Deeply immersed in New Mexico ranch life, both mother and daughter could equal men in ranching skills, sought an education, and gave their time, money, and effort to help society from local to national levels. Legendary as ranchers, philanthropists, athletes, and activists, both are in the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.
Dessie Sawyer and her daughter Fern Sawyer are two women whose accomplishments and lasting benefits are hard to separate. Both came from ranch life in southern New Mexico in the counties of De Baca, Lea, and Lincoln. They could equal men in ranching skills, sought an education, and gave their time, money, and effort to help society from local to national levels.
Dessie Sawyer was a rancher first. She and her husband struggled to pay off the mortgage of their ranch during the Depression—and yet, with determination, they made it. They were self-made individuals in a true western tradition.
Dessie worked in various community committees as well as for charitable organizations. She also worked in public affairs. She worked tirelessly for the March of Dimes and promoted the economic and cultural growth of New Mexico.
Her community work naturally led her into politics, which she enjoyed “because that is where the fun is.” She arguably became New Mexico’s best-known political figure for many years and rose to the position of a Democratic National Committeewoman. Shortly before her death in 1990, she was one of 10 Democrats inducted into the Democratic Hall of Fame from the state’s 2nd Congressional District.
Fern more than lived up to the standard set by her mother. Born in De Baca County, she spent her entire life in New Mexico, other than her time attending Texas Tech University. She learned to work like any ranch hand and participated in men’s events at rodeos. She achieved national fame in the event of cutting, where she became the first woman to win the National Cutting Horse world title. She was so talented that during her life she was inducted into four national halls of fame.
Like her mother, Fern became involved in politics and served as the Lincoln County Democratic Party Chairwoman. She combined politics and her love of the ranching and rodeo industry by becoming the first woman to be appointed to the State Fair Board. From the first time she rode in the State Fair rodeo in 1939 until her death in 1993, her name was synonymous with the fair. Her array of beautiful rhinestone suits and outfits and her always-dramatic posting to the American flag during the Grand Entry were unforgettable.
Fern also became involved in the horse racing industry, particularly at Ruidoso Downs where for many years she led the post parade for the All American Futurity. Once again, she made history by becoming the first woman named to the state racing commission.
Dessie and Fern Sawyer are legendary. They influenced people in many different ways and their positive influence continues today. Dessie’s advocacy of the western way of life was recognized by her nomination and inclusion into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 1981, and Fern preceded her mother in the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 1976. Both women were ranchers, philanthropists, athletes, and political activists—and they made history.
Library of Congress Congressional Record, Article 57 of 109. Honorable Bill Richardson, House of Representatives.
Democratic Hall of Fame.
Albuquerque Journal, August 29,1990, p. 31
Lovington Leader (several articles).
Enchantment Magazine, November 1990.