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Historically Speaking: Honoring Roswell’s pioneer mothers

Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Mrs. W.H. Ballard — date unknown.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily


Can you imagine what it was like in the mid to late 1800s, being a woman, to leave your home and your comfortable surroundings, to come West? They had to endure long journeys by wagon, then set up a household in dugouts, adobes with dirt floors, wood-framed houses with no heating or cooling, cook from the land (tend gardens and butcher wild game for example); get everyone’s water from a river or stream, cook on a stove that you had to build a wood fire in, and fight snakes and all sorts of vermin. Then, to raise a family far from the comforts of one’s home and family? This scratches just the surface of the life of a pioneer woman and homesteader.

We have an article in the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives by Georgia Redfield, which was published in the El Paso Times, dated Sunday, May 17, 1953, about the Roswell pioneer mothers. This week, I would like to highlight those strong, courageous ladies.

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Redfield’s story reads as follows:

“Probably nowhere in the history of development in the Southwest have the pioneer mothers been as active in homebuilding and in educational, cultural, spiritual, and social development, as in our first little barren town on a cattle trail, that is the beautiful city of Roswell of today.

The children and grandchildren, old time friends and newcomers are interested and glad to hear the stories of Roswell’s first mothers who laid the groundwork for this peaceful model city. Here where cattle feuds and shootings in saloons, and gambling dens were frequent occurrences during the early days of settlement in Roswell.

“Special honor is due the pioneer covered wagon mothers who came to the rough little settlement in the ‘70s and ‘80s (1870s and 1880s) and immediately set about making homes in the West for their children. Particularly, honor is due the settlement’s first mother Sallie Wildy Lea, the wife of Captain Joseph C. Lea, who was known as the “Father of Roswell.” She came with her husband and baby son, the late Wildy Lea, in 1877, from where they first settled in Colfax County, New Mexico. She had the honor of becoming the mother of Roswell‘s first baby, now, Ella Lea Dow, the wife of H.M. Dow, Roswell attorney who was reared in the once “wild and woolly” town of Seven Rivers, about 70 miles south of Roswell.

There is nothing left of that once-leading town of Southeastern New Mexico, however, save a few crumbling adobe walls and “boot cemetery,” west of the old townsite, where men who died in shooting frays were buried with boots on.

“The story of that first Roswell mother and her marriage, which was the culmination of a beautiful Southern romance of a typically glamorous Southern belle, was one of hardships and constant self-denials.

“Captain Lea wrote from New Mexico that he would not ask the luxuriously reared Southern girl to share a life with him in the new wild country in the West until he could provide for her a comfortable home.

“The truly Southern spirit prevailed. Sallie Wildy’s reply came back: ‘I want to be with you, even if there would be no shelter over our heads save the stars.’ They were married in the home of her father, Major W. W. Wildy, at Satartia, Mississippi, on Feb. 3, 1877.

“‘Strange,’ said Mrs. Dow, some 40 years after the marriage of her parents, in relating the interesting story to the writer, ‘February continued to be an important month in the married life of my mother and father.

“‘Soon after their marriage in February, a former suitor of my mother came from Mississippi, and went calling on my parents, and was surprised to find the only girl he had ever desired to make his wife standing on a soapbox whitewashing the rough adobe walls of her Western home.

“‘My mother made the best of the hardest conditions. No one ever heard her complain, even though at first she lived in a small adobe home with dirt floors.

“‘She paid with her life, however, for marrying the man she loved. She died in her Roswell home on Feb. 20, 1884, because there was no surgeon in the new little settlement for an emergency operation that probably would have saved her life.”

“‘My father’s death occurred also in February, on the fourth of that month, 1904, shortly after he had been elected mayor in the first municipal election on Dec. 8, 1903, an honor he had often said he desired more than that of governor of the Territory of New Mexico.’

“Capt. and Mrs. Lea at one time owned all of the land on which Roswell was developed. “Portions of the land purchased by Maj. Wildy, which he presented to his daughter, Sallie Lea, she caused to be written in a clause of all the deeds, that no liquor should ever be sold, or gambling dens conducted on any of her land holdings.

“In this way the outstanding pioneer mother desired to protect the future of not only her own children, but all of the Roswell children and future generations.

“On memories long list of outstanding pioneer mothers of Roswell, ‘Mother Cobean,’ mother to the present (1953) mayor of Roswell, Warren Cobean, and of Hyal Cobean, owner of Roswell’s main stationary company, will never be forgotten, as a loyal member of the Mother Church, of the Southern Methodist and the first organist of the little adobe church built in 1889-1890 on the site of a prairie dog colony, surrounded by cactus, weeds, and mesquite, on what is now Pennsylvania Avenue and Fourth Street.

“This pioneer mother of six, and borrowed children, herded her little group into Sunday school classes every Sunday, where they listened to the sacred music, and watched the wonderful mother where she played a little organ that held on top, kerosene lamps, that were lit at night for illumination.

“Her North Main Street adobe home, that was surrounded by beautiful trees and colorful flowers and the comfortable living room, with carefully selected pictures, where there was always music, was the favorite meeting place for church organizations and the ‘Ladies Aid Society’ and for children of the neighborhood.

“Then there are happy memories of ‘Mother Ballard,’ who lived 2 miles out east on what is now East Second Street in Roswell. Her son, the late Charlie Ballard, was one of Roswell’s first sheriffs, and a younger son, Bob Ballard, the present police judge, was the first white baby boy born in the nearby Roswell environs. Berta Ballard (Mrs. J. A. Manning), a daughter, and one of the city’s longtime residents, was a special friend of the late Sallie Chisum Robert, and was a child friend of Billy the Kid. The lonely Kid was always welcome in Mr. and Mrs. Ballard’s hospitable Lincoln home, where the influence of the gentle pioneer mother probably saved the youth, who ‘early in life took the wrong trail,’ from many deeds of crime.

“Probably the most popular gathering place in Roswell for lonely boys and girls was the home of the Whiteman family, in which the friends of the sons and daughters of  ‘Mother Whiteman’ were always welcome. Very few Sundays ever passed that an extra place was not set at the dinner table for some lonely boy or girl far from their own home for health reasons.

“Lasting, and most cherished memories of all pioneer mothers to the writer, were visits in the home of ‘Aunt Sue’ and ‘Uncle Frank,’ (Judge Frank Lea) and their son and daughters. We were welcome in the big kitchen where ‘Mother Lea’ prepared the company dinner, then in the afternoon in the parlor, where there was always music played by Jennie Lea (Mrs. John Ashinhurst,) who was the young musician of the family.

“Then there are happy memories in the home of ‘Mother Hunter,’ mother of Joyce and Miller Hunter of Roswell, and the late Merrill and Gray Hunter, whose home was the gathering place of the Hondo reservoir community settlers.

“This pioneer mother’s poise remained unshaken, under all conditions. She was a hospitable hostess who welcomed unexpected guests if for only a bowl of cornmeal mush as graciously as for one of her frequent chicken or turkey dinners.

“She was an interested friend of the neighborhood children, and her influence for the good of other young mothers will always be remembered in appreciation.

“Then there are memories of ‘Mother Pruitt,’ teacher through decades of hundreds of First Baptist Sunday school children, who on occasion of the writer’s last visit to her sick room, asked if I thought she had accomplished anything for good in her life. The answer was that her teachings and influence for good was truly of immeasurable benefit to Roswell children. Some of these are now outstanding men and women of the church, and in the business world.

“Probably nowhere in the Southwest are there as many living pioneer mothers as in Roswell, who have been appreciated and loved for their worthwhile lives of doing for others, as well as for their husbands and their own children and for the children of other mothers.

Roswell’s oldest pioneer mother to whom special honor is due, is ‘Mother Jane Cole,’ the oldest mother known to the writer. Mrs. Cole who was 101 years old on March 13, was born in Camden, Arkansas, in 1852. She traveled in an ox wagon to Texas when a child, and was married to J. J. Cole in Willis Point, Texas, in 1877. They moved to Roswell where Mr. Cole owned and conducted a machinery and blacksmith business in the old landmark building at South Main and Alameda streets, that was torn down to make room for modern business houses. Mr. Cole died in 1939. The Cole children were reared and educated in Roswell, and lived in a home made happy by music and song by their music-loving mother. On the occasion of her 100th birthday, she sang old songs with her old musician friends who came to offer congratulations on her birthday.

“Mrs. Dorcas Webb, who as far as known is the next oldest pioneer mother, is 97. She, with her husband, the late H. R. Webb, and the first four of their six children, traveled over the bleak plains of Texas to Roswell in mid-winter in a covered wagon, arriving on Nov. 11, in 1892 in a blinding snowstorm.

“Mrs. Webb is the only living charter member of the First Baptist Church of Roswell and brought her membership from Texas to the Roswell Chapter of Eastern Star.

“‘My life in Roswell has not been eventful or at all glamorous, said this outstanding pioneer mother, for I have been too busy rearing my family of six children to take much part in the social life of the town.’”

“Mrs. Webb, who has three sons living in California, makes her home with her two daughters, Mrs. E.H. Williams and Miss Gladys Webb, who is principal of Mark Howell school, on West College Boulevard.

“There are other pioneer mothers who have been active during all their residence in educational and cultural development that have been of great service to the grateful sons and daughters of Roswell: Mrs. J. P. (Amelia) Church, who opened the first greenhouse in Roswell, that is now the Roswell Floral Company, now owned and conducted by the Santheson family, and who assisted in planting the first trees in what is now Cahoon Park, is an outstanding pioneer mother, who first lived in Lincoln, and for over 60 years in Roswell.

“Last to mention is Mrs. Sara Lund Bonney, who taught Roswell’s first city school in 1885, and is a talented artist as well as a former educator, who taught many of Roswell’s boys and girls, who are now outstanding business men and women of the city.

“Such was the brave, industrious, wonderful women who from the beginning, set the bar, as leaders, mothers, wives, friends, and examples to follow, for many generations.”

Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.


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