Portales sprang to life in 1894 as a tent city and was known as a dusty cow town in its early years.
The railroad line between Roswell and Amarillo, Texas was completed in 1898 and while the railroad that ran through Portales was a boon to cattlemen for its shipping convenience it also soon brought change in the form of homesteaders bent on turning the broad valley into farmland.
By 1903 area residents had successfully lobbied New Mexico’s territorial government to establish Roosevelt County with Portales as the county seat. In the late part of that decade the growing town of Portales was beset with multiple tragedies in the form of devastating fires that wiped out a large portion of the downtown district.
The lack of water and equipment to fight the fires raised awareness of the importance of formally establishing municipal services and work began on incorporating the city. In 1909, three years before statehood, Portales was incorporated and Washington Ellsworth Lindsey, who was instrumental in the growth of the area and establishment of the county and statehood was elected as the first mayor of Portales and served as the state’s third governor.
Portales takes its name from once gushing springs southeast of the present-day city. A series of shallow caliche rock caves marked the area of the springs — a geographic feature that resembled the porches or “portales” in Spanish, of the haciendas in the Southwest.
The first permanent business in Portales was said to have come about when “Uncle” Josh Morrison hooked a team of draught animals to his general store located near the springs and pulled it to the new railroad town.
After irrigation techniques were perfected, the first half of the 20th century saw steady growth in agriculture. Among the crops were peanuts, sweet potatoes, cotton, feed grains and wheat. Small family dairies were also a mainstay through the 1960s.
In recent years, larger dairies have located in Roosevelt County and support several major dairy product industries in the area.
Eastern New Mexico Junior College was established in 1934 and after early growing pains, began steady growth after World War II that would lead to becoming the state’s third largest university. Today the university, with an enrollment of nearly 6,000, contributes greatly to the local economy and diversity of the community.