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Judge Seaman Field House
Across the street from the 1917 Deming Armory (a three-story, red-brick government building with an imposing façade), the Judge Seaman Field House, a low, white residence with shingled roof and decorative gable windows is literally a building from another era. With initial construction starting in the late 1880s, the Seaman House is one of Deming’s earliest dwellings. Standing in contrast to the armory, it dates from the territorial period, a loose time when a private residence could assume the function of a U.S. Customs facility.
On the road to statehood, railroads played a critical role, removing New Mexico from isolation and reducing the cost of overland transportation. Without railroads, many felt the territory was not ready for self-government. Governor Miguel A. Otero, a vigorous statehood promoter, said in his report to the Secretary of the Interior in 1901, “Prior to the advent of the railroads and the introduction and maintenance of the public school system it is an admitted fact that New Mexico was not prepared for statehood.”
Deming came as a result of the railroad — in fact two railroads, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (AT&SF) and the Southern Pacific, which met in 1881 near the future town, giving the territory its first access to both coasts. Known at first as New Chicago and later moved and renamed Deming, the town quickly grew from a tent city into a town of brick buildings lining tidy commercial streets. New railroad towns like Deming signaled the territory was ready and open for business as a state.
But there’s a story behind Deming’s rise to prominence. The area making up the future city was first sold on February 25, 1881 by Irwin P. Long, a Wyandotte Nation Indian, to Albert A. Robinson, a chief engineer for the AT&SF, surveying the new railroad across southern New Mexico. Long, who lived in the Indian Territory, had obtained the 640-acre parcel thanks to an 1842 treaty between the Wyandottes and the United States, when the former ceded their homeland in Ohio and Michigan for land west of the Mississippi River. Under the treaty, the government agreed to grant a number of individuals patent sections (640 acres) of any land west of the Missouri River set apart for Indian use and not occupied by another tribe. As one of 35 recipients, Long owned one of these “floating grants”: a square-mile of land 1,000 miles from his home.
Three weeks after Long sold his land to Robinson, on March 19, 1881, a townsite patent was filed, and settlers poured into the new railroad center. Among the earliest were Seaman Field and his family.
Born of Welsh ancestry on February 27, 1829 in Jefferson County, New York, Field began his career as a young boy clerking in his brother’s store in Ellisburg, New York. Later, still as a young man, he went to New York City, where worked for his uncle. In 1849, he moved to New Orleans, and operated for ten years as a salesman for a mercantile house. At age 28, he married Maggie Clannon, which resulted in two sons and three daughters.
For the sake of Maggie’s health, they moved to San Antonio, Texas, where Field engaged in sheep raising and merchandising. During the Civil War he enlisted in the Confederate Army, and served in the Thirty-third Texas Calvary. Field followed the railroad to Deming, establishing a ranch and a wholesale liquor business. He engaged in insurance and real estate and was a stockbroker in the Yellow Jacket and Blue Jacket silver and lead mines. He was a boom-town capitalist.
Field bought an existing house on Silver Avenue, a small adobe built sometime between 1881 and 1886. (A portion of this adobe — presumably the oldest dwelling in Deming — remains in the center of the house). By 1893, he had added a long wing extending west from the back of the house.
From 1898 to 1902, the house changed from a typical adobe to what could be called a ranch house exhibiting folk Victorian elements — with a prominent front gable, full-length porch and shingled roof. The contrast between the rough and new is best seen standing in the attic looking out the gable window. Almost as if wedged in the un-plastered adobes are wood windows outfitted with delicate lozenge and diamond shaped lights, giving the residence — at least its exterior — a Victorian finish. By 1902, the same year Field became Eminent Commander of the Deming Knights Templar, the house was complete.
After the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, the United States Treasury authorized customs collections points in the new territory, starting with a customs house in the El Paso area. By 1860 another customs collector was operating in Las Cruces. Initially, Silver City served as the port of entry for customs in Grants and Luna counties, but with the growth of Deming, the customs office relocated to the railroad town in 1882.
In 1888, President Grover Cleveland appointed Field a United States customs collector; a position he would hold during the president’s two terms (1885-1889; 1893-1897). Field was perhaps the only person to hold the office without a bond. It appears from documentation Field collected customs from his home on Silver Avenue during his first appointment. But during his second term, he performed his customs duties at a building one block north. After his service, a small wooden “U.S. Customs House” was erected on an adjacent lot north of his home. In 1900, the port of entry transferred to Columbus to the south, and the small wooden building was removed, as Field completed an addition to his house where the building once stood.
In May 1901, President William McKinley rolled into Deming on his way to San Francisco to attend the launching of the Battleship Ohio. Hundreds gathered, with American flags flying, star-spangled bunting draping down telegraph poles, and statehood banners whipping in the wind. The scene should have communicated that New Mexico — or at least Deming — desperately wanted to become a state. But in a brief address, McKinley did not commit to statehood. Deming would move on without his support.
Seaman Field became the town’s first mayor after Deming incorporated in 1902. He held positions on the board of school trustees, and at the county level, as a commissioner and probate judge for Luna County — hence the future reference to him as Judge Field. Later, he became president of the board of regents for the New Mexico Agricultural College, now New Mexico State. Judge Seaman Field, a small architect in the road to statehood, died in 1907, remembered at the time as “one of the most highly respected citizens of the southern portion of New Mexico, a man who in the breadth of his vision, his business activity and his political service has made his life of benefit to his fellow men.”
Today, the Judge Seaman Field home is interpreted as a house museum by the Deming Luna Mimbres Museum, which operates out of the old armory across the street. Inside, in the mix of historic and non-historic furnishings, are some of Judge Field’s papers from his time as a customs officer, preserved under a plexiglass box.