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Breaking Away
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Tugging at Red Sleeve
In the footsteps of Apache chief Mangas Coloradas

Tales of the City
Las Cruces Oral History group is the talk of the town

Living Through the Droughts
Lessons from a one-eyed cowboy

A Spiritual Home in Nature
Sharman Russell's new book about pantheism

A Sense of Place
Guggenheim-winning photographer David Taylor

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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    August 2008

Tales of the City

The Las Cruces Oral History group meets monthly for a stroll down memory lane — and, sometimes, a glimpse of the city's future.

Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder

The audience includes classmates of the infamously murdered Ovida "Cricket" Coogler, movers and shakers in the Las Cruces business community and two former mayors. The evening's speaker sits next to a small stuffed replica of himself, which he affectionately calls "Bubba."

Presenter Sonny Klein with his custom-made alter ego, "Bubba." The doll, made to resemble Klein, was a gift from his children and used in commercials for Las Cruces Furniture.

This is the 152nd meeting of the Las Cruces Oral History group, which meets the first Thursday of each month. Lifelong Las Crucens and newcomers alike come to these monthly gatherings to mingle, have dinner and hear firsthand accounts of local historical events. Sometimes they also get updates on downtown happenings, or perspective on local politics.

Sitting at a table in the Columbus banquet room at the Best Western Mesilla Valley Inn, silver-haired Kenneth Gwynn reflects on the group he and a friend, another lifelong Las Crucen, co-founded.

"Archie Beckett and I were listening to a speech. It was someone talking about the goings-on here in Las Cruces," Gwynn recounts. "Afterwards, I said to him, 'They've got it all wrong!'" He leans forward and shakes his head, a big smile showing more good-natured amusement than real annoyance.

"So we decided to put our own thing together. We had a whopping 39 people at that first meeting and we thought it'd last about six months. That was 13 years ago!" He gestures at the nearly full banquet room and exclaims, "Just look at it now!"

A quick table count reveals at least 150 people seated, with more still greeting each other, shaking hands and paying their $13 admission for tonight's buffet dinner and program.

"This is a small group," Gwynn says. "We often have around 200."

He goes on to recall the first meeting's speaker was a dean at NMSU. Many local notables and businesspersons since have addressed the group, giving their take on some aspect of the history of and life in Las Cruces.

"We've never had a shortage of speakers," Gwynn says, smiling broadly. "And some of them have amazing stories to tell. Oh, it gets really entertaining."

Tonight's moderator, longtime member and current president Eddie Gamboa, takes the podium to welcome the crowd and lay out the evening's schedule.

"Anyone bringing guests gets to introduce them," Gamboa says. "Any newcomers here?" he asks, inviting a show of hands. It seems many in the room, apparently longtime Las Crucens, know each other. Gamboa goes table by table and audience members introduce their guests — friends, visiting family members, recent relocators to the area — to warm applause.

Two former mayors are in attendance tonight, Ruben Smith and Edward Noble, and they are announced from the stage and asked to stand for recognition. Gamboa goes on with details and logistics. The group does not collect dues, he says, but does maintain a membership list. Attendees who sign up will get a nametag.

Gamboa invites the head table to go up to the buffet line and then begins drawing numbers that indicate the order in which attendees can join the line to get their dinner.

At the head table, tonight's presenter, Melvin "Sonny" Klein, jokes that one of his dining companions isn't a big eater. "This is Bubba," he says, playfully jostling the shoulder of the stuffed doll sitting in the chair next to him. "We used Bubba in our commercials for Las Cruces Furniture."

The Klein family owned the long-lived furniture business — founded in 1904 — for several decades, he says, before finally selling it in 1995. The family also owned and operated Union Furniture, on Bullard Street in Silver City, for at least 10 years.

"We were the purveyors of mattresses for Millie's place," Klein says with a laugh. "You know about Madam Millie?" Mildred Clark Cusey, known as "Madam Millie," kept a brothel in Silver City up until the 1960s. Klein talks wistfully about knowing Silver City years ago.

"I was mostly down in Las Cruces, but when the (Union Furniture) managers went on vacation, I'd come up to Silver City and cover for them. I stayed in the Murray Hotel," he says. "What a place that was!"

By now most of the audience has finished dinner. Some are still drinking coffee with their dessert. Moderator Gamboa takes the lectern again and introduces "Sonny" Klein, giving a thumbnail sketch of Klein's life and business accomplishments in Las Cruces and beyond. A lifelong resident of Las Cruces, Klein's service to the community includes work with the Masonic Lodge and the Jaycees, and serving as past president of the Lions' Club and Chamber of Commerce.

Klein ascends the podium and humorously positions "Bubba" in a chair alongside the lectern. Bubba, Klein explains, was a Father's Day gift from his children, a soft stuffed doll made to resemble him. "I also call him 'Mini Me,'" he says, referencing the character in the Austin Powers movies. "But his mustache isn't gray, so you know he was made a long time ago."

Further joking about his age, he adds, "I'm not a historian, but I'm old enough to be history. . . . Tonight I'm going to tell you what Las Cruces was like when it was small."

Klein recounts that he was born in 1932 on Las Cruces' Greening Avenue, at that time the last paved street before open fields. "There were about 60 kids on those three blocks, and we played baseball in that lot," he says of the weedy plot of undeveloped land.

When attending Alameda School, Klein says his teacher asked him his name. "I told her 'Sonny,'" he recalls. The teacher asked again, with Klein again replying "Sonny."

"Finally she told me, 'Go home and ask your mother what your name is.' So I did." Klein pauses for comedic effect, then says, "So that's when I found out that my name was really Melvin."

Progressing through childhood memories and rites of passage, Klein recounts how he and his young friends would have a burger and milkshake "and still have enough money to buy a joint." A ripple of laughter goes through the audience. "Okay, it wasn't what a 'joint' is today. It was a joint of sugarcane!"

Klein goes on with more humorous stories — about teachers and a coach in his school, about how he was paired up in boxing class with future Golden Gloves boxer Reynoldo Archuleta. "He was my friend, but he beat me up every day," Klein says.

Then come tales that clearly show the passage of years and that hearken back to simpler times. The mention of Conoco gas costing 22 cents a gallon brings a murmur of recognition — along with some head shaking — from the audience. He recalls that in the JC Penney department store, payments were taken upstairs, delivered via a "money cup" that was shot up to the second floor.

"You could stay there all day and just watch that," Klein says with a laugh. He recounts how he and his friends would sometimes get a little naughty and steal a watermelon for a local farmer and roll it down the viaduct.

"Anyone remember that? The viaduct?" he asks to some nods and laughs from the audience. He recalls how the watermelon would eventually get to rolling so fast that it would explode, a spectacle which the youths found greatly entertaining.

Tales of innocent youth segue into the business climate of the time. His father had purchased the family business, then Livingston Furniture, in 1927.

"He charged no interest. There were no big contracts. People made installment payments," Klein says. The business had two route men who drove through the neighborhoods, stopping at each house to collect anywhere from 75 cents to a dollar.

One of the route drivers got the idea to create a book of pictures — a homespun catalog of sorts — so he could take orders while on the road. "He'd show them a picture of a red sofa, and the people would say yes, they wanted a red sofa and order it. A few days later, we'd send them a sofa," Klein says. The customers would then start making installments "as they could."

He holds up a black-and-white photo from 1943, showing his father with various New Mexico politicians, noting how they lobbied for White Sands Missile Range to be located locally.

"1949, that's when Las Cruces really started to grow," Klein notes. He recounts how one of his school friends found "Cricket" Coogler's body in a shallow grave, and the national publicity that event brought to Las Cruces.

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