My Portales: Remembering the downtown fire

Freedom New Mexico

Editor’s note: The following is one in a series of reports related to the history of Portales. The city celebrates the 100th anniversary of its incorporation in 2009.

March 10, 1978, began like many March days in Portales, with the wind blowing.

By mid-day, winds were at 50 to 60 mph … and what followed was far from ordinary.

A fire started from an electrical short at a shed full of empty sweet potato crates. Sparks were blown into the air conditioning ducts of the Tower Theater on one end of the block and under the metal roof of The Print Shop at the other end. Sandwiched in between were five other businesses and by the end of the day they were all reduced to rubble.

It is entirely possible that without the help from Cannon Air Force Base firefighters, the whole downtown area could have burned. The threat was real enough the Post Office and Courthouse were evacuated.

Our memories were not so much about the burning buildings, but about the people whose lives were so impacted by the fire.

Five of the burned businesses were owned or managed by Rotarians. We were all attending a Rotary club meeting that Friday. When we came out the fire engines were on their way.

J.E. McKillip had an Insurance business and Jay Thompson was a real estate agent. Bill Dunn owned the Portales Credit Bureau. Alvie Smith was the manager of the Tower Theater.

Our family owned The Print Shop. We purchased it in 1970 and were just beginning to get our feet on the ground. That weekend our emotions ran the gamut from despair to thankfulness that no one was hurt.

On Monday after the fire, we started looking around for places to relocate our businesses.

J.E. McKillip moved to Second and Avenue A. Jay Thompson retired. Bill Dunn moved to Hobbs. The Tower rebuilt in its original location to become the Tower Twin. That left only The Print Shop. Where would we go?

People in the community rallied and offered help. We were in a meeting at Portales Drug with banker Gale Ferguson and pharmacist Dick Haverland when Don Davis — owner of Valley Furniture — walked in and asked what we were talking about. When we told him we needed a building, he said “I have one!”

We relocated The Print Shop in a block building at Third and Globe that had been a help-yourself laundry. We are still located there today.

Leroy Thomas was born May 25, 1934, in Quanah, Texas. He came to Portales in 1960 to finish school at Eastern New Mexico University. He worked with the Christian Children’s Home until he bought The Print Shop in 1970.