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Historically Speaking: Prominent resident dogged by tragedy in early 1900s

Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico The caption reads, "Samuel P. Denning and Sarah Henson Denning" — date unknown.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily


Following is an interesting article written by Dr. Elvis Fleming and published in the Roswell Daily Record on June 22, 1995. Over the past few years, while helping Elvis do research, he always told me to add to any research he had done if I could find more facts. That being said, I have added, following Elvis’ original article, more information about the Denning family, which was published in the Roswell Daily Record.

Through the years, Roswell has had many prominent citizens who lived here, raised families here, contributed greatly to the building of our community and died here. These citizens have passed into history, and are today mostly forgotten. Such is the case of the following family:

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“Samuel P. Denning was one of Roswell’s most prominent residents for the first 30 years of the 20th century. A building contractor by trade, Denning constructed many business buildings and residences in Roswell. Perhaps the most notable of these was the 1907 edifice of the First Baptist Church, the red brick structure with beautiful stained glass windows.

“While the Denning family experienced much success in Roswell, tragedy dogged them for four decades.

“Kathleen Sanders of Iowa City, Iowa, recently (1994) reposited information and photographs of the Denning family in the archives of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico. Her great-grandfather, Jesse F. Denning, was Samuel’s brother.

“Samuel Price Denning was born in Franklin, Kentucky, Nov. 13, 1858, one of 17 children born to B.F. and Elizabeth Denning. The family moved to Texas in 1876.

About 1883, S.P. married Sarah Hansen in Mexia. Will was born there in 1885, Jesse May in 1887, and Elmer in 1888.

“S.P. became a successful building contractor in Mexia. One of his last major projects there was the Felix Robertson house, which he started building in 1897. It became one of the most famous landmarks in the town; the historic structure was moved to the Dallas area in 1993.

“There are many unanswered questions about the family, one of which is why they left a successful business in Mexia and moved to Roswell in 1900. The 1900 Census reveals they lived on Washington Avenue when the enumerator, W.P. Turner, came around on June 29.

“The earliest city directory, 1904, lists Denning as a contractor residing at 401 N. Kentucky Ave., along with his wife and three children. The North Kentucky Avenue location, (now the site of Roswell’s tallest building, 400 Penn Plaza, faced Kentucky on the west side of the Penn Plaza block) was to be the Denning family home until 1930.

“A Roswell Daily Record article, July 18, 1904, stated that Samuel P. Denning, along with some partners, formed a corporation, known as ‘Hondo Stone Manufacturing Company.’

“Roswell school records and the census of 1910 show that another son, Samuel Pruitt, was born to the Dennings in 1904. However, his birth is not listed in the vital statistics records for Roswell.

“It could be concluded that what brought the Dennings to Roswell was the daughter, Jesse May’s tuberculosis. She was almost 13 when they arrived; she does not show up in the public school records. At some point, she married a man whose surname was Thomas, but nothing further is known about the marriage.”

“Roswell Daily Record, Oct. 10, 1906

“Auspicious indeed was the occasion responsible for the brilliant gathering, which filled the artistic home of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Price Denning last evening. The notable event, the wedding of their beautiful, young daughter, Miss Jessie Mary Denning to Dr. Charles Thomas, was one that will linger long and pleasantly within the memories of the guests.”

“Sadly, this marriage was not to last long. ‘Jessie Mae died of miliary tuberculosis Aug. 26, 1907. The date on her tombstone at South Park Cemetery is 1906, but other sources support the 1907 date.’

“S.P. Denning became well established in Roswell as a building and general contractor. He was active in the community and was a member of the First Baptist Church, the Masonic Lodge, the Knights of Pythias, and Woodmen of the World. He continued his work as a contractor for the remainder of his life.

“Roswell’s First Baptist Church erected a magnificent new building in 1907. The Roswell Daily Record reported March 17, that the Masons took charge of the ceremonies for laying the cornerstone. Each officer used the ‘gem’ of his office in the proceedings — level, plum line, etc. When the presentations were finished, the officers gave the items to Denning the builder,  ‘… with which the work is to be completed.’ Denning’s name is on the cornerstone, which the church retained when the building was raised in the 1980s.

“Meanwhile, Elmer Denning went off to college at Baylor in Waco, Texas, in 1906, according to the Roswell Daily Record. The census of 1910 shows that he was back in Roswell and working as a druggist.

“The youngest Denning, Pruit, continued to live with his parents until the mid-1920s, at which time he went to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune as an actor. Little is known about his life after that except that he was still living in California as late as 1936.”

Roswell Daily Record, June 6, 1930:

“Whitney-Denning Nuptials

“At a quiet ceremony attended only by intimate friends, Miss Mabel Whitney and Samuel P. Denning were married this afternoon in St. Thomas Episcopal Church, with Dr. Arthur H. Wurtele officiating.

“After a honeymoon in Santa Barbara, the couple will live on Gardner Street in Hollywood.

“Mrs. Denning is the granddaughter of Mrs. Jane Whitney of Macon, Georgia and was educated in Atlanta.

“The groom is the son of Mr. and Mrs. S.P. Denning of Roswell, New Mexico. He is a graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles. — Hollywood, California Daily Citizen of June 2, 1930.

This marriage took place only two weeks after the death of his father, and six months before the death of his mother.

S.P. Denning died at his home on May 16, 1930, of “paralysis,” according to the funeral record. The Roswell Daily Record stated that he was “… a man who was loved and respected by all who knew him.” Reverend Julian Atwood of First Baptist Church conducted the funeral at the Talmage Chapel. Graveside services were conducted at South Park by the Masonic Lodge.

Upon her husband’s death, Sarah Denning moved into the little house at 105 N. Lea Ave., which she owned. She suffered great sorrow over Denning’s death, and the Great Depression began to cause financial problems for the family. Before the year was out, she took her own life. According to the Roswell Daily Record, relatives becoming suspicious asked officers to make an investigation, which resulted in the discovery of the body of Sarah Denning in a gas-filled room at her home. A coroner’s jury was called to investigate, and the jury concluded that her financial problems and the loss of her husband “… resulted in her mind being unbalanced.” Date of death, Dec. 16, 1930, seven months after the death of her husband.

Sarah Denning’s funeral was held at the Talmage Chapel, with Mrs. G.A. Richardson of the First Church of Christ Scientist, presiding. She was buried beside her husband at South Park.

Will Denning and his wife, Ora, married in 1909 and lived with his parents for a while. He was selling gentlemen’s furnishings in 1910, according to the census. He worked for Joyce-Pruitt company for many years until the late 1920s. At the time of his father’s death in 1930, Will Denning was living in Amarillo but apparently moved back to Roswell before his mother died later that same year.

In 1931, Will Denning became a “Roswell city policeman.” Suffering from stomach problems and possibly other ailments — and no doubt troubled by the deaths of his parents — Will Denning shot himself with his .32 automatic pistol Aug. 27, 1936, and died early the next morning at St. Mary’s hospital. He was survived by his wife and their two children, William Jr. and Pauline. Following funeral services at Talmage Chapel, conducted by Rev. Julian Atwood of First Baptist Church, Will Denning Sr. was buried next to his parents in a grave that today is unmarked.

Interestingly, Will Denning Sr.’s widow, Ora Denning, worked as a nurse at Dr. W.T. Neely’s “drugless clinic” in Roswell from about 1937 to about 1946.

So ended the sometimes positive, sometimes tragic story of the Samuel Denning family in Roswell. While they did suffer much personal sorrow, the Denning family contributed significantly to make Roswell what it is today.

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.