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Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame Inductees

Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame Inductees photo 10/30/2017 1:43:45 p.m. - Hobbs, NM.  

The Western Heritage Museum and Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame has announced the recipients of this year’s Bronze Cowboy Award, as it has traditionally been known, the highest award given by the Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame.  The recipients will be inducted Friday, November 3 at the organization’s 40th annual Llano Estacado Banquet.

“The Board of Directors for the Hall of Fame are pleased to announce that Bennett Jackson Caudill, Jerry B. Clayton, and Mathias Willhoit are this year’s inductees into the Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame,” said Dr. Darrell Beauchamp, Executive Director of the Museum and Hall of Fame. “All three of our inductees are incredibly worthy of this honor, and we are pleased to add them to the Cowboy Hall of Fame.”

In addition to honoring the inductees into the Hall of Fame, the organization has selected United States Congressman Steve Pearce as this year’s recipient of the Silver Concho Award.

“Congressman Pearce has been a staunch supporter of our museum,” said Beauchamp. “He has advocated for museums throughout his district. In addition to he and his wife being Life Members of the Western Heritage Museum, he has been influential in our efforts to grow and become the Museum we are today.”

Cowboy Hall of Fame Board Chairman C.J. Kinsolving also announced that Chance Gainer has been selected as the 2017 “Working Cowboy of the Year”, and Lea County ranchers Jeff and Jenna Decker are the “Outstanding Ranchers of the Year”.

The awards will be presented Friday, November 3 at 6:00 p.m. at the annual Llano Estacado Banquet to be held at the Hilton Garden Inn. Entertainment will be provided by Tim Cummins. Tickets to the event are $25 each or $175 for a table of eight. For tickets or additional information, call the Western Heritage Museum and Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame at 575-492-2678.

For more information about this or any of the Museum’s exhibits and events, contact Darrell Beauchamp at 575-492-2676 or email The Western Heritage Museum and Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame is located on the campus of New Mexico Junior College, 5317 Lovington Highway in Hobbs, New Mexico. The museum’s website is



Bennett Jackson “B.J.” Caudill (b. February 2, 1890 – d. April 1, 1972)

Born in Monkstown, Texas, Bennett Jackson “B.J.” Caudill moved to Lea County in 1930 where he established and operated the first feed store in Hobbs, the Derrick Feed Store (a subsidiary of Red Chain Feed in Fort Worth).  B. J. and his wife, Etta Dee Phillips Caudill, had six daughters:  Katherine Brothers, Geraldine Kersey, Mildred Carter, Daphna Williams, Gladys Jelinek, and Bennetta Holdridge.  From these six daughters came numerous grandchildren, one of whom is the conductor of the Southwest Symphony, Mark Jelinek. 

B.J. and Etta Dee were devout members of the First Baptist Church in Hobbs.  He served as deacon and taught teenage boys in his Sunday school class, and was a Mason.  Having no sons, he unofficially “adopted” some of his students.  A few notable examples are William Brock, Dr. Williams Stone, and Kenny Shelton.  B.J. served on the Hobbs City Council for eight years.  His appointment to the Buildings Committee yielded such prominent structures as the Hobbs City Hall and Hobbs Public Library.

B.J. contributed greatly to the ranching industry in Lea County through his livestock feed service.  When he arrived in Hobbs, there were no feed stores, and ranchers had to travel great distances (Midland, Clovis, and Seagraves) to procure livestock provisions. This created a substantial overhead for Lea County ranchers, not to mention the travel time involved.  B.J. would drive to Seagraves and bring back feed delivering it directly to the ranches, saving area ranchers a great deal of money and time.  Eventually, he opened his feed store in Hobbs after securing a building. 

B.J’s ranching career was born by his generous payment terms that he offered store customers.  Some of them paid with cattle, horses, eggs, and other miscellaneous items. B.J. had a secret shoebox (hidden from Etta Dee) of I. O. U’s.  Many of the prominent ranchers had slips in the box – some paid and some did not.  He said he never lost money with this generous system.

B.J. established several ranches in Lea County as a result of accepting livestock as payment.  One is still in existence, the 7K Ranch, located near the Texas state line (Seminole Highway), and is still occupied by family members.  Part of the Hobbs Army Air Base was on B.J.’s property.  He also had a ranch near Monument where he and Tuffy Cooper routinely branded cattle.

After retiring from Lea County ranching in 1941, B.J. became bored and volunteered to refuel B-17s at the Hobbs Army Air Base at night.  Eventually, he moved to Odessa in 1947 and opened yet another Red Chain Feed Store, operating it until his final retirement in 1962.  He returned to Hobbs in 1970 until his death in 1972.  He and his family were always grateful for the opportunities Lea County offered them and for the many friends they made here through the years.

Jerry B. Clayton (1901-1984)

Jerry B. Clayton was born March 3, 1901 in Lubbock, TX to R.M. and Josephine Roy Clayton.  He was the youngest of seven boys and two girls born to the family.   He moved with his family to the Muleshoe Ranch in Borden County, TX at the age of 12.  R.M., along with his partner, W.D. Johnson, acquired the Borden County ranch in 1913.   He spent one semester at the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell when he was 15, but left school due to the flu epidemic that broke out that year.  He returned to the Borden County ranch where he lived until he was 19, at which time he became a cowboy at the U Bar Ranch at Hachita, NM.  He became wagon boss on that ranch at 21.

Jerry married the former Mary Dickinson in 1924.  It is said that shortly before the wedding, he sent Mary a wire saying: “Am shipping cattle; Stop; Will make wedding if can; Stop; Jerry.”  He made it.  They bought their own place out of Silver City, NM in 1927 where they ranched until January 1938. The Claytons then moved to the Jornado del Muerte out of Las Cruces, NM.  In 1939, Jerry leased a ranch at Caprock, NM, and moved his family to Roswell, NM.  Around 1943, he bought the old McClure place in Lovington, NM.  After Mary’s death in 1956, Jerry married Daisy Chambers in 1959.  They ranched the old McClure place until his death in 1984.

Jerry was an outstanding figure among the cattlemen and ranchers of New Mexico.  His greatest satisfaction came from improvements, whether in conservation, irrigation, or in the quality of his stock.  He was a member of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, and was honored for his outstanding achievements in the ranching industry in 1979 by being named the Cattleman of the Year.  He served on the Foreign Trade Commission of the New Mexico Association, and as a Director of the Liberty National Bank.

Mathias Willhoit (b. December 30, 1863 - d. September 18, 1952)

Mathias Willhoit was born on December 30, 1863, in Floyd County, Texas, near what is now known as the town of Floydada.  Growing up on the plains of West Texas, Mathias spent his days helping his parents establish and expand their land holdings and fledgling cattle business.  He and Christian Elizabeth Yates were married, having eight children, seven of whom survived to adulthood.  Those surviving children were Van Otto, Frank, Floyd, Ky, Brownie, Gladys and Lottie.

In 1905, the Willhoit family set out to seek their fortune.  Loading up the family’s covered wagon with supplies, they struck out across the plains.  Christian drove the wagon, and Mathias followed, bringing along their two horses, a few head of cattle, and some very large dreams.  It was not an easy trip.  At one point the lack of food became a major concern, but the hardy pioneer family survived by harvesting and cooking mesquite beans.  To combat the resulting “scours” (more commonly known as diarrhea), Mrs. Willhoit created a concoction of flour and water which worked to end the affliction.

Eventually crossing into New Mexico Territory, the family staked claim to 160 acres west of what is now the Knowles community.  As time passed, the ranching family holdings grew to encompass 16 sections of land, and a large herd of cattle.  The rosy future was interrupted by the droughts of 1916, 1917 and the great blizzard of 1918.  As the Willhoit family struggled to keep their ranch together, they received word that Van Otto, Mathias’ and Christian’s eldest son was killed in France, only six days before the Armistice ending WWI.  He is buried in Flanders’s Field in France.

Still the pioneer family carried on. Then, in 1929, the final blow to the ranching dream fell.  As the Great Depression swept the nation, cattle prices were at an all-time low.  Bank loans were non-existent.  With very few cattle left and no bull for breeding, Mathias was forced to make a life-altering decision.  Having located a bull for sale in Carlsbad, he put his land up as collateral against the price of the bull, never dreaming the unthinkable disaster would strike.  The morning Mathias returned with the bull, a white-face Hereford, the future of the ranch, was found dead in the pasture.

After 20 years of ranching, the Willhoit family packed all they owned and headed out to the small community of Lovington.  Mathias built the couple’s new home himself, following the self-imposed guideline of “lots and lots of nails.” He entered his new career in law enforcement, becoming a deputy to Sheriff Sam Cain. He was also the local jailer.  Christian opened and ran a small café known as “The White Way,” also providing meals to the prisoners in her husband’s jail.

Mathias’s dedication to his job was legendary among the law enforcement community.  When a Hobbs resident had been arrested and accused of a heinous crime, he and Sheriff Cain transported the man to a place outside of Plains, Texas, before an angry lynch mob could gather, leaving his wife to tend the jail.  When the mob, with torches and ropes, demanded justice, Mrs. Willhoit stood her ground, agreeing to allow three of the mob inside the jail to ascertain that the accused was gone, thus diffusing the situation.

Another incident involved two notorious cattle rustlers who shot at Mathias and the sheriff, hitting the sheriff’s belt buckle, but leaving both men unharmed. 

After a full, multi-faceted, and rewarding life, Mathias Willhoit died in 1952, at the age of 89.  Husband, father, rancher, lawman, he left behind a legacy of godliness, truthfulness, hard work, and dedication.

Chance Gainer – Working Cowboy of the Year

33-year-old Chance Gainer, who works for the Vogle Ltd, Turkey Track Ranch, has been a cowboy his entire life.  His family first came to Lea County in 1903 when the five Anderson sisters established ranches in northern Lea County. 

“I’m 5th generation cowboy and ranching family on both sides of my family,” said Gainer. “My grandmother was Sweetie Gainer. The Gainer/Frier/Eidson families helped establish the northern part of Lea County from Tatum north.” 

Gainer is a 2003 graduate of Tatum High School and attended New Mexico Junior College on a Rodeo Scholarship.  In 2014, he placed 5th in Las Vegas at the World Series Team Roping Championships.  He and his wife Tasha are the parents of two boys, four-year-old Bronc and one-year-old Buster.  His parents are Ray Gainer and Angie Frier.  His grandparents include Tom Ray Gainer, Fip Frier, Pat Payne, and Fonda Eidson.

“The Hall of Fame is very pleased to honor Chance Gainer as our Working Cowboy of the Year,” said Cowboy Hall of Fame Board Chairman C.J. Kinsolving. “He is the perfect example of someone who is carrying on the cowboy way of life.”

Jeff and Jenna Decker - Outstanding Ranchers of the Year

 The "Outstanding Ranchers of the Year" award will be presented to Lea County ranchers Jeff and Jenna Decker. Jeff grew up in Guymon, OK where he worked alongside his father in the family's water and gas drilling company and their alfalfa farm, until the passing of his father when he was 11 years old. His family moved to Perryton, TX when he was 16, where he worked at any job he could find including the neighboring farms, feedlots, ranches and for the local cutting horse trainer, while rodeoing and showing steers, until he graduated high school in 1995 from Perryton. He attended college at Western Texas College in Snyder, TX and West Texas A&M University in Canyon, TX on rodeo scholarships. He was the National Inter-Collegiate Saddle Bronc Riding Champion in 1997, a member of the winning National Inter-Collegiate Rodeo Team, and found success as a saddle bronc rider in the PRCA as he and Jenna met at West TX A&M the week before her freshman year and his senior year of college.

Jenna made her way to West Texas A&M after growing up her entire life as a 4th generation Lea County rancher on the Kinsolving Ranch outside of Tatum. She graduated from Tatum in 1999 where she was active in school sports, showing steers, and rodeoing in her younger years. She and Jeff married in 2002, and they branched off to start a successful career training cutting horses in Oklahoma and then Texas with the ultimate goal of ranching in mind. Jenna graduated from college at East Central University in Ada, OK in 2003. In 2005, they bought the JD Doran Ranch and moved their cutting horse operation to their headquarters east of McDonald, NM. The cutting horse business enabled them to grow their cow/calf operation where they brand the Quarter Circle Slash on their red angus cattle and the horses they continue to raise. Jeff is a lifetime member of the National Cutting Horse Association and a past board member of the New Mexico Cutting Horse Association, and currently serves on the Board of Directors for the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association. Jenna works alongside Jeff on the ranch when she is not busy keeping several other trucking, oil and gas, ranching, electric, and retail businesses' book-work flowing as a QuickBooks ProAdvisor. Jeff and Jenna are the proud parents of Sterling, 11, Stoney, 8, and Stetson, 2, who are all very active in the daily work and busy ranch life on the Decker Ranch.

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