BY ROBERT MORALES
Last Sunday, I had two very interesting conversations with two persons I call sages. One of them, who asked to remain anonymous, lives here, and heâ€™s has a good, long life.
The other person I spoke with (by phone) was Clara Landers, who is now 93 years old, and lives in Farmington, New Mexico.
The gentleman I spoke with came in last week to buy a newspaper, and he told me he had worked for the county during the discussions about building a new courthouse and tearing down the old one. I asked him if I could speak with him on Sunday, so I paid him a visit on Sunday afternoon. Iâ€™ve spoken to this person on numerous occasions, and he is a walking history book. I always learn something new from him. For the sake of this piece, Iâ€™ll call him John.
John proudly showed me the plaque he received from the county after 10 years of service. As is the case when I visit John, I donâ€™t really need to ask many questions becausehe generally provides all the information and facts in his methodical, deliberate manner.
Although I went to visit John to gather some more historical perspective about the courthouse, we touched on a number of subjects. As he recalls, the early 1960s were a difficult time. Jobs were scarce. Racism was rampant, even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Cronyism in government was considered the normal mode of operation.
John was quite familiar with the old courthouse because he said that besides the traditional use as a county building, it was probably better known for the social events that took place on the second floor. The second-floor court room was apparently quite large and majestic, with very tall ceilings and a hardwood floor. It was easy to transform the court room into the ballroom because the chairs and tables could easily be moved aside to the corners of the room.
As John saw it, he couldnâ€™t understand why the commissioners wanted to tear down the old courthouse. He spoke to one commissioner, and that commissioner was initially not too keen on building a new courthouse. However, by the time the vote was cast, that commissioner had changed his mind. I asked John whether twisting of the arm had likely taken place, and he said that there was no question that commissioners in favor of a new courthouse had strong-armed the lone stand-out.
The old courthouse sat in limbo after the new structure was built in 1964. It wasnâ€™t until 1967 that the demolition of the courthouse began. John said he and some of his fellow county workers began using a pick to try and pry the bricks from the courthouse. It was a slow, tedious job that was taking too long and it wasnâ€™t working well. After a few weeks, the Gifford-Hill Company decided that the only way to effectively remove the red bricks was to set an explosive.
John assisted in setting up the various dynamite points for a mild implosion that would in theory allow the bricks to fall inward once the charge had been set. John said the plan worked. The bricks fell inside the building and the bricks were eventually carried away by former business owner, Bud Smith.
As for the hardwood floors, some of the hardwoods ended up at what is now The Red Barn (Bucky Etheridgeâ€™s place on Broadway. However, before Bucky, it was the Oasis Bar. According to John, the locals didnâ€™t take too kindly to a woman owner of a bar, especially a bar on Broadway, and it was shut down within weeks.
As for my conversation with Ms. Landers, it was a real treat. Iâ€™m sure I met her when I was a few years old, but I donâ€™t remember her. Of course, once she told me she had written for The El Paso Times, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the San Angelo Standard Times, I had a new respect for her. But weâ€™ll digress for a moment.
She would have nothing of that.
Ms. Landers didnâ€™t want to say too much about the demise of the old courthouse other than it shouldnâ€™t have happened. During her heyday in Van Horn, she wore many hats. She was a board member on the Chamber of Commerce. She was the countyâ€™s first auditor (more on that later). She was postmaster, and she was instrumental in getting the Texas Mountain Trail launched under Gov. John Connollyâ€™s administration.
When Ms. Landers became the county auditor, she said County Judge Norman Breed and some of the commissioners werenâ€™t happy with her or anyone else in that position. Commissioners attempted to pass a law that would eliminate the county auditor. That didnâ€™t last long.
Ms. Landers won her first battle in an appeal with the state attorney general. County Judge Breed appealed to the stateâ€™s Supreme Court. Ms. Landers, using her own funds, hired her own attorney, and she won. She was county auditor from the early 1970s until the late 1970s. I wonâ€™t discuss the number of irregularities she found as auditor because of poor accounting practices. Letâ€™s just say sheâ€™s proud that under her tenure, she was able to save the county about 49-percent in expenditures.
As for her tenure with The El Paso Times, she wrote for the newspaper for 16 years. She explained that the Times had for some time been writing negative stories about the shenanigans taking place in Van Horn. She complained vehemently to the editor, and he offered her the job as writer. Although Ms. Landers had previously had no experience as a journalist, she quickly learned by herself through books and through correspondence classes.