Fortune seekers and farmers, criminals and cowboys, honest folk and just a few scoundrels – the early days of Carlsbad (named Eddy for its first decade) drew a few of each type.

Billy Kerr, pictured here with a burro and a colt. He arrived in Carlsbad in 1901. Photo taken from Nearlovingsbend.net

When your town’s first sheriff is a pardoned murderer who is later accused of gunning down your town’s third sheriff, nobody will ever accuse your community of having a boring history. One can’t help but wonder, however, if some of the community’s more mundane arrivals – its farmers, teachers and general store owners – wondered what on earth they’d gotten themselves into.

First, a brief geography lesson.

The town of Eddy officially formed in 1889 and would not change its name to Carlsbad for another decade. Charles Eddy and his brother were hitting up investors to build a dam, while also trying to recruit settlers to the largely-empty area. There were more floods, droughts and dust storms than some people anticipated, and not every early recruit decided to stay. However, quite a few did, and the town of Eddy was born.

By 1890, there were also several hundred workers camped to the north, working on what would become the Flume. Along the trail between Eddy and the Flume, there was a compound of tents that was generally called Wolf Town, or sometimes Temptation. Eddy was dry, but Wolf Town had a saloon, and, perhaps, a few other forms of entertainment.

There was another similar spot (but larger saloon) just south of Eddy that everybody called Sin Town, or sometimes Phenix (sic), or Phoenix, or maybe even Hagerman City. There was a reputable city called Lookout to the southeast (east of what is today Malaga) and the town of Seven Rivers to the north. Folks who visited Eddy in 1890 were often the first of their respective profession to do so.

Daily Life

There was a spirit of freshness in Eddy, at least reflected by the daily reports of the Eddy Argus, the town’s newspaper. In his 1974 compilation “The Pearl of the Pecos,” Lee Myers chronicles the newspaper’s daily offerings.

The first baby is recorded, as is the first brick house. A visiting dentist says he may move there, and everyone in town was excited when a new general store opened. “Six months ago, there was not a single resident living west of Main Street,” the Argus observes. “Now we have five. Who says this town is not growing?”

Eddy’s professed chance to start anew on the frontier also drew its share of shadier characters. Zach Light and W.T. Henderson appeared in the equivalent of the police blotter, but most of their charges were dismissed due to a lack of evidence. Each man was fined $50, however.

The town of Eddy’s early persona appears to be mixed, based on Myers’ compilation. There are short stories espousing the values of temperance, but also commentaries on new brands of bourbon that have arrived in Wolf Town. No subject was too small.

“Maxell, the celebrated potato raiser of Black River, was in town last Saturday with a load of his famous product,” the Argus writes. “The man who says that potatoes cannot be raised in this country should have seen that load.”

The Argus did not avoid mentioning some of the area’s gunfights, but it certainly didn’t spotlight the issue. Shootings were just sort of one of the things that happened every now and then.

“To show that this is a peaceable, law-abidin’ town, where the rights of others are respected, we mention that two gentlemen with plug hats appear on the streets every day and are not molested,” declared the editor. Another paragraph describes a dramatic shooting that took place a particular week, but concludes, “Orteoja (the deceased) was a regular bully; and nobody regrets his death.”

It took a little bit of effort to settle the frontier. At one point, the Argus observes that there were 20 women at a local dance, which was a pretty big deal since there were only 10 women in Eddy the year before.

Other notable tidbits:

“Bill Miller last Sunday killed a rattlesnake seventeen feet long on Hagerman Heights. As Mr. Miller is a total abstainer, this statement may be accepted as true.”

“John Joyce has quit wearing billed shirts and resumed woolens with holes in the elbows. Isn’t that significant?”

But every now and then an incident would take place that was big enough to the point that the Argus could not hide it beneath passages about potato farmers and rattlesnakes.

One of Eddy’s earliest unsolved mysteries involves a battle between a sheriff and a former sheriff. In his book “Unsolved: New Mexico’s American Valley Ranch Murders & Other Mysteries,” author Don Bullis chronicles the Feb. 18, 1897 shooting of Sheriff Les Dow.

Local historian Jed Howard was honored last year by having a road named after him. Howard passed away in 2017.

Accused was one Dave Kemp, who served as Eddy’s elected sheriff in 1890. He’d won his first gunfight when he was 15. He was sentenced to hang for that one, but his sentence was later commuted and he received a pardon. He left Texas for the developing town of Eddy, where he worked as a cowboy and part owner of the Lone Wolf Saloon. He was also reportedly part owner of the Silver King Saloon in Phenix, and he ran a butcher shop that may or may not have sold meat from stolen cattle. Kemp himself did not drink alcohol, and the Eddy Argus even commented that chewing gum might just be his only vice.

Either way, according to Bullis, Kemp was elected the developing town of Eddy’s sheriff in a contested election. His term ended in 1894. J.D. Walker won the next election, but he then lost to Les Dow, a former livestock investigator. Dow had his own portfolio as a gunfighter – he had shot and killed Zack Light at the Seven Rivers Saloon in 1891, but was not charged after the shooting was ruled to be self defense.

Dow and Kemp didn’t get along very well. At one point, Dow accused Kemp of stealing a calf. The charges were dropped. Then Kemp accused Dow of stealing several cattle. Those charges were also dismissed.

Dow took office in January of 1897. Within a few days, he’d arrested Kemp for carrying a gun. A month later, Dow died in a mysterious shooting downtown, reportedly shot by two men in a concealed

doorway. There were conflicting stories and multiple possible motives, but Kemp was ultimately arrested and charged with Dow’s murder. The trial took place in Roswell and resulted in Kemp’s acquittal. Kemp later moved to Oklahoma, where he died of a heart attack in 1934.

Did Kemp shoot Dow? And if so, why? There is some speculation that it might have been more than a personal vendetta – that Kemp was protecting the interests of another cattle rustler in the area. One of Carlsbad’s first mysteries may never be solved.