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Bylaws of bygone days: A brief history of the city’s strange laws

July 31, 2013 • Local News

The vaults of Roswell City Hall and the Historical Society’s Archive Building contain a treasure trove of historical data about the City’s evolution. Many of the books located at these two sites contain the city ordinances and resolutions dating back to the period when New Mexico was still a territory. They reflect the needs and the morals of the time.

For example: One of the oldest books is handwritten. It covers a period from 1902 to 1906, where it was said that any man who transports on a dray or in a carriage, or is seen in the company of a “lewd woman” will be fined $5.

In 1906, the playing of music in any establishment that sells liquor was prohibited. Later, when moving pictures arrived, playing moving pictures was strictly regulated and as late as 1915, “lewd” movies were not only prohibited, but if an authority deemed the movie as inappropriate, the film could be confiscated and submitted to the National Board of Censorship for review.

One ordinance still on the books in 1939 made any act of fornication illegal in any hotel, boarding house or rented room, along with public parks, streets and alleys. The latter is justifiable no matter what the date; the former bemuses, and the reader can only assume that if a couple chose to honeymoon — not a widespread practice then — they would have had to leave the city limits.

The ordinances also show the issues that plagued the city then as now. The care of streets and sideways have long presented a challenge in Roswell and still do to this day. The solutions presented by the Council vary. One ordinance in the 1915 records dealt with the watering and sprinkling of streets, back in a time when the roads were made of dirt, most likely dust. Sidewalks could only be swept between the hours of 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. which would restrict any immoderate urge that would have a business owner outside sweeping at midnight.

Some ordinances appear amusing unless viewed in the context of the time. In 1902, driving swine, cows, goats, sheep, horses, geese, turkeys, chickens through the city was illegal. It seems a moot point in the Roswell of the 21st century. However, it was not only a possibility, but also presented a potential hazard in a city that began at First Street and ended on Eighth — especially in an era when farmers driving animals to market would have chosen the quickest route, a straight line through town. A variation of this ordinance has been on the books for over 100 years and remains in force to this day. It is still illegal to let chickens, geese, ducks, goats, sheep and cattle run loose in town.

Some of the first animal cruelty laws date back to the early 1900s, when the city was resolved that animals must be given sufficient water and nourishment, could not be cruelly beaten. Tags and licensing of dogs has long been an established fact. According to local historian Elvis Fleming, the first ordinance to be voted on by the City Council, and passed, pertained to the licensing of dogs.

City ordinances were the first line of defense for public health at a time before national and state health departments. Numerous ordinances existed that prohibited barbers, restaurateurs who had contagion, infectious and communicable disease from working. City Council created an ordinance that required combs and brushes be soaked in some sort of disinfectant. The council also stipulated that the towel used on one man could not be used on a second, without being washed first.

Pages of text were devoted to the proper storage of dairy and meat, sterilization of containers and the cleanliness of workers. Roswell ordinance required stables cleaned of muck at least every 30 days.

Screens on rental property were mandatory, which could leave some homes in violation to this day. However, one ordinance placed tents in the category of property that could be rented. There is even an ordinance that made cottonwood trees illegal within the city limits.

As late as 1939, carrying weapons of any kind, either guns or knives, were illegal inside the city limits, and as early as 1909, men were convicted of the offense.

Some city laws astound, not because they existed, but because they were deemed necessary to codify. One ordinance prohibited flushing toilets in slaughterhouses onto meat storage areas or placing outhouses within 100 feet of meat storage areas. Such sanitation measures would appear to be self-evident.

In 1915, it was still on the books that the mayor could create a special police force, beyond the local police force. The budget allotted for this police force was limited to $125 per month. The ordinance was unclear if this amount was the pay of a single man or meant to cover the expenses generated by the group.

Some of the fees paid in bygone days would turn today’s citizen green with envy. Circa 1939, garbage collection cost a dollar per household. There were fees of 50 cents for keeping a cow within in the city limits; $1 for 2 cows. The citizen could keep up to 40 cattle, with fees of $10, as long as they did not drive them through the streets. People were fined if a horse or a cow died on the street and left without proper disposal.

Cattle may have been welcomed in Roswell, but psychics, astrologers and spiritualist mediums were less tolerated, with fees of $35 and special permits that had to be acquired from the mayor before they could practice their craft. Thus, the ordinances also reflect the changes in city structure where the mayor represented the executive office, the “go-to” guy who could issue special permits for the psychically inclined or start his own militia. They also reveal vestige of Roswell’s Wild West past when a posse, or special police force, may be required to chase a robber from New Mexico into Texas or Arizona.

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