Serving the High Plains

When Tucumcari hosted a celebrity bowler

Temperatures hovered near zero. Visibility was about the same.

Actor Jimmy Stewart was flying the first plane he’d ever owned from Kansas City to Los Angeles when he had to set it down at Tucumcari.

“Clouds and snow and fog and ice,” Stewart told reporters when asked why his flight was delayed.

Tucumcari is a good place to sit and wait for celebrities, thanks mostly to its location along historic Route 66. Paul McCartney, William Shatner, Red Skelton, Danny Thomas and Morgan Freeman are just a few spotted on the Mother Road through the years. But the most famous passerby ever was probably Stewart, who stayed longer than most despite no plans to visit at all.

Today is a good day to remember the legendary film star because his bright yellow monoplane landed at the Tucumcari airport 80 years ago this week.

Stewart became a decorated World War II pilot, but flying was just a hobby for him in 1940. He was traveling with his flying instructor, C.E. Smallwood, when weather forced him down that Wednesday, Jan. 24, 1940.

Stewart spent two nights in Tucumcari, according to Debra Whittington’s book, “In the Shadow of the Mountain.”

While he would become one of the nation’s best-loved celebrities after the war, he was already well known in the winter of 1940. He’d starred in Frank Capra’s “You Can’t Take it With You” and the critically acclaimed “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” for which Stewart received his first Academy Award nomination.

The Associated Press made note of Stewart’s grounding as part of its Jan. 25, 1940, weather coverage, in which it claimed “few spots on the continent escaped the Arctic chill.”

Parts of Virginia saw 21 inches of snow in that storm. Napoleon, North Dakota, recorded a low temperature of 28 degrees below zero. Record snowfall disrupted traffic in much of the South, AP reported, and even Miami, Florida, felt a chill with temperatures in the 40s.

Tucumcari, of course, had seen such weather before, but Stewart and Smallwood couldn’t fly in it.

They had to “chop ice off of the plane,” Smallwood said, before they could resume their travels.

While Stewart, an intensely private man his entire life, politely declined most invitations to explore Tucumcari — including one to a Rotary Club luncheon — he was persuaded to mingle a bit.

The Tucumcari Daily News reported he spent time at Morgan’s Bowling Alley where he displayed “splendid form,” but not much success.

“His gallery — consisting of all the young ladies of Tucumcari who could find him ... applauded lustily whether he knocked down pins or just threw another gutter ball,” the paper reported.

Throughout his brief stay he was “chased by newspaper gals and autograph hunters” and, when pinned down, lived up to his everyman celebrity status.

In one interview, he compared the people of Tucumcari to characters in a 1931 movie called “Cimarron.”

“I always liked that picture,” he said. “It gets so close to the real people of the west. Come to think of it, this is practically Cimarron — and I’m really glad that I had this opportunity to stay over in Tucumcari for a couple of days and get acquainted with some of them.”

But he spent most of his time in the community pacing around the airport, watching for “a hole in the storm,” and trying to get back to Hollywood where he said he was already late to start working on his next picture, “The Mortal Storm.”

“If I stay in Tucumcari much longer,” he joked, “I’ll feel like an old-timer, buy a pair of cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat ... and get me a cow.”

David Stevens writes about regional history for Clovis Media Inc. Contact him at:

[email protected]

More local history: