Roswell, New Mexico

by Mike Magers


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Roswell is home to two public high schools, Roswell High and Goddard High.  In addition, New Mexico Military Institute and Gateway Christian compete in NMAA football.  It has a campus of Eastern New Mexico University and a two year junior college program at NMMI.

Its first anglo settlement was founded around 1871 by Van C. Smith and his partner Aaron Wilbur who were attracted by the availability of water in the area.  They built the first structures out of adobe, a store and a residence, along with an adobe corral and stocked it with cattle to begin a cattle operation.  Smith had been a gambler, having most recently owned a gambling house in Santa Fe.  Later on, after more people settled in the area, they sought their own post office and named the village Roswell, after Van C. Smith’s father, Roswell Smith.  Roswell’s namesake was from Illinois and reportedly never set foot in the town for which he was named.

Smith and Willburn lived there in relative peace for a few years, but it was not to last.  According to an interview with a Roswell old timer, Smith and a posse went off to confront a group of horse thieves who had stolen some of his prize stock.  Smith and the posse caught the thieves after they had bedded down for the night and killed them all.  Smith soon learned that another associate of them was still at a nearby ranch and was looking to get his revenge, so Smith left the area and never physically returned.  At some point, Willburn and the cattle company’s bookkeeper also had a falling-out, resulting in the bookkeeper shooting Willburn, leaving the latter injured enough to need to be transported to Santa Fe.  Willburn and Smith eventually sold their store and livestock.  Another party bought and operated the store.  Local rancher John Chisum bought the livestock and his large ranch dominated the area for a number of years.  Chisum’s cattle operation likewise took advantage of nearby water sources and it prospered, though the area was still notorious for the lawlessness that occasionally occurred in that time period in the territory.

The Lincoln County War took place in the late 1870s, over property rights and the sales of dry goods, giving rise to the reputations and legends of a number of participants including Billy the Kid, Chisum and Pat Garrett.  These events would later inspire a number of books and popular movies, but eventually things settled down and Roswell grew as settlers continued to move to the area.  Artesian water was discovered and utilized until it became depleted due to use.  In 1903, Governor Manuel Otero proclaimed it the town of Roswell.  New Mexico became a state in 1912 and the area continued to prosper since it was well suited to farming and ranching.  An early resident, J. C. Lea, is credited for planting hundreds of trees which beautified the village.

Dr. Robert Goddard moved his rocketry research to the Roswell area in the 1930s because of the wide open spaces and normally clear skies.  Dr. Goddard is referred to as the father of modern rocketry, having developed and tested liquid fuel propulsion systems in the decade or so that he worked in Roswell.  He was in many ways the United States’ complement to the work done by the German Werner Von Braun first for the Nazi regime and then later for the post war United States space program the military.  Dr. Goddard was a brilliant and eccentric scientist.  However, he was considerably older than Von Braun and died in 1945.  A number of years later,  Goddard High School was named for him.

On June 14, 1947, a local rancher by the name of W. W. Brazel discovered some debris on his ranch about 30 miles southeast of Corona and northwest of Roswell.  On the following July 4, he took it to local authorities thinking it was related to flying discs that had been reported in the area.  The local sheriff, George Wilcox, and later a Lt. Warren Hauht of the Roswell Army  Air Field, a public relations officer, took the reports.  Within a few days, the discovery was publicly discounted by Brig. General Roger Ramey of the 8th Air Force as being the remains of either a weather balloon or a radar target.  Brazel described his discovery as being paper covered by a foil-like material, placed together with sticks similar to kite construction.  It also included grey rubber and all the pieces were fairly small.  Brazel and his two children Vernon and Bessie had gathered up some of the articles, the largest of which was about three feet across.  Brazel was quoted as saying that he was a little bit ashamed to mention it because he did not know what it was.  He had asked the sheriff to keep it quiet to keep him from getting kidded about it.  Sheriff Wilcox in turn had relayed the report to intelligence officers at the nearby airfield.  A short time later, Major Jesse A. Marcel and another man in civilian clothes came out to his ranch to pick up the remaining debris.

Brazel would later be quoted as saying “I didn’t hear any more about it until things started popping.  Lord, how the story has traveled.”  It has indeed.  The so called UFO incident has inspired conspiracy theories, visiting “ufologists,” UFO tours and a local cottage industry that capitalizes on the now almost 70 year old event.  Numerous films, books, articles and documentaries have been based on the alleged find of Brazel’s and the governmental response.  There is now a UFO museum in Roswell and each year there is a UFO festival.  It is not unusual to see UFO and alien images all around town, though the incident has been referred to by skeptics as being the most researched and yet most debunked incident in United States history.

Roswell High School is the older of the two with Goddard having been built in the early 1960s.  In football, Roswell and Goddard have usually competed in the same NMAA class and district.  In recent years, Goddard High School has dominated the football competition between the two, having won 14 consecutive games since 2003 until Roswell High broke the streak and won in 2015 by a score of 42-35.  This is a great rivalry game and is usually scheduled at the end of the regular season.  Both schools have a rich history in athletics, with each achieving success in various sports. The current football coaches are Jeff Lynn of Roswell and Chris White of Goddard.  NMMI,  somewhat smaller but equally interesting, will be discussed at a later time.

Notable people with connections to Roswell include Chisum, Pat Garrett, Goddard, Tom Brookshire, John Denver, Nancy Lopez, Roger Staubach and many others.

We will close with this quote:

“It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”
― Robert H. Goddard

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