This article is excerpted from Elsie Carr’s memoir, Elsie’s Story, with minor editing by her cousin, Walter Hines. Published by Dona Ana County Historical Society, Southern New Mexico Historical Review, January 2009.
My Early Life in the Mesilla Valley, New Mexico
At the time of my childhood, New Mexico was still in a pioneer stage. My parents had graduated from New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (New Mexico A&M) in 1911, one year before New Mexico became a state.
Immediately after his marriage to Mother1 in 1913 (photos), my father Joseph Rigney2 was sent to Roswell, New Mexico as the first County Agricultural Agent for Chavez County. I was born there in 1915. My brother Joe came three and a half years after me, Lois eight years, and Ruth fourteen years later.
When I was about one year, we moved back to the Mesilla Valley as my father had been offered the position of professor in the Department of Horticulture at New Mexico A&M. Mesilla Valley is a narrow agricultural oasis bordering the Rio Grande, north of the border with Mexico and Texas, just southeast of Las Cruces. To the west is a sandy mesa, on the east, the striking Organ Mountains. Every day the residents would pause in what they were doing to go out and look at the sunset light on the Organs. The old rugged peaks turn rosy pink, then shade through mauve back to pale blue, while the sky above continues to hold color into the twilight. It was a place that gave one perspective.
When I was three and a half, Joe was born in a hospital in El Paso, unusual for the time, since most women had their babies at home. Mother had appendicitis while pregnant with me, a great worry, so extra precaution was taken for Joe's birth. Joe was born without incident.
The first house I remember was in the edge of Old Mesilla off present day Boutz Road. Our home, known as the Gale place, was a large, historic adobe with walls 18 inches thick. All the nails used in construction were said to have been brought from the East over the Santa Fe Trail. The house was one story and the roof was mud placed over a layer of small branches and twigs, which were supported by big, hand-hewn wooden vigas.
I liked the Gale house because the thick walls created wide window seats, and Mother let me have my paper dolls in one of these in the dining room. My paper dolls were cut-outs of ladies from the women’s magazines Mother received. There were also paper-doll books sold for little girls like me. I had a big collection.
Mother did not enjoy the house as much as we children did. The roof leaked during heavy downpours and harbored "varmints". She frequently battled cockroaches, and once in a while a centipede. But it was a good house for that climate. The thick walls kept it cool in summer and held the heat in winter.
Life for all the family in that house was pretty good. Mother was happy to be near Grandmother3 and saw her often. Our house was just across the main irrigation ditch from my Grandfather's4 orchard. I remember walking across the double-plank bridge and along a path through the orchard to Grandmother's house. This place was very special to me, and I imagine to Joe, too. There were big mulberry trees near the house that we could climb, and the fruit trees in the orchard were fun. The two-story house seemed huge and grand. Some of my clearest childhood memories were of being at Grandmother's house. Joe and I often stayed there when Mother was visiting or when she needed to go somewhere without us.
There was a feather bed in the bedroom I was permitted to sleep in, and a wide, screened porch around two sides on the second story. I still have vivid memories of the scene from that porch. Grandmother also had a library of children's books. I read Horatio Alger and Elsie Dinsmore, both of whom I disliked. Elsie Dinsmore she was such a little Goody-goody and that spoiled my name for me.
And when Uncle Jerry5, my mother’s younger brother, was home he played with us. He always teased me, but I thought he was the most fun of anybody. Uncle Fred and his beloved wife lived near during those years, and we saw him often at family gatherings. Aunt Gladys and Aunt Sadie6 lived there, too, their monthly room-and-board money contributing considerably to keeping the place going.
Mrs. Locke seemed like one of the Hines family. She and Mr. Locke lived in a small house across the road from Grandmother. She raised pansies, and in season picked these and shipped them to florists. When it was pansy picking time I used to go over and help her cut the blossoms. I learned a great deal about pansies. Mrs. Locke treated them as though she was very fond of them. She would point out the little faces and the distinctive characteristics of each. She usually kept a turtle, just a plain everyday land turtle, but a curiosity to me. She was a vivid character, and I still have a picture memory of her talking and can mentally hear her voice.
One summer Mother and Father took a trip to the Grand Canyon by Model T Ford mostly over dirt roads. Mother was not enthusiastic about going. Joe and I stayed at grandmother's house. I can still remember standing in the driveway watching their car disappear and the feeling I had about my mother being away for so long - three weeks. I couldn't have been older than seven because Lois was born when I was eight, and she wasn't even on the way.
Lois was born while we lived in the Gale house. I don't remember whether Mother went to a hospital. Lois was a little premature and weighed only four pounds at birth. There were no aids of the kind taken for granted now for caring for such an infant. Mother had to do it all herself. Caring for babies was difficult at best. Every Mother dreaded "the second summer", when the baby had reached a toddler stage and was eating some solid food. The heat was hard on them; they often got upset tummies, and sometimes worse. Some little ones died—two of Morher’s infant siblings had.
Besides Lois, Mother had other childhood illnesses to contend with. I, being the oldest, went to school first, was exposed to all the children's diseases and brought them all home to Joe and later Lois. I didn't have a very bad case of any myself, but Joe got quite sick with measles and mumps and chicken pox. One summer Mother was taking care of a child with chickenpox all summer. We were all sick. Mothers had to nurse their children through these illnesses without much help from the primitive medicines of that day.
Scarlet fever was one of the most serious of the ailments. I had it, but such a light case that it was not even recognized. Consequently, I exposed several other children at school. One was Ralph Poe. Our mothers were good friends and we often played together. He nearly died.
In the summers, Grandmother, Mother, Aunt Gladys, and Aunt Sadie canned fruit and made jams and jellies. It seemed to me that they worked all summer long in a hot kitchen. But everyone enjoyed the fruit in the wintertime. Grandfather made apple cider in a big wooden vat.
Joe and I sometimes picked cherries in Grandfather’s orchard. We climbed the big trees and gathered scattered red, sour cherries. We spent a lot of time there climbing trees, playing in the sand, and exploring.
In spite of New Mexico's relative newness as part of the United States it offered its children good education. I went to school in Old Mesilla for the first three grades, and Mesilla Park for fourth, fifth, and sixth. The grades taught "readin', writin', and 'rithmetic". We had learned some of this at home, as Mother had read stories to us at bedtime, and given us children’s books. She read to us almost every night, children’s classics -- the Beatrix Potter series, nursery rhymes, Just So stories, and others of that era. After I learned to read, I read Hans Christian Anderson tales and other fairy tales.
Our home also valued music. Mother played the piano well. She had studied piano in college, and kept up her playing afterward. She would order sheet music from a mail-order house and often played for church services and for special occasions. She gave me lessons for a couple of years but had to discontinue it because she didn't have time with all her other responsibilities. I have always regretted not being able to go on with the piano.
When I was in seventh grade my father bought a small farm five miles down the Valley south of the Gale house in the Brazito area, just east of present-day NM 478. Mother was unhappy to move so far away. In the days of the Model T and poor roads it was a long way from Grandmother and Mother's friends. She missed her friends terribly and grieved because she couldn’t help Grandmother more. Grandmother had become ill and eventually died in 1927. As was the custom in those days, her body was displayed in an open casket in the parlor. The parlor was opened only for very special occasions. I remember Mother taking me near to view Grandmother. It was the first time I saw a dead person.
The new Rigney farm was in an undeveloped part of the Valley where the land had not yet been leveled. My father had a house built, too small at first, as it seemed most of his small salary went to develop the rest of the farm. We had very little money for anything but essentials. My mother sewed well and made the clothes for both of us, and for my little sisters.
The move took my friends and me away from the good school I liked as well. The school Joe and I had to attend was a mile away and we walked to and from alongside the main road to El Paso. It was a three-teacher, two-room country school, which served a small community of farmers and farm workers. My teacher for seventh and eighth grade was a severe-looking, older woman, named Mrs. Pullam. She drilled us in the multiplication tables and grammar. And I learned them and still remember both well. I had the best grades in my graduating class and had to make a little speech. I was 12 years old.
My High School Years, 1928–1932
The Union High School was in Las Cruces, eight miles from our home on the farm. Las Cruces then had a population of about 7,000, one long main street, with Loretto Academy at the south end and Sheriff Lucero's house at the other. My only transportation to and from school was in a carpool with a group of kids we considered ‘Okies.’ I did that, unhappily, the first two years, and then a bus was started as population in that part of the Valley had grown. But both methods precluded me from staying after school to take part in most of the extra-curricular activities.
In my junior and senior years, I sometimes stayed with Aunt Sadie, Aunt Gladys, and Uncle Jerry, who lived together in Las Cruces. Jerry was hired as football and basketball at Las Cruces High school after his graduation from A&M in 1926. Staying over enabled me to partake in some of the school activities and have fun. I was in the senior play and was on the girls' basketball team.
Ruth was born during my sophomore year. She was unplanned. Mother was beginning menopause and not well. Ruth was a healthy baby, but Mother's health deteriorated. That summer, she spent a lot of time in bed and it became my job to help with baby Ruth, and especially to wash diapers. We did that the hard way -- no washing machine or drier. I vowed then that I would not marry and have children.
In order to get well, Mother had to have an operation to repair her damaged reproductive system. She had not had proper post-partum care after any of the babies. Father was opposed and wouldn't pay for it. Aunt Sadie insisted and took care of the costs. That undoubtedly saved Mother's life.
My father was a strict fundamentalist Southern Baptist. We attended Sunday school and Church every Sunday. He was superintendent of the Sunday school for several years and Mother played the piano. His intolerance of any beliefs but his own caused much sorrow for Mother and me later on.
I had good girl friends growing up. Bettina Mundy was my first. Her mother and mine were best friends as well. I am sure we played together as babies and from then on through childhood. Her younger brother, Bill was about Joe's age, so we made a good foursome. I didn't share high school with Bettina. I was a year ahead of her, and she had to walk home right after school, but we saw one another again later at NM A&M. My closest friend in high school was Jeanette Gustafson. The Gustafson’s lived on a farm near the College (off present-day El Paseo). Jeanette and I were the same age and in the same Sunday school class, as well as high school. She played the piano beautifully. Her younger brother, Henry, was Joe's age and a good friend.
In high school I was competitive for grades with a boy who lived in Las Cruces. Teachers and others spoke about how smart he was. I guess I was beginning a feminist attitude then because I was determined to get better grades than he did -- and I did. I was valedictorian of my graduating class, and he was salutatorian.
My father was not a good businessman and we didn't have much money. However, he did have a strong commitment to education and cultural values
The College was important in our lives. It provided the cultural life of the community. We attended concerts and recitals there. I attended many Commencement exercises with Mother and thought the processionals quite grand-- Father in cap and gown with the other faculty members.
There was never any doubt in our family that we children would go to college. A person finished college first before doing anything else. Both my parents valued education. They had both graduated from NM A&M in 1911, the year before New Mexico became a state. And it hadn’t been easy. My father had worked in the horticulture department to pay his expenses, and mother had ridden a little mare three miles from their home in order to attend classes. Her dedication to education and strong independence afterward set an important example for me.
New Mexico A&M, 1932–1936
I enrolled at New Mexico A&M in the autumn of l932, in the School of General Science with a major in English. It seems impossible, but I remember tuition for a semester being $50. 4-H Club work I had completed in the summers gave me a scholarship of $25 a semester. Soon after enrollment, I got a job as student stenographer for J. C. Overpeck, Professor of Agronomy. I had taken typing and shorthand in high school and had pretty good speed records in both. This job paid 25 cents an hour. My classes were mostly mornings, so I had nearly every afternoon to work. I was elected Secretary-Treasurer of the Freshman class.
Trouble with Father began immediately. I lived at home, and relied on him for transportation to and from the College where he worked. He knew my schedule and would come to walk with me between classes. His office was on the same floor as J.C. Overpeck's, and he would walk by my door frequently to check on me. He was opposed to dancing, sororities, and reluctant to allow me to go on dates. Tension had built up at home, also.
In spite of Father, I did have a romance in the spring of my freshman year with Tom Reid, son of a prominent and affluent lawyer and rancher in Albuquerque. Tom was an upperclassman, senior, I think, and had a nice car. I guess he was really in love with me because he gave up the Saturday night dances and fraternity parties (which I was not allowed to attend) to have dates with me. Tom wanted to marry. As the school year came to a close we discussed eloping. I was so discouraged with my situation at home and with Father that I was tempted, although I still felt strongly that I must finish school. Tom had a financial constraint. He was on a generous allowance from his parents. They would have to give consent or would cut off his funds. When he went home that summer and broached the subject he found his Mother strongly opposed. She hadn't met me, but said I would be entirely unsuitable. I was just a little country girl with no social training. Tom needed a different kind of wife. He wrote me as kindly as he could, but it hurt.
Tension at home increased further during my sophomore year. I had to ask Father's permission for any social event and as his disposition worsened it became harder and harder to do so. His friends were all on my side and tried to reason with him. When Burton Fite, an old friend who shared the office with Father, tried to explain to him that I needed a normal social life, Father got very angry and refused to have anything to do with the Fites thereafter.
One of my good friends was the secretary to the President, Flora Hamiel. Her husband Glenn, known affectionately as Ham, was head of the Chemistry Department. Flora became a mentor. She hired me as a student stenographer in the President’s office. That was a choice job on campus because it paid 35 cents an hours, not the usual 25.
As my junior year began the situation at home had grown even worse. With Mother’s consent, it became clear that I would have to leave home to have any semblance of a normal college life, or any social life afterward. Uncle Jerry had told me that I could live with him and Nona on campus where they were proctors at Kent Hall. To avoid Jerry being blamed by my father for my leaving home, I saved enough to join and live in the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority house the first three months; then I planned to move in with the Hines at Kent Hall.
One Saturday I decided to make the break. I had a date for a dance that night. In the early afternoon I packed an organdy evening dress Mother had made for a high school graduation party and another change of clothes. I walked north on the bank of the irrigation ditch about three miles to the home of the Mundy's. Betty Mundy, too, had been outspoken in her disapproval of Father's behavior and had offered to help me at any time.
From the Mundy's I telephoned my date, and later he came and picked me up and took me to the dance. I was afraid all evening that Father would appear at the entrance to the gym with a gun in his hand. He didn’t, but he did react strongly. He went to see a judge in Las Cruces to try to force me back, but I was eighteen and couldn’t be forced. He wanted to lodge charges against Jerry for having influenced me to leave, but he had no case. The final outcome was that Father was fired at the end of that school year for his behavior.
I went to live with Jerry and Nona that winter (photos). Jerry was now football and basketball coach at the College.
Their apartment at Kent was in one end of the dorm. I moved in and became the only girl at New Mexico A&M to live in a boys' dorm! I paid $10 a month toward the cost of food and did housework for Nona. I washed the dishes after dinner each night and cleaned the apartment on Saturdays. I admired them both and enjoyed them. They were witty and lots of fun. I lived with them until I graduated in 1936.
Nona's style and sophistication made me feel inferior, but she was nice to me. The Hines’ lives were at the opposite end of the spectrum. In some ways I found this disturbing, too. Their recreation was "partying" with a group of young marrieds in Las Cruces. The entertainment was drinking and telling dirty stories. The same pattern was followed with visiting coaches. Later on this proved destructive. As the couples drank more and more they got entangled with one another's spouses. Eventually, several couples divorced. The coaches were a disillusionment too. Jerry protected me from them most of the time, but once in a while one would sneak around and proposition me.
This, of course, made life more difficult for my mother because my father blamed the Hines for my "running away." He was intransigent, said I was disowned, and told Mother not to have anything to do with me. That was a great sadness for both of us. She did come to see me now and then at the College, and in the succeeding years we remained very close.
Despite the family problems, I started having a fine time at College. I enjoyed the sorority, went to all the dances, and took part in other activities on campus. I was sorority president during my senior year and had the lead in the senior play.
Academically, I thrived. The head of the English department was a brilliant, witty man, Rufus Breland, who was in New Mexico rather than a more prestigious eastern university because of the freedom it offered. He didn’t have to publish nor to study for a higher degree. He liked to go to Harvard in summers to take courses from a then famous Shakespearian scholar. He liked his English majors those years and gave us some courses not usually offered -- for example, a semester of Anglo-Saxon, and one of Chaucer.
Another unusual person was Dr. Baldwin, Dean of the School of General Science. He was an austere appearing Englishman. In addition to his responsibilities as Dean, he taught courses, one of which was History of England. I had a personal encounter with him that is fun to remember. I missed the semester exam for History of England and had to make it up orally, sitting beside his desk and answering questions. The questions were thorough and hardly missed a section of the book. He wanted to see whether I was as smart as Breland said I was. He was skeptical of Breland's judgment because I was also pretty. Word came back to me that he decided Breland was right.
Probably the most exciting thing that happened to me was in my senior year. Uncle Jerry’s football team won the 1935 Border Conference and was invited to play post-season in the first Sun Bowl in El Paso. There was to be a big celebration and parade. I was elected Sun Bowl princess to represent the College. There were also other princesses from local towns. We rode on the Queen’s float in the parade on New Year’s Day, and were interviewed by a Hollywood talent scout. He told me I was his first choice and made an offer. I said no, that I was in the middle of my senior year and had to finish before I did anything else.
While the decision to leave home seemed necessary -- and I haven't changed my mind about it since -- it had a high cost. I was deprived of companionship with my mother, with whom I had a close, loving relationship, and did not really know my brother and sisters until we were adults. Joe was four years behind me in school. His birthday was mid December so he was not allowed to begin school until he was six and a half. Those four years in the "growing up" ages were a gulf. Besides which, we didn't have time to be together when we were home because Father always made him work hard around the farm, and I helped Mother in the house. When I left at eighteen, Lois was ten and Ruth, four (see photo with Mother taken a few years later). They were all forbidden to have anything to do with me, and, of course, I was not allowed home. It wasn’t until much later that I reconnected with my siblings.
I graduated in late May of 1936. The class was relatively small, I think about 125. I was valedictorian of my graduating class again.
That was a depression year in New Mexico. The Big Depression had hit New Mexico a little later than the East and Middle West. All of us graduates were worried about getting a job. It was the first year that all of the Ag and Engineering students hadn’t been recruited before graduation. I was especially worried because I had no choice but to make it on my own. Because of my college record and the influence of professors and good friends, I was offered a position teaching English at Las Cruces Union High School. It was with relief that I accepted this position.
After leaving college and teaching at Las Cruces High, Elsie embarked on a long and interesting professional career and then, a full family life. With an infant son, she worked for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in Washington, D.C. during the World War II years. When UNRRA disbanded after the War, she worked for the Food Assistance Organization and then the State Department. In 1954, she accepted a position with The Ford Foundation in Indonesia where she worked for two years on education and vocational projects. In Djakarta, son Mike was home schooled with the University of Wisconsin program for secondary education. While in Indonesia, she met and later (1957) married Dr. Jesse Carr of San Francisco. Dr. Carr was in the Pathology Department at the University of California and Chief Pathologist at San Francisco General Hospital from 1932-67.
A long series of "adventures" ensued with the ever-energetic Dr. Carr – competitive yachting, world travel, a vacation home in the Fiji’s, a ranch in the Central Valley of California, and many return trips to New Mexico State University for Homecoming and with the NMSU Foundation. Elsie received the prestigious NMSU Branding Iron award in 2004 for her generosity and service to her alma mater. She is presently retired in San Rafael, California.
In her recently completed memoir, Elsie’s Story, she made the following statement:
As I look back over my life, which has spanned nearly a century, I see unusual experiences for a woman during that time. And what a time it has been with World War II, the feminist revolution, the "Hippie" era, the Civil Rights movement, and the profound changes in communication and travel started by the technical developments emanating from Silicon Valley.
I see a strong independence as part of my nature, and self-confidence in spite of being fully aware of the societal limitations on what a woman could do. My mother had set an example of the independence by, first of all, getting a college education and then refusing to marry for two years while she proved she could make a living teaching school.
My leaving home in the middle of my college career put me on a different course from that of my classmates. Because of irreconcilable differences with my father about how I should live in college I felt it necessary to leave if I were going to have a full life, but it did make my life more difficult. Good friends supported me and were mentors when needed.
1. Mother Elsie Raye Hines Rigney (d. 1969) was born in Indiana and moved with the Hines family to Springer in 1891 and then to Old Mesilla in 1901. She was the oldest of five children of Lemuel and Minnie Murlin Hankins Hines, the other four of whom were Fred (d. 1977), Gladys (d. 1953), Harold (d.1964), and Gerald (Jerry) (d. 1963).
2. Father Joseph W. Rigney (d. 1978) came to New Mexico in 1909 as a student at New Mexico A & M with other family members from Alabama. Rigney had been enrolled at Auburn for two years and finished his college schooling in horticulture at A & M in 1911. He and wife Elsie Raye had four children – Elsie (San Rafael, CA), Joe (d. 1979), Lois (d.2008), and Ruth (Albuquerque). All graduated from New Mexico A & M.
3. Minnie Hankins Hines (d. 1927) married Lemuel in 1890 in Indiana. She migrated with him, first to Springer, NM in 1891 and then to Old Mesilla in 1901.
4. Lemuel Hines (d. 1935) was a medical doctor who first practiced in Springer in 1891, but opted to develop a mail order orchard business after buying property in Old Mesilla in 1901.
5. Jerry Hines married Nona Viola Mossman (d. 1954) of Mesquite in 1930. He graduated from Las Cruces High in 1922 and New Mexico A & M in 1926. Hines was a star athlete and coached at Las Cruces High from 1926-29 and at A & M from 1929-40; and 1946-47.
6. Sadie Hankins (d. 1953), sister of Minnie Hankins Hines, lived with the Hines family in Old Mesilla, and later with sister-in-law Gladys Hines in Las Cruces. She was a long-time school teacher in Las Cruces.