Founding of Jal

[Transcribed from the 60th Anniversary Collector’s Edition of the Lea County Fair and Rodeo program for the event held August 5-12, 1995]

The Cowden Brothers had operated the vast JAL Ranch since 1886 coming from Palo Pinto County, Texas. The lure of shallow water and good grass led to their coming to the Monument Draw bringing cattle branded with the JAL brand. They established waterings about every ten miles up the draw. Spencer Jowell, Gene Cowden, Autry Moore, and Stumpy Roundtree all ran the New Mexico Cowden Ranch at one time. The last foreman before the company closed out in 1915 was Bob Beverly. Settlers began to pour into the area to claim their homesteads as they learned of the grass and shallow water. Some of them would later sell out as they realized the isolation of the area because of vast sands and the impossibility of dry land farming. These homesteaders sold out and moved.

The founder of Jal was Charles W. Justis, a Southern gentleman who arrived before 1910 and opened his mercantile business six miles east of the present city of Jal. On July 6, 1910 he was granted authority to open his post office. To obtain his permit, his sons had to carry the mail from Kermit (25 miles) three months for no charge. As Justis determined a site more suitable to his store existed, he moved his business to the present site of Jal in 1916.

The fall of 1912 saw the first school for Jal with about 14 students. The lumber was hauled from Midland for building the 12×14 oneroom school house. Leroy Lancaster was the first teacher and he soon married his student Buna Justis, Charles’s daughter. As the number of pupils grew, Eddy County purchased a larger building twenty miles away in Texas and the patrons had to move the structure over the sands to the new site three miles east of the present school.

The drought hit this area very hard and many settlers either moved away or were forced to leave their families and find work elsewhere. The school closed but Justis’ store and post office remained. The school hung on with Martha Woolworth Knowles as teacher for the few pupils.

For the next decade, life in Jal centered around the various ranches where neighbors gathered for musicals and dances, barbeques and visiting. West of Jal the Charlie Goedeke home was a gathering place and on the East was the Knight place where Mrs. Knight would play the piano and the French harp. Some of the other settlers of the area were Charlie and Jim Dublin the Buffingtons, Billy and Mont Beckham and Alfred Perry Easton.

The exploration and discovery of oil and gas made major changes in the small settlement of Jal. On November 1, 1927, The Texas Company brought in the Rhodes No. 1 six miles southeast of Jal and in June 1928 Continental Oil Company brought in Eaves No. 1 and Jal became Lea County’s first oil and gas boom town.

With the influx of speculators, drilling crews and construction workers came the tents and shacks and formation of two townsite companies that were in competition. The Hubbs-Justis Townsite Company took in north Jal and the Jal Townsite Company formed by Floyd Stuart, Richard Herwig, and Clyde Woolworth took in the southern area. The Herwig Company became the area where most of Jal developed. The depression hit and crude oil prices fell along with Jal’s prosperity, but El Paso Natural Gas Company came in 1931 with gas gathering lines to provide employment that was to prove a stable force in Jal for years to come.

By 1935, Jal had four service stations, two dry goods stores, two drug stores, three lumber yeards and even a movie theater. The Woolworth Hotel was in operation and served meals. New Mexico Electric Company came in 1935 and a telephone system of sorts was operating. In 1935, Dr. J. L. Burke was superintendent of schools and a four year high school started. The Jal Record owned by Floy Wynn was founded in 1950. Dr. Burke purchased the Herwig Townsite Company and donated land for church building sites. Jal was on its way to becoming the “Gas Capital” of the country.