When she was a young girl, Dr. Judy Armstrong moved to Roswell with her family into a house located directly in the flight path of the bombers that practiced at Walker Air Force Base (AFB). “They would come rumbling over, and it just shook the house!” she exclaimed. “They would fly so low that we could see the pilots, and we would wave at them.”
In the 1950s, it was a common sight in Roswell to see Air Force bombers running practice flights, airmen strolling Main Street and $2 bills circulating through the retail shops—the government’s way of determining how much money the airmen were spending in the community. They were prosperous times in a bustling community.
“I went off to college in 1964 and everything was fine,” Armstrong recalled. “But when I came back it was like a ghost town. It was sad, very sad.” The Roswell she knew had a Main Street that was full of retail shops, clothing stores, jewelry stores, drug stores; there were movie theaters downtown, three different men’s clothing stores and walkways filled with airmen and their families. That was then.
Everything changed one summer day in 1967.
“My wife and I were both home with the flu when it came out on the news,” remembered Roswell resident Bob Plotter. “That’s how I found out the base was closing—from the news.” That might not seem like a very big deal—finding out about something shutting down via the media—but considering the fact that Bob was stationed at Walker AFB and had been for 10 years, it was a very big deal! In a matter of moments his entire life changed. He had a young family, a wife and a mortgage, and just like that he was forced to reconfigure. “I was devastated,” he admitted. “We didn’t know how it would affect us or when. We knew we would have to go somewhere…It’s tough on the whole family; we had two children, one in kindergarten and one in preschool…”
That “somewhere” for Plotter turned out to be Charleston, South Carolina. Others from the base transferred to New Jersey or Spokane, Washington. Plotter was among the first wave of people transferred out in 1966. On June 30, 1967, the base was officially closed.
The Million-Dollar Question
Walker AFB opened in 1941 as an Army Air Corps flying school and was active during World War II and the post-war era as Roswell Army Air Field. It was an active base and even became the largest base of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) during the early years of the Cold War. Everything seemed to be rolling along smoothly, or so everyone thought. The 1950s and ‘60s, however, saw the beginning and climax of the Vietnam War, which as we all know today would end up being a long and costly war to fight. When government officials announced the closure of Walker AFB, it was an unexpected move to locals, but the government’s reasoning seemed to make sense. An official statement alleged that a round of stateside closings and consolidations was necessary as the Defense Department struggled to pay the expenses of the Vietnam War with the budgetary limits set by Congress.
However, if you ask folks around Roswell why the base closed, you are likely to get a different story. Those at the base during the closure said they were told Roswell was “too dry and dusty” to maintain the planes and equipment at the base, but many believe that the conservative community of Roswell, New Mexico didn’t jive well with the more liberal views of Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson and believe it was a form of retaliation, so to speak, against the Republicans.
Census numbers indicate that in 1960 the population of Chaves County totaled 57,649, a large segment of which could be attributed to Walker AFB. In the 1970 census, however, the county saw a nearly 25 percent decline in its population; only 43,335 residents remained. “It was devastating to our community,” Armstrong reiterated.
But while the base closure certainly had an enormous impact for this community, fortunately for us, the story does not end there. Thanks to the vision and tenacity of city leaders at the time, the void left by the base closing was filled with rich diversity ranging from manufacturing to education to agriculture. “When we came back in 1977, we still saw some of the effects of the base closure,” Plotter shared. “A lot of Main Street wasn’t filled up yet, and there were a lot of houses on the market.”
Even so, Armstrong was present to witness the quick response by city leaders immediately following the closure and was impressed that after 10 years, the community had already begun to bounce back and was on its way to becoming stronger than ever. “I think the base closure taught us that we need to be diversified, because at the time, everyone was counting on the base,” she reckoned.
Armstrong said city leaders like Mayor Bill Brainerd and the city council worked tirelessly to reinvent the community and bring in other sources of revenue. After closing, the land was divided up with portions going to the City of Roswell, some to Eastern New Mexico University and a third portion earmarked as a residential sector. The city utilized much of their portion for aviation and manufacturing; the college for expansion; and the residential sector for housing.
“You really have to give so much credit to our mayors and counselors that had the vision to utilize the facility for aviation, because that’s made all the difference,” Armstrong stated. “And of course Dr. (Loyd) Hughes and others from the college who had a vision for expanding the college out there, too.”
Today, the “old base” is used for storage, manufacturing and aviation, education and housing. The community as a whole has continued to diversify and now credits agriculture and local dairies with assisting in the rebound as well. Still other areas where the community has seen an increase in numbers include tourism and the retiree segment. With the warm, dry climate, access to medical facilities and the relatively low cost of living, Roswell has proven to be an ideal destination for people like Plotter who are looking for a nice place to retire. “After the base closed we moved to South Carolina, then I went to Vietnam, back to South Carolina, and finally Scott Air Force Base in Arizona, where I retired from the Air Force after 40 years,” he shared. “After I retired, we decided to move back to Roswell. It’s probably the best place we’ve ever lived. We really do like it here.” After moving back in 1977, he embarked on a second career and spent the next 20 years working for the United States Post Office in Roswell, retiring in 1997.
And what Roswell growth story would be complete without at least a mention of the famous—or infamous, depending upon who you are and to whom you’re talking—“Roswell Incident” and the subsequent alien culture that has accompanied it?
The numbers, though, summarize the story best: in 2010, the United States Census Bureau reported the total population of Chaves County at 65,764. That’s a nearly 52 percent increase from the devastating numbers reported in 1970. When asked what he is most proud of in terms of his adopted hometown, Plotter didn’t hesitate. “I’m most proud of the way this community has continued to grow and hasn’t gotten stale. My wife and I travel a lot, and since 2008 when the stock market fell, we see car dealerships and strip malls abandoned and towns just really hurting, but not Roswell. We continue to flourish, and I think it’s because we are so diversified now. That would have never happened if the base hadn’t closed!”