By Janice Dunnahoo
Special to the Daily
Our Roswell Symphony Orchestra will be celebrating its 60th season this year, so to honor them, I would like to start a two-part article on the history of music, bands, concerts and entertainment in the Pecos Valley.
What a wonderful accomplishment for them, and such rich and great entertainment for us.
So, let’s look back a few years to the beginnings of music in our Pecos Valley.
When this part of the Southwest was being settled, life was hard, work was hard, pleasure and relaxation, and time with friends was very much cherished and appreciated.
Though I am sure, many cowboys on the trail drive were musically inclined, and would sing and play a guitar or fiddle at the end of a hot dusty day on the trail, records of those days are somewhat scarce for research purposes. Not too far removed from that are the dances and music-making at John Chisum’s ranch back in the day.
The earliest recorded social occasions with music and dancing here in the Pecos Valley were held at the Chisum ranch. He would slaughter a cow for a barbecue, and provide other food to go with it. The band called the Roswell Brass Band, with about 12 members, would come out to play and the merriment would begin.
Chisum’s cowboys would be there, and neighbors would gather in from miles around bringing their wagons, children and food and bedding, prepared to stay overnight or more, depending on the distance they had come. Chisum loved it and welcomed all. His social functions, dances and music often lasted late into the night, and sometimes even for a day or two. The merriment and memory of these social gatherings were the talk of the Pecos Valley for years.
Next, we have news of the Artesia Band. A Nov. 22, 1907, Roswell Daily Record article gives information on this Artesia band. It reads as follows:
“ELKS TAKE THE TOWN
“Artesia Crowd here for initiation in local lodge on Thanksgiving Day
“Brought Artesia Band
“Marched up Main Street in Parade Array. Their leaders wearing a set of antlers and all bearing banners showing they were out for a good time —Afternoon Band Concert.
“A band of Elk initiates from Artesia fairly took the town on Thanksgiving Day, arriving on the morning train with the Artesia band and armed with banners and headgear that showed they were thoroughly organized and were out for a good time. In parade array, they marched from the station up Main street to the Elks Lodge Hall in the Gaullieur Block, and made arrangements for a full day of pleasure. The parade was the feature of the occasion to the outsiders.
“They were followed by the Artesia Band in full uniform, and behind came a delegation of 12 Artesia businessmen who were here to take the degrees, and in the rear were several local Elks.
“The initiation took up the entire morning, during which refreshments were served at the lodge hall. After initiation, the visitors were entertained at the Gilkeson Hotel. The afternoon was spent seeing a basketball game and enjoying a band concert, given by the Artesia Band in the Courthouse plaza through the courtesy of the newly made Elks.
“Upon leaving last night, the visitors all declared that they had spent a pleasant day in Roswell and were fully satisfied with the treatment accorded them. The initiates said they had been worked out too well to remain for the dance.”
Then we have Roswell’s short-lived opera house
During the later years of the 19 and 20th centuries, there was a great deal of opera house building throughout the entire nation. This was especially noticeable in the West and Southwest where municipalities and populations were sparse. Most large towns and small cities that had ambition to develop, built, or tried to build, opera houses. Roswell was no exception to the rule. The town had its case of opera house fever. This is one of the most interesting historical phases of the town.
In April 1901, an S.E. Patton of Phoenix, Arizona came to Roswell to see if an opera house could be promoted in the town. He had a proposition to submit to interested persons to build a place with seating capacity for 800 people. He estimated that the building could be erected for $12,000.
His proposal was to erect a two-story building 45 x 150 feet with two small store rooms 17 x 50 feet on each side of the main building and a stage 27 x 45 feet. One-fourth of the cost, or $3,000 would have to be contributed or donated by the citizens of Roswell.
A subscription list was circulated to see if the $3,000 could be raised. A Mr. W.H. Godair headed the list with a pledge of $700. Others contributed, but not in anything like the same amount.
The promotion appears to have been slower than was first anticipated. By the fall of 1901, the building was still not assured. By this time, the proposed cost of the building had increased to $14,000. The site desired was on the west side of Main Street, opposite the courthouse. Captain J.C. Lee offered to give $100 to the building fund and sell the land well below the price at which it could be sold, if the site could be moved one block further north, between Fifth and Sixth streets.
The building was eventually erected during the winter of 1901-02 on the site suggested by Lea. The opera house was in operation only about two years. It was never very successful although Patton worked hard at getting some sort of entertainment in the place.
The building was destroyed by fire April 24, 1904. It was never rebuilt.
An Oct. 27, 1903 Roswell Daily Record advertisement promotes the “great rural production of Hick’ry Farm,” calling it “polite Vaudeville with full band and orchestra.”
Close to the same time frame or a little later, there was a “Rube Band,” a group of fun-loving musicians who were not afraid to mix silly and serious. I could not find a date for this band, only a picture, but what a fun group they must have been.
Next, we have “The Roswell Juvenile Band.” A Roswell Daily Record article dated June 28, 1921, about The Roswell Juvenile Band states, “Band Plays Thursday — The Roswell Juvenile Band will play at the corner of Second and Main on Thursday afternoon and then will go to Haynes Park and swimming pool to give a concert.”
Another Roswell Daily Record article dated April 21, 1921 reads, “Band Plays Tomorrow. — The Roswell Juvenile Band will assemble on the courthouse steps tomorrow afternoon and after having their pictures taken, will give a half-hour concert. The Juvenile Band always makes a big hit at every appearance and many people are looking forward to the music to be furnished by this band during the coming months.”
Then we have the Roswell Girls Band. Sadly, I could find no information or date on them, only a picture, but what an entertaining group they seemed to have been.
Following this, we find a Roswell String Band. A May 17, 1922 Roswell Daily Record short article announces the Roswell String Band with members listed: “George Sheek, first violin; C. W. Watson, second violin; H.L. White, coronet; F. White, guitar; W.L. Hughes, violin – cello.”
Next, I found Gus Lemp’s Night Owl Orchestra, mentioned in the Roswell Daily Record article dated Feb. 12, 1924.
“Shrine Dance Tomorrow P. M.
“Dust off that fez, ye Shriners, for tomorrow night at the Masonic Temple, at 8:30, the Roswell Shrine Club is going to give the second social of its winter schedule. You’ll miss a good time if you’re not there. Gus Lemp’s Night Owls will dispense real, genuine oasis jazz, so come prepared to step.”
A July 23, 1926, Roswell Daily Record Article reads as follows:
“Night Owls Win Big
“Gus Lemp’s Night Owls won with a majority of 112 votes over the Merrymakers Orchestra at the War Dance held last night at Page Park. Over 500 people attended. First, one orchestra would play for the dancing, then the other. Both orchestras are very fine.”
Such was the beginnings of music and entertainment in Roswell and the Pecos Valley. Next week, we will explore more, bringing us up to the Roswell Symphony Orchestra, and their beginnings starting Dec. 6, 1959 with “The Messiah’ by Handel, to the present day 60th Anniversary.
Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.