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Roswell’s musical ladies

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Louise “Mabie” Massey and the Westerners. (Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

Our little town “west of the Pecos” has produced so much national and international talent — whether it be sports stars, scientists, actors, musicians, cowboys and so much more! We have a lot more claim to fame than our little green men. Maybe that’s why the little green men wanted to come here in the first place. I’m joking of course, but we can claim a lot of fame coming out of this town.

Three members of this group that I would like to showcase today are women of song — Elizabeth Garrett, (Sheriff Pat Garrett;s daughter) Louise Massey Mabie and Arlene Wilkins. Each of these ladies called Roswell home and had a taste of unusual fame at one time or another during their lives. Following is a short profile of each of the ladies.

Arlene Wilkins

Though you may not recognize her name immediately, Arlene Wilkins was noted in Hollywood as being the first wife of cowboy singer and actor, Roy Rogers. Wilkins was raised in Roswell and performed in her own singing group in 1935, when Leonard Slye (Roy Rogers) and his group, came to Roswell, almost broke, and asked to sing on the radio for their supper.

Rogers convinced W.E. Whitmore, then station manager of KGFL radio, to let his group perform live concerts in exchange for food from KGFL’s listeners.

Arlene and her mother, motivated by sympathy for a fellow musician, baked some lemon pies and brought them to the studio. When she met Rogers, it was love at first sight.

After corresponding with Rogers for about a year, he returned to Roswell to marry Wilkins.

Not long after their marriage Rogers begin his climb to fame. Arlene was an integral part of this meteoric climb to success. She performed at many of his live appearances and recording sessions while they were married, and was considered quite a celebrity among moviegoers and fans of cowboy music.

Arlene was the mother of Rogers only two living biological children. Sadly, she died after giving birth to their son Dusty Rogers, who performs with the “Sons of the Pioneers” today.

Elizabeth Garrett

Though she may not have been as big of a success in the entertainment world as her two counterparts, Garrett may be more well known in a historic sense, because her father was Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett, the man known in history as the killer of Billy the Kid. She is also known for writing our official state song “O Fair New Mexico.” Garrett had originally written the song in Spanish before it was adopted as the state song.

Garrett was born in 1885 in Little Creek Canyon between Capitan and Ruidoso and apparently went blind sometime before her third birthday.

Though her father, always a dreamer and a schemer, had a rough and somewhat questionable reputation, he is said to have been an excellent father with a soft spot for his daughter Elizabeth.

When she turned 6, Garrett boarded his daughter in a special school for the blind in Austin, Texas, where she showed an aptitude for music and the piano. As a young adult, she attended a music conservatory in Chicago and became acquainted with Helen Keller and other notable personalities.

She was encouraged to pursue a music career and eventually performed worldwide in music halls and at fairs. Her audiences often included heads of state.

Garrett lived in Roswell from 1925 to 1947, when she tragically died from injuries suffered from a nighttime fall while out walking with her seeing-eye dog.

Louise Massey Mabie

Massey Mabie, and her husband Milt were discovered in 1928 when they auditioned in their Roswell home for an agent who was passing through Roswell looking for talent.

Mabie’s father and two brothers were also part of a group which later came to fame as the “Westerners,” later known as “Louise Massey and the Westerners.” The agent, impressed with the group, immediately put them on a tour of the United States and Canada.

After touring, the Mabies built a home near Picacho, which inspired Mabie to write and record “In My Adobe Hacienda,” which sold millions of records in the 1930s and spent 11 weeks on the national “Hit Parade.”

She also recorded several other songs that were million sellers. In 1982 she was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, just a few years before her death in Roswell.

Mabie retired here in the late 1960s after a long performing career.

Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or by email at jdunna@hotmail.com.