If you were to ask most New Mexicans—or even most Americans—to name the most famously strange, most controversial, most wildly celebrated place in our entire state, chances are that the name of one particular town would be mentioned again and again: Roswell.
Then, if you were to ask those same people exactly why Roswell has such an unusual reputation, or how it became such a mythic destination, most would very likely reply: “The milk!”
“Welcome to…ROSWELL,” a sign reads as you drive Highway 285 into the city from the north. “Dairy Capital of the Southwest.” That same proud message greets motorists entering town from the east, south, and west as well, and it’s easy to see why: surely, of all the things that have ever occurred, or even allegedly occurred, in and around Roswell, certainly nothing could be more likely to lure visitors, more likely to boost the local economy, or more full of fun and intrigue than the local dairy industry.
Roswell, in southeastern New Mexico’s Chaves County, is the state’s fifth largest city, with a population of around 50,000 people. The town was founded in 1869 by storekeepers Van C. Smith and Aaron O. Wilburn, near the junction of the Pecos and Rio Hondo Rivers, and was named for Smith’s father, Roswell Smith of Nebraska. In 1878, cattleman John S. Chisum established the area’s 150-mile-long Jinglebob Ranch along the Pecos River, and at one time grazed more than 100,000 head of cattle there. Another area ranch, the Diamond A, grazed about 40,000, and it wasn’t much of a leap from hosting tens of thousands of cattle to becoming a prominent dairy town.
Today, for every two people in Chaves County, there are three cows. Roswell and its surrounding area boast approximately forty working dairies, America’s largest mozzarella cheese factory, and an annual output of close to 1.7 billion pounds of milk. Also, every June, dairy lovers from all around pilgrimage to the nearby community of Dexter to celebrate New Mexico Dairy Days: racing milk carton boats across a desert lake, sculpting art out of cheese, sharing a sixty-foot-long banana split, or competing in some sort of tangentially dairy-related talent show.
“Roswell was dubbed the Dairy Capitol of the Southwest because in 2000, Chaves County was ranked tenth in the nation in total milk production,” Sharon Lombardi, Executive Director for the Dairy Producers of New Mexico, said. “The ranking is done nationwide, and it’s done by number of pounds of milk produced.”
Roswell apparently owes much of its fame to its Dairy Capital status—a status that has been widely touted in yearly radio and television ads, at an annual trade show, in trade journals, and, of course, through word of mouth.
“I have a saying I use, which I think is very true,” Lombardi said. “There are three lines of communications in dairying: television, telephone, and tell a dairyman. Believe me, they know how to communicate, whether it be over dinner or coffee at the local coffee shop in the morning or after the first round at the dairy. Our dairy farmers enjoy what they do and they like to get together to discuss it.”
And there is a lot to discuss. Part of Roswell’s international appeal lies in its controversy, which has kept people talking for decades. Facets of this controversy include Sulphur Springs, Texas—a town that is not the Dairy Capital of the Southwest—being home to the Southwest Dairy Museum. They include allegations that certain Roswell dairies hire illegal Mexican immigrants, immigrants that perhaps inspired such books as Glenn Marcel’s Chasing the Roswell Alien—though someone who’s actually read that might want to verify this. Then, of course, there’s the smell.
Other sources of controversy are the cows themselves…and the milk. Nicole Matthews, an activist liaison for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals points out the often cramped and miserable conditions that dairy cows are forced to live in, and that forty percent of American dairy cows are lame from the nearly constant confinement.
“Cows are like all mammals,” Matthews said. “They give milk only during and after pregnancy, so in order to constantly give milk, they are forcefully impregnated on a regular basis, and their babies are taken from them. Female calves will go into milk production—or are taken away and sold to veal farms, where they are put into stalls so small they can’t even turn around. The milk cows live for several years of being constantly impregnated, of being forced to give ten times more milk than they would naturally, and once they’re completely spent, they’re turned into hamburger or ground up for soups.”
New Mexico is recorded as having more cows per dairy—almost 2,000 apiece, on average—than any other state in the country does, but members of New Mexico’s dairy industry point out that that they believe their cows are treated humanely—given sufficient food and water and plenty of time spent in roomy corrals. They point out that milk contains high levels of calcium and potassium, that it’s a good source of protein, and that many people consider it tasty.
Herbert Hoover, the thirty-first U.S. President, even went so far as to claim that “the white race cannot survive without dairy products.”
These sorts of quirky facts and engaging controversies are just the kinds of things that work to keep Roswell in the forefront of people’s minds—and they serve as solid evidence for why Roswell’s Chamber of Commerce would want to share its dairy industry with its visitors the moment they enter town, before revealing anything else at all, about any other part of Roswell’s history, lore, and identity.
People love milk, and so people love Roswell. …Right?