City of Dust: Claunch, New Mexico

Pinto Beans and Singing Conventions

Claunch’s position in central New Mexico put it firmly within the pinto bean empire of the early part of the 20th century, when neighbor Mountainair was proclaiming itself the “Pinto Bean Capital of the World” and soldiers fighting in WWI were eating beans that had been grown in the fertile Estancia Valley.

Back around 1900, when Claunch was being settled, it wasn’t known as Claunch. Instead, it was called Fairview. Or perhaps DuBois Flats, after Frank DuBois, a local cattle and sheep rancher. Or maybe it had been called both. I can find no certainty on the matter. (UPDATE: Claunch was formerly known by both names, with DuBois Flats the earliest, dating to the 1890’s.) Whatever the case, Claunch became Claunch near 1930, when the town was big enough to warrant its own post office and a DuBois, NM already existed. Or a Fairview, NM existed. Or both did. But a new moniker was definitely needed and L.H. Claunch, who ran the nearby Claunch Cattle Co., agreed that his surname could be used for the town. Later, he would firmly refuse to let his name be attached to the Claunch Saloon, which thus never opened.

Claunch flourished in the 1910’s and 1920’s, before it was actually called Claunch. However, by the early-1930’s, just as Claunch had gotten its name and post office, the Great Depression and the relentless drought of the Dust Bowl began to hit farmers in the Estancia Valley hard. Within a few years a Works Progress Administration (WPA) school would be built, but as more topsoil was carried off by the howling prairie winds it was already becoming too late. The school closed in the 1950’s, but its skeleton yet sits on the plains.

Where it’s been said that there was once a homestead on every 640-acre section in the area, by the late-1960’s it was more like one homestead for every 20 sections, and only six or eight close-knit families inhabited Claunch. These are numbers which have certainly not increased in the last 50 years and the place remains isolated, the nearest towns, as ever, being Mountainair, 37 miles northwest, and Carrizozo, 42 miles southeast.

While Claunch is largely quiet these days, if you listen closely you might hear voices on the breeze, for singing once echoed loudly across the gravel roads. At first, there were gatherings in people’s homes, but then, in 1916, under a brush arbor not far off from town, the Torrance County Singing Convention was born. These were not informal get-togethers, but true events rooted in long religious tradition stretching back to the remote forests of New England in the 1700’s. Ralph Looney, relating his attendance at a convention in Claunch in “Haunted Highways,” even describes learning of shape-notes, a tool intended to aid those who can’t read music, which has a rich history in a unique type of hymn singing in the Deep South often referred to as Sacred Harp.

The Torrance County Singing Convention attracted people from all over the region and even those from other states who had moved away. A yearly state-wide convention could bring in as many as 1200 singers. In DuBois Flats/Fairview/Claunch, the singing convention “year” began on the fourth Sunday in April, with another convention held in June, August, and October. And, as with Sacred Harp “sings” in the South, food–and lots of it–was required to sustain hours upon hours of music in which everyone participated. So, after two hours of singing in the morning, it was time for lunch.

Ralph Looney describes a spread he saw in the mid-1960’s, years after one might’ve assumed Claunch was forgotten: “Meat loaf, fried chicken, roast chicken, ham, beef roast and pork roast. Turkey, molded fruit salads, slaw, tossed salads. Vegetables like pickled beets, green beans, wax beans, mashed potatoes, potato salad, candied yams. Homemade yeast rolls and cornbread. Chocolate cake, angel food, vanilla cake, white cake, apple pie, cherry pie, blueberry pie and so on and on and on and on.” Then would follow at least another three hours of songs such as “Joy is Coming,” “Then We’ll be Happy,” and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.”

I’ve been assured there is still fine music being made in Claunch, if not on quite so grand a scale. And the post office is open yet, and operating as a library, too. You can check a book out or swap for one of your own. But as you walk past the old pinto bean elevator, with Ye Olde Dance Hall still faintly visible on the front, and a sign for a museum which it’s probably best you not wait too long to open, it is the past you feel, remarkably soothing–which is not always the case in such places–and somehow alive and singing.

It is perhaps worth adding a short postscript: Claunch lies about 40 miles northeast of the Trinity Site as the crow flies. Given prevailing winds on the morning of the world’s first atomic bomb blast, it was directly in the path of potential fallout. People from the region still talk of cows that turned white after the explosion and were then shown off at local fairs as curiosities to ponder over. But it’s cancer that may be the longest-lasting local legacy of Trinity, and while a group calling themselves the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium has been fighting for recognition and compensation, it could be too late for Claunch, whose population is now under 10, the old-timers gone, their families scattered long ago. It’s a strange and unsettling footnote in the history of the little town of pinto beans and singing conventions.

Ralph Looney’s “Haunted Highways” provided a wonderful description of Claunch in the 1960’s, while “Ghost Towns Alive” by Linda Harris revisited the town over 40 years later. I grabbed a little info from Robert Julyan’s “The Place Names of New Mexico,” as I tend to do, as well.

Next time we’ll just see where we end up. I’ve got a backlog of locations that only seems to grow larger.

This post originally appeared on the City of Dust blog.


  1. Super article. Very interesting. Does anyone know anything about the beautiful Lithuanian Catholic church that’s near Rincon?

    1. abandon hope, I don’t know any of the details regarding the church’s construction, but it is beautiful and definitely stands out in the village. I’ve got some pictures of it and it photographs quite well, too!

  2. My dad left Claunch in 1933. My grandmother took her 4 kids on a boxcar to California. My dads family, the Joneses were farmers around Torrence and Lincoln counties. My Great uncle and aunt owned the Blanchard rock Shop in Bingham NM. for many years.

    1. I finally got to stop by Claunch, NM today, May 25, 2020. I had never heard of it until a few years back when I was reading about ghost towns in NM. My family and I are from Albuquerque and decided to take a day trip to Gran Quivira Ruins and to his uncle’s old homestead in Mountainair, NM. We came across Claunch as we left Gran Quivira Ruins. I could not believe my eyes! There in front of me stood the old skeleton buildings one by one covered in dust. I took pictures of Claunch and wondered what it would have looked by in its heyday.

  3. It was so fascinating to find this article about Claunch. Thank you for sharing the memories!
    My late husband D.H. “Doc” Dean lived on a ranch there for about forty years. He was active in the Soil and Water conservation for all of New Mexico, serving as State President in the seventies.
    “Doc” had just turned 25 years old four days before that fateful day the first atomic bomb forever changed the world. He related to me that he and his Mother Mabel had rushed outside to Investigate the noise and brightness of the blast. One has to wonder what went through their minds when they saw the looming
    mushroom cloud!
    “Doc’s” 14 year old grandson, Ethan ,finished off his science research paper about the first atomic bomb with this bit of personalization about the grandfather he never met. His great Uncle Harold Dean
    was post master at Bingham in 1945.

  4. Thank you for sharing that family history, Sharon Dean! I can’t even imagine what it would’ve been like to be that close to the blast. Scary! And dangerous.

    That’s very touching that Ethan wrote a paper about the Trinity Test with his grandfather in mind. You can’t ever know too much history, I say! Even more so when it connects to family.

    I’d like to have done a post on Bingham, but the closest I came to doing that was a piece on Carthage, Tokay, and Frailey, three ghost towns a handful of miles west on Highway 380. You can find that HERE.

    Thanks again for your comment! – John

  5. Thank you to the persons who made and keep this website.
    I was born in 1942 on the Nathan and Nellie Underwood pinto bean farm across the road from Vernie Wells property between Gran Quivira and Liberty. The farm was sold to Vernie Wells, and last I heard, Vernie (probably his descendants) still owns the Underwood Farm. My father’s father, Arnold Braswell, owned a farm up just past Liberty.
    In July of 1945, I was 3-1/2 years old, so I drank the tainted cistern water and milk from the cows that ate the tainted grass. The “tainted” of course was the fallout from the atomic blast.
    We traveled to Claunch many times in my very young days, more than likely to see relatives, but I don’t remember who. I moved from the area in the last half of my third grade. I drove through the area in 2017 and was shocked to see how desolate everything is and how dry. Quite different from when I lived there. I can still remember the smell from the summer rains and lying down in the tall grass and looking at the big white clouds overhead, and the blue, blue New Mexico sky. Great childhood memories.
    I have a thyroid condition, more than likely from the fallout of the atomic bomb. I always wondered through the years which way the wind blew and now I know, after research on the internet. So far, I have managed to survive my health challenges; however, my sister, born in 1943, died of cancer at age 54. I consider myself a Trinity Downwinder and have subscribed to the Consortium.
    It would be my joy to come back to visit the area and Claunch once again before I depart this earth.

  6. Thank you for your recollections, Lela Gayle Braswell Merz. They are very poignant. I can only imagine what Claunch must’ve looked like before the drought of the 1950s, in particular. I still find it a very pleasant place to visit and it feels peaceful, despite the region being tied forever to the effects of the Trinity Test. I’ve heard from a number of people that grew up in the vicinity that have a history of cancer throughout their family, and I’m sorry to hear about your sister. But I’m glad you’ve made it through your challenges and I do hope you’re able to return to Claunch. If you go back for a visit, try to stop by the post office/library to say hello. I’m sure anyone there will be able to make you feel right back at home.

    Best Wishes, John

  7. I was a home health nurse in Lincoln County for 10 years but saw two patients in Claunch even though it was technically outside of Lincoln County. Used to love the drive out over the grassy plains. I saw patients all over that area all the way up past Corona, down past Carrizozo to Oscura, and over in White Oaks, Capitan and Lincoln. Met a lot of interesting people. Best years of my nursing career.

  8. Highways 54, 380 and beyond…what wonderful roads to be traveling regularly, Kat Pererson! I miss them myself.

    Thanks for your comment!

    John – City of Dust

  9. My father, Bob Winters was born in Claunch 1931 on a 640 acre homestead, attending school and church there. At 9 years old he worked on a bean farm the summer of 1940 earning about $30. He told us 9 children many stories of his poor childhood. In 1976, he brought 7 of us to a reunion there, a pie supper was held. I remember the post office. We went to see what was left standing of his abandoned home. He inherited and eventually sold the homestead never to return. We hit alot of jackrabbits and tumbleweeds on the gravel roads leaving Claunch, lonesome country and bright blue skies.

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