-trail we proceeded across the mesa. A gentle rise for twelve miles brought us to the base of the Organs. There they stood, straight and tall, their sharp needle-like points and spires piercing the blue, looking to be not more than one third of their true distance away. … Our road was fairly good, and we bowled merrily along, shouting to the jack-rabbits and cotton-tails which every minute scurried away on either side. … Every now and then the beautiful mountain quail, in pairs, would run swiftly out of the path, the peculiar head-plume of the male giving it a striking beauty.” [Second editor’s note: By “mountain quail,” Ames is referring to Gambel quail, an indigenous species known for its lovely and distinctive song. Right about this time of the year, we see them shortly after dawn and as dusk settles when a male and female, especially if they are new parents, are out and about with their young ones in search of sustenance. The male often perches on a high point, whether a creosote bush, a desert willow, or a roof top, to keep an eye out on things. Meanwhile, the female and her little ones scurry about in the brush in search of something to eat. Through it all, the male and the female talk to each other in a series of songs, just to let the other know that all is right and well. That’s rather humane, from a quail’s perspective, I suppose. People can learn a lot from quail, I know.]

Throughout the forenoon, as the small party crossed the mesa, Ames noted the diversity of bird and plant species, but he was struck by the lack of animal life and the land’s silence. “But the vegetable world presented much that was interesting,” he penned, “and many a specimen found its way into Professor Wooton’s botanical case. Often the graceful rider would, in true ‘plains’ fashion, stoop, and without dismounting pluck from the earth some low flower or grass.” While the botanist intermittently gathered specimens, they drew ever nearer to the mountains. Exactly where the explorers approached the Organs is unclear, but based on Ames’ description, one can reasonably conclude the site resembles Bar and Soledad Canyons. “We passed up the dry bed of an arroyo, or gully, to the foot of a great, vertical uplifted sheet of rock, precisely similar to those formations which are so well known to visitors to the Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs. Here were a ranchman’s hut and an artificial reservoir of water.” As an aside, in recent years, road improvements have been made at the trail head leading into Bar and Soledad Canyons; from a much earlier day, there stands a water tank for livestock and a windmill, but those features may not have been there in 1891. However, at that exact point an arroyo meanders from the mountains’ western slope, and uphill into Bar Canyon closer to the Organs that wash cuts in front of the ruins of a homestead. This stacked-stone cabin offers silent testimony to the isolation some settlers endured in the closing years of the Nineteenth Century as they mined for precious metals in the Organ Mountains or raised cattle in the upcountry meadows. These ruins I have examined during hikes in Bar Canyon, and they show competent skill in building; if indeed this was the cabin the gentlemen passed by in May of 1891, then they saw a welcoming shelter flanked by the skyward uplift of granite.

The trailhead leading into Bar and Soledad Canyons in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. Perhaps the mountaineers passed this point and trekked for the point of uplift on the extreme right edge.

As the three men prepared to climb, they “tethered the horses to some brush, near the piles of glittering ore, and improvising alpenstocks from the stiff and dried blossom-stems of the century plant,” as Ames dramatically related, “we attacked the mountain.” Unexpectedly, dark clouds began appearing from the west, and Ames surmised that rain would begin falling soon and probably while they were in the mountains. The climbers remained undaunted. “Up we toiled over a spur of one of the high peaks, picking our way around and over the spiny enemies before referred to,” he wrote, “now and then stopping to take a look at the widening landscape on the west, and to speculate as to the chance of rain. But the serrated peaks above were still in the blue, and mocking us; and on we went.” With the clouds gathering and the climbers cautiously seeking a path upward, Benson became separated from Ames and Professor Wooton and remained so for several hours; his absence was doubly unnerving because he carried with him their only canteen of water. Nor did the duo remain together, either. With Ames in the lead and uncertain of Benson’s whereabouts, Professor Wooton “tarried now and then to secure some coveted flower or plant new to him,” and his slowness of pace compelled Ames to press on but remaining within ear-shot. “Down into a kind of gully, then up, up, we went, through the thickest of thickets, and every step requiring the greatest care on account of cactus and yucca spines. No amount of care availed to prevent many a savage home-thrust. Huge bowlders obstructed the way. In and out and over and among them we crawled and scrambled, oftentimes for some distance crawling flat on the earth or over the tops of the scrub. Most Appalachians know well what good, thick, stubborn ‘spruce scrub’ is, as it covers the northern shoulders and spars of some of our New Hampshire and Maine mountains.” In addition to the rugged natural beauty Ames was enjoying, he was, however, fretful of an encounter with centipedes, tarantulas, rattlesnakes, or any other poisonous inhabitant of the rocky crags, but on he and Wooton climbed.

A Momentary Interlude: while writing this short piece, on several occasions I’ve regarded the west face of the Organ Mountains from our backyard or while out on a walk through our neighborhood to consider exactly where the mountaineers ascended. Undoubtedly, the appearance of the Organs one hundred and thirty-one years ago hardly differs from the view of the present day; after all, in geological time, what is a paltry century to a mountain range? But I look, and I ponder. I wonder how similar or how different are my own excursions into the Organ Mountains from the first known ascent into their mysterious creases and heights. Quien sabe?

While in the Organ Mountains, Ames, Benson, and Wooton easily gazed toward the western horizon from on high among the hardy flora and the old rocks.

Now, back to May of 1891. On they climbed. With Benson’s whereabouts still unknown, Ames and Wooton continued upward. “The situation was not without peril,” Ames acknowledged, but “[s]till, I knew I was very, very near to the summit, and I kept on; at last I knew I was at the very top of the ridge”[my emphasis]. With a nod to the Muse upon attaining that height, Ames triumphantly declared, “The wind whirled the fog up from the other side, and hurled it in my face, and shrieked at me for coming there, and yelled to me that I should not see one glimpse of the vast prospect beyond. I shouted my cheerful defiance, and then hastily crept down on my own side of the mountain, glad that I could be pretty sure of the right slope, and knowing the terrible peril of the least blundering in this respect.” Rain was falling steadily as Ames and Wooton scaled down the western slope, and en route they finally regained Benson. Their good fortune endured a punch when they discovered that they had lost their way and an enormous crag blocked their path. The mountaineers, short on water late in the day with a storm menacing their every move, feared they would have to tough it out and stay the night in the wilderness. They conferred and decided to find the way to their horses and buggy. Downward they went. The rain storm began moving away and “with the peaks above us now all clear and standing mockingly out against the blue,” the wayfarers soaked in “a wonderful view of western New Mexico and Arizona and northern Mexico beneath and beyond us.” Fatigued, thirsty, and hungry, “[w]e clambered down, getting many a stab from the yucca spears, which we had now hardly strength enough to avoid, and finally, rejoining Mr. Benson, we reached our horses and rode down to the carriage by the little ranch in the valley, and were soon bowling rapidly home across the mesa to Las Cruces.” Later, Ames informed his Appalachian readers that the townspeople in Las Cruces insisted that a climb into the mountains would require at least two days, so he must have enjoyed considerable satisfaction accomplishing the feat of ascending into the Organ Mountains in only one day.

Six months after his excursion into the Organ Mountains, Ames wrote Professor Wooton from Boston to ask for his assistance with a number of questions about the mountains. While Ames’ letter was not published, Wooton’s response of November 28, 1891, was, and one can surmise that Ames sought affirmation to support his assertion that the Organs were largely inaccessible to bolster his claim of an unrivaled extraordinary feat. After all, upon the party’s return to Las Cruces late in the day of May 19, Ames described the occasion vividly. “The next day,—ah, that next day! Well, we did not enter for any foot-races, nor attempt to win the prize in climbing a greased pole; but though our joints were stiff and our muscles sore, I for one, as I looked at the great organ-pipes piercing the eastern sky and tried to copy their profile on paper, was glad that I had stood on their highest ridge and proved that they could be ascended, and in one day, from Las Cruces.” Ames and his two companions certainly achieved a remarkable accomplishment in the spring of 1891, and they accomplished something no Anglo-Saxon was known to have done before them; perhaps in the unwritten chronicles of the earlier inhabitants of this stretch of the Rio Grande Valley, a comparable feat had long already been achieved. Quien sabe? But in his written account months after the climb, Ames tipped his hand about what he and his compadres actually accomplished. “With my present knowledge,” he noted about the climb, “it could be done with certainty and comparative ease; but I firmly believe that the ascent is hardly possible save in the place where I accomplished it, and I think the very summits are quite unattainable, for they are sharp and steep shafts of stone, which afford no foothold whatever. The peak to our left as we climbed reminded me constantly of the Aiguille du Midi, in the Alps, as one sees it from the hotel at Montanvert or the Mer de Glace.”

From my perspective, a close reading of Ames’ account and a bit of first-hand knowledge of the Organ Mountains, something his readers and fellow Appalachian members would not have had, is sufficient to simultaneously appreciate his ascent into the mountains while also recognizing the extent of his accomplishment. Mind you, I am fascinated and intrigued by Ames’ story of his time in Arid America, and I’m delighted that he had the gumption to journey to the Territory of New Mexico despite the distances and hardships to attempt a difficult task. Nonetheless, with a wink and a nod to The Who in 1971, Ames doesn’t fool me; I see what he was trying to do. With a subtle wordplay twist, Ames pulled a fast one on his New England readers with his use of “ridge” and “summit” in a manner to bluff the distinction between them. [Third editor’s note: This type of distinction is woven into the narratives Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon (1932) and The Dangerous Summer (1960). In this case, the distinction between implied and real danger to the matadors in the corridas in España, an overarching notion that figures centrally in many of Hemingway’s works.] No doubt about it but that Ames reached one of the high ridges, but he admitted that the “very summits are quite unattainable.” More than likely, the peak to his left during the ascent (that is, to the north) was either Razorback, Wildcat, the peak named in honor of the plant species Vaccinium erythrocarpus (keep your sophomoric snickers to yourself), Lost Peak, or The Wedge. So, yes, he demonstrated that in one day an excursion from Las Cruces and into the mountains to a high ridgetop and back to town was possible, but perhaps he recognized that a successful ascent to the highest point of the Organ Mountains could not be done in one day. “Poo-tee-weet,” chirps the songbird to accompany Billy Pilgrim’s “So it goes” in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children’s Crusade (1969).

But don’t misconstrue my appreciation of the arduous day the three climbers endured on that spring day so many years ago. Rather, I reiterate that in the grand design these three intrepid adventurers added to the incessant accumulation of knowledge about Earth in an age defined by exploration and the National Geographic Society. Lest we forget what occurred on May 19, 1891, in the Organ Mountains in the Territory of New Mexico: three men stood on a high point on a stony uplift and later wrote about it, and Professor Wooton collected and later named and cataloged several previously unknown species of Chihuahuan Desert flora. Both actions are hugely significant; their additions to the overall knowledge of this corner of the world deserve recognition and thanks, and I, for one, am pleased to have discovered Ames’ narrative. But moreover, my sense of delight of reading his story amplifies greatly because I happened to become aware of his words on Thursday, May 19, 2022, exactly one hundred and thirty-one years to the day after the events foretold. Not too shabby, eh?

A solitary sentinel in Bar Canyon on March 18, 2019.

Note Bene: Over the past two weeks as I’ve worked a bit now and again on this piece, my references to Hemingway are occasionally reflexive, but I would be remiss if I neglected to note that on this day one hundred and four years ago, young Ernest arrived in Paris with a group of Red Cross volunteers en route to northern Italy where he had a rendezvous with Destiny.

A Rare Treat along the Banks of the Rio Grande in Central New Mexico

El Río del Norte fascinated Iberians who traversed its banks in their journeys north from México’s mining frontier into Nuevo Méjico in the Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Centuries. Upon arriving at the river from the south en route to cover the remaining four hundred odd miles to Santa Fe, they crossed the river in the vicinity of El Paso del Norte, present-day Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, for the first of several such crossings before reaching their destination. The historical record informs us that the river ran much deeper then in contrast to its condition after dams were built to tame its roaring nature. Spaniards followed segments of ancient trails along the mighty river’s banks, while literally following in the footsteps of the native people who had inhabited the region for several centuries and relied upon its waters as a source of life and a trade highway.

A view upstream from the left bank of the Rio Grande in late Spring 2017 in Socorro County
From the same vantage point on the muddy banks looking downstream

Officialdom in faraway España and in the vice regal metropolis of México decreed that the Crown would maintain the route from Mexico City to Santa Fe as a camino real, one of the royal roads in Spain’s North American empire. El Río Bravo del Norte, as the river was also referred to, and if you’ll permit me a bit of personification, possessed a stubborn and capricious temperament. She showed no indications of civility and cooperation to those who sought suitable crossing points to continue their carretas and herd animals on the trail. Rather, she was more inclined to make the journey as difficult as possible with her floods and swift currents. Her fury soared on several occasions in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries when she harnessed inordinately enormous rainfall to flood in such a legendary manner as to change great lengths of her riverbed. Formidable is an insufficient adjective to describe the river’s character.

Standing at the fence of the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge with my damn fingertip partially obscuring the camera’s lens, another fine view upstream

Enter the Twentieth Century. In the Southwest and West, too many of region’s rivers were emasculated due to an extensive Federally-sponsored program of dam construction. While it’s a whole other story to discuss the benefits of dams to generate electricity to power our houses and buildings and smart phones, we also must be mindful of the long-term environmental impact such construction has had on the region. I refer you to Saint Edward Abbey. Cochiti Dam in Sandoval County, New Mexico, and Elephant Butte Dam downstream in Sierra County help regulate the Rio Grande’s flow, as the hydrologists tell us. One consequential aspect of that control becomes painfully evident when the melting snowpack in Colorado does not recharge the river sufficiently, and with the demands on the river for water to irrigate crops and for domestic use in New Mexico, the once mighty Río del Norte displays an unrecognizable portrait of her earlier formidability.

River, Vegetation, Earth, Mountains, and Sky: key elements of Arid America
On the left, tamarisk, or salt ceder, grows in the riparian zone; a non-native, evasive, and very thirsty species, its proliferation along Southwestern rivers continues to cause extensive adverse environmental impacts on the region’s streams and rivers.

The problem compounds exponentially downstream from El Paso, as Mexico and the United States have signed treaties regulating each nation’s allotment of Rio Grande water. Indeed, the problem has become so pronounced with hardly any flow through the stretch along Estado de Chihuahua and Hudspeth and Culberson Counties that the unenviable nickname “the Forgotten River” has been applied to it. Only well downstream, at the confluence with Río Conchos at La Junta de los Ríos, does the Rio Grande regain its strength to flow through the three major canyons of the Big Bend, one of the most distinctive sites anywhere in Arid America. But many river miles separate Boquillas Canyon from Boca Chica at the downstream mouth of the Rio Grande into the Gulf of Mexico. About a decade or so ago, an issue of Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine featured an aerial photograph on its back cover to emphasize the threats to the Rio Grande’s very existence. From an altitude of perhaps two thousand feet above Boca Chica, a photographer captured the distinctive image of the river’s end—and it wasn’t emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. Several hundred yards of bone dry sand separated the river and the salt water, and the Rio Grande did not have the strength to push on to the finish line. We have mightily mistreated this river.

A view from the left bank toward the Socorro Mountains to the west
Cattle hoof prints in the mud and a cloudy sky over the Socorro Mountains at a rare break in the riparian zone at the river’s edge

And while I have seen the river in a pitiful state more times than I care to recall, I have also been quite fortunate to stand along its banks or paddle my Old Town canoe in its currents when it flows as it should. So with an eye toward optimism that juxtaposes with the river’s condition and belies the photographs already shown in this tale, I’ll provide a bit of context to explain the significance of these images. On a very warm June 8, 2017, I traveled with two colleagues well off the beaten path in Socorro County, New Mexico, just east of the town bearing that name. We were conducting some fieldwork in search of segments of the camino real along the river’s left bank, that is, on the east side opposite the modern county seat. For me, one the true delights of the day’s excursion was to see for myself for the first time the river in Socorro County while standing on its left shore. While it may not be the Left Bank of Hemingway’s Paris, nonetheless being in its presence impacted me greatly. Of particular importance on that day, the river ran deep, and its current was strong. As I had not previously seen the Rio Grande from this vantage point, I snapped a lot of pictures so the moment wouldn’t be lost. Later in the afternoon upon returning to Los Lunas an hour to the north of Socorro, I replayed the tape in my head and recalled the sights I had seen during the day and counted myself lucky to have been privy to such a gift as the one I had just received. I ardently hope to see many more such treasures.

Gazing across the Rio Grande toward a dark Strawberry Peak with the Magdalena Mountains rising further to the west

Flying Fred Wendt and One Glorious Season for the Texas College of Mines

Recently, a good friend of mine in Lubbock, Tai Kreidler, emailed me a story published in the Kerrville newspaper, and his message simply read, “Looks like we just lost a great running back.” Beneath his brief but thought-provoking statement appeared words of remembrance of a man who had lived in the Texas Hill Country for some years after retiring from the oil industry out in Odessa. While I immediately recognized his name and knew a little bit about him, my reading of a few lines about his life revealed much more than I expected. After ninety-five years of perpetual motion, to paraphrase the great Jimmy Buffett, Mr. Fred Wendt’s journey through this mortal coil ended on May 18, almost a month back from this moment as I try to make some sense of my thoughts about a man I never met. Fred Wendt, you see, has long been on my radar to learn more about the great things he did in the fall and winter of 1948 on football fields in El Paso, Texas, and elsewhere.

In the weeks leading up to the opening of the 1948 college football season, while coaches were evaluating the talent of their respective squads and sportswriters prognosticated on the season’s ultimate, possible outcomes, scribes in the Southwest regarded Arizona, Hardin-Simmons, and Texas Tech as the leading contenders for Border Conference honors; as for the Southwest Conference, Southern Methodist, Texas, and Texas Christian were widely considered the favorites to claim the league crown, while similar aspirations were pinned on North Texas State and Trinity University in San Antonio for the Lone Star Conference laurels. On a more extensive level, Paul B. Williamson, the nationally syndicated sports information writer based in New Orleans, Louisiana, named Georgia Tech, Texas, Northwestern, Army, Columbia, California, Minnesota, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, and Missouri, in that order of one to ten, for national gridiron honors. Within the Southwest itself, Jack Durham of the Abilene Reporter-News, stated that Texas Mines, West Texas State, and the University of New Mexico “are all three serious dark horse threats to upset the pall in the Border loop,” with Abe Chanin, writing for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, noted the fans’ sense of hopeful optimism that the Arizona Wildcats would greatly raise their standing in the Border Conference.

A Southwest Conference Legend with the Southern Methodist Mustangs

Despite all the viewpoints and thoughts, however, one player garnered nearly more attention for himself and his team than anyone else nationwide. Doak Walker was entering his junior year at Southern Methodist, and the Mustangs were coming off a 9-0-2 record in 1947, in which they barely won the Southwest Conference title over the Longhorns. Before their season-opener in 1948 at the University of Pittsburgh, The Saturday Evening Post in its September 15 issue named Walker “Back of the Year” and a surefire All-America player. Another powerful runner was right behind Walker on the roster, sophomore Kyle Rote, and the team’s overall offensive prowess provided ample reason for high hopes on Dallas Hill. As September and early October unfolded, the Mustangs defeated both the Pitt Panthers and Texas Tech rather handily before dropping a close game in Columbia against the Missouri Tigers. Walker and Rote churned up plenty of yards to be sure, but out west in El Paso, the Ore Diggers were demonstrating on the gridiron that the Texas College of Mines also featured two talented backs in Fred Wendt and Pug Gabrel. Undoubtedly, the Miners’ one-two running combination was making Coach Jack Curtice’s life much easier on the sidelines, as the orange-and-white in West Texas notched five consecutive victories to open the season, including two conference wins.

To the delight of Miner fans, Flying Fred Wendt, as the press quickly dubbed him, shot out of the gate in the season opener at Fly Field in Odessa, when the Miners and the McMurry Indians played on a neutral field. After the game, Coach Wilford Moore of the Abilene school had probably seen enough of Wendt to hold him over for a long, long time because Flying Fred, like the famed, and yet fabled, pitcher Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, he announced his presence with authority, rushing for three touchdowns, two of which were for 56 yards and 58 yards, respectively. Following the Miners’ next game, a 35-7 win over Houston, Wendt ranked among the best rushers in the nation with 367 yards. He tailed off a little bit against the stout defense of West Texas State with an 81-yard rushing performance, but he regained his form against Brigham Young University and the University of New Mexico. Against the former, Wendt rushed for 180 yards and four touchdowns, but against the Lobos he flew for 204 yards and a scoring run. A showdown loomed between Coach Warren Woodson’s Hardin-Simmons squad and the Miners on Kidd Field in El Paso for an early decisive game in the Border Conference. Nearly 14,000 fans witnessed the Ore Diggers’ homecoming game against the Cowboys, whose team was led by quarterback John Ford and halfback Wilton “Hooks” Davis. Both offenses hummed, and the defenses played reasonably well, but neither team scored a decisive punch, resulting in a true sister-kisser, 27-27, that helped neither team in the conference standings. In comparison, on that same penultimate day in October, the SMU Mustangs ran roughshod over the Longhorns in Austin, earning a 21-6 victory with Doak Walker as the standout player of the game. One sportswriter noted, “It took him less than two minutes to convince 68,750 roaring fans that he is one of the great—perhaps the greatest—players of all time in the Southwest.”

Even as Walker was leading the publicity parade across the nation, Wendt’s name was seldom unmentioned for the accomplishments in his own right. Indeed, through six games, Wendt had rushed the ball exactly one hundred times for 929 yards; his closest competitor, Jackie Jensen of the University of California, trailed him by 243 yards, despite having played in seven games. Wendt’s teammate, Pug Gabrel, was holding his own as well, standing at seventeenth place nationally at the end of October with 472 rushing yards, and their combined 1,401 yards set the standard for the country. But on the opening Saturday of November, the Miners faced another tough opponent when they traveled to Lubbock to play the Red Raiders. Several days before the game, Joe Kelly, sports editor of the Lubbock Evening Journal, wrote glowingly of Wendt and reminded his readers of the talented fullback’s Lubbock roots. In 1937, Wendt attended Lubbock Junior High School, and as a member of the football team, he made a name for himself playing alongside such teammates as Roland “Tuffy” Nabors, Max Walthall, and J. A. Blackwell. He never played for the Lubbock High Westerners, however, as his family moved to El Paso, where he honed his talents in the classroom and on the gridiron. Upon graduation, Wendt opted to remain close to home, enrolling in the Texas College of Mines, and in the fall of 1942 he played for the Miners under Coach Walter Milner. As with so many young men, his collegiate career was paused for three years while he served in the Pacific Theatre during the war. Upon returning stateside, Wendt declined an offer to attend the United States Military Academy; rather, he returned to El Paso and resumed his studies at the College of Mines. In the seasons of 1946 and 1947, Wendt’s primary role on the team was kicking; he could punt and kick extra points with skill, but he also showed a glimmer of talent running the ball, so when his senior season arrived, Coach Curtice decided to insert him into the starting lineup as a fullback – and did he make the most of the opportunity! With interest in the game building on the South Plains, Coach Dell Morgan game-planned with two objectives: Stop Wendt, and stop Gabrel. Despite the seeming simplicity of the goal, the execution would be the litmus test, and the Tech defense rose to the occasion. Wendt indeed had a rough afternoon at Jones Stadium; his twenty-one rushes netted a paltry forty-four yards, as Tech won 46-6 en route to winning the Border Conference title.

Wendt seemed to take his lackluster performance against Tech in stride, though. The following week in Tucson, the Miners defeated the Wildcats 25-14, with Flying Fred contributing to his team’s success. And then arrived the glorious, or bitterly infamous, Thanksgiving Day game in El Paso against archrival New Mexico A&M. In an admittedly drastic understatement, the Aggies under Coach Vaughn Corley were set to conclude a highly anti-heroic season marked with too many defeats, a punchless, lackluster offense, and an inefficient, Maginot Line defense. In a decidedly one-sided affair, the Miners eked out a narrow 92-7 victory over the hapless Aggies. Several individual and team scoring records were set with the win, including most individual rushing yards in a single game (Wendt, 326), most individual points scored (Wendt, 42), most yards rushing and passing by a team (717), most team rushing yards (645), and most points scored by a team (92) – all single-game records set by the Texas College of Mines against New Mexico A&M to lead the nation in those categories for the 1948 season. Three hundred twenty-six rushing yards in one game! Wendt’s twenty-five rushing attempts yielded just a bit over thirteen yards per carry, and combined with his six touchdowns and booting through six extra points, ol’ Flying Fred enjoyed one of the most productive offensive games in the history of college football.

Going into the Aggie game, the Miners still had an early December date with the University of Hawai’i to conclude their regular season. But on November 20, many teams across the country played their season finales, including the only undefeated and untied team in Texas, the Lobos of Sul Ross State College in Alpine. For a little college in the Trans-Pecos, the Lobos made some big noise in 1948, winning ten games and claiming the championship of the New Mexico Conference. Led by Ted Scown, a 160-pound halfback, the Lobos’ fleet-footed rusher scored twenty-four touchdowns to lead the nation in scoring with 144 points through November 20. His lead lasted all of five days before Wendt ran wild against the Aggies. Wendt’s college career ended first on a high note against Hawai’i and then on a lower note in a loss to West Virginia in the Sun Bowl game on New Year’s Day. Shortly after the Miners’ 21-12 loss in the bowl game, Wendt signed a contract to play professional football with the Chicago Cardinals, making him ineligible to participate in the track and field events that he had excelled in for the Miners. And with the ink on the contract, Fred Wendt’s amateur athletic career drew to a close.

Mark Twain’s observation about “lies, damn lies, and statistics” is perfectly applicable in the case of Wendt’s on-field accomplishments in 1948. His individual statistics indisputably cast him as one of the game’s outstanding performers that year; his 1,570 rushing yards for the season set a standard that remained unbroken until 1968, when O. J. Simpson rushed for 1,709 yards for the University of Southern California Trojans. While Wendt led the nation in rushing in 1948 and was joined in the top ten rushers by Wilton “Hooks” Davis who finished the season fifth, SMU’s great back did not appear on that list. Doak Walker probably didn’t worry about it too much, though, because the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City named him the recipient of the Heisman Trophy. When the all-conference teams were named for the Border Conference and the Southwest Conference, Walker was the only representative from the Mustangs on the mythical first team, despite SMU’s outstanding season. Even more curious was the outcome of the votes for fullback Fred Wendt. Not only did conference coaches fail to vote him to the first team, he was named to the second team as a halfback – a position he didn’t even play! It stands to reason that his accomplishment as the nation’s and the Border Conference’s leading rusher ought to be recognized as a first-team selection … but the reasoning therein to exclude him may be the crux of the lies and damn lies part of the equation.

In the days since Dr. Kreidler sent me the humane write-up about Fred Wendt, I’ve taken a closer look at the 1948 college football season. Doak Walker fulfilled the expectations placed upon him, etched his name forever in the annals of Southwest Conference football, and later had a trophy named in his honor awarded to the country’s best running back. Dallas was an epicenter of the national spotlight that year, and rightfully so, as Walker’s exploits merited all the attention he brought to Southern Methodist. Doak Walker is and always will be considered one of college football’s most prolific players, and he earned every bit of that acclaim. But Fred Wendt and Ted Scown also earned a bit of the spotlight that year, and for me, the fact that two of the most productive backs in the country in 1948 hailed from two schools in Arid America serves as a reminder that memorable seasons aren’t limited to Los Angeles, South Bend, or Fayetteville – they happen in El Paso and Alpine, too.

So, thank you Mr. Wendt for teaching me something despite our never having met in person. You are a part of the story, the story of college football in Texas and of the Border Conference. And like my maternal grandfather James Ira Jones, thank you for returning home after the war to carry on with living in the name of those who fell on battlefields far from America. May Doris, your wife for more than seventy years, find peace in your memory of a life well lived.

One last point needs to be articulated before drawing this story to a close. There’s one rider that can’t go unmentioned, and that’s a curious connection that pertains to the Dallas Cowboys. That connection links two players in the 1948 season, one in Tempe, Arizona, and the other in Austin, Texas. Wilford “Whizzer” White finished the season ranked seventh nationally in punt returns with an average of 22.1 yards per return, a feat that kept his Sun Devils in a number of games. Over in Austin, the Longhorn in question played a decent season, and although he would soon enjoy a bit of success with the New York Giants in the National Football League, his legacy in professional football was cemented as a head coach. Wilford, who also played professionally, would later see his son Danny follow in his footsteps and play quarterback at Arizona State University in the latter 1970s. And when Danny White entered the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys, his head coach was none other than Gentleman Tom Landry, as my paternal grandmother called him, that very Longhorn in question. And about fourteen years ago, I worked with a fellow in Plano, Texas, who grew up in El Paso who was related to, I can’t remember how, I think it was his dad, who stole away Tom Landry’s girlfriend while they were students there at the University of Texas … but that’s a story for another time, y’all.

Flying Fred Wendt, Texas Miner Football Legend