New Mexico’s Little Hills
My next stop on the Turquoise Trail was a couple of miles further south in Los Cerrillos, a tiny town founded in 1879 which has a history that began 1500 years earlier. After I turned right onto County Road 57, the pavement quickly gave way to wide, dry, dusty graveled streets in front of a few adobe and wood-plank buildings that are the town’s only saving grace from being the true ghost town that many believe it to be.
During its heyday in the late 19th century when miners poured into town to extract gold, silver, lead, zinc, and turquoise from the surrounding mountains, Los Cerrillos or Little Hills was a boomtown with 21 saloons, four hotels and five brothels. These days Cerrillos, most people don’t bother with the Los, seems to be stuck in a time warp and barely hanging on to life.
Before it became a tourist stop along the Turquoise Trail, Cerrillos hosted famous visitors including Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison and Ulysses S. Grant. And occasionally, Hollywood took advantage of Cerrillos’ old west backdrop to film movies such as The Nine Lives of Elfego Bacca (1958), Shoot Out (1971), Convoy (1978), Outrageous Fortune (1987), Young Guns (1988), and Vampires (1997).
The few signs of life in the town include the St. Joseph Catholic Church built in 1922 and still open for weekly services. Standing on a grassy strip that runs along the left side of the church is a statue of Jesus Christ cleverly carved from a tree trunk with three branches.
In search of another living, breathing human being, I wondered into Tom Morin’s Gallery, which seems to be a relatively new adobe building. There I met Tom who told me about the creation of sandpaper art, a unique art form that I never knew existed. Tom, a retired college professor and master sculptor, also told me a little about Cerrillos and recommended that I stop by Mary’s Bar, a 200 year old structure that was included in some scenes of the movie, Vampires.
Mary’s Bar was about a half a block away. The true name of the bar is the Cerrillos Bar, but it was changed to Mary’s Bar when Vampires was shot and no one has bothered to climb up on the roof to change it back. Even though it was nearly noon, Mary’s wasn’t open yet so I wandered into the What Not Shop next door.
The aptly named What Not Shop is a relic of a building which, for more than 50 years, has housed a huge collection of antiques – some them valuable but, at best, most will sell for just a few dollars. The collection includes Isleta Indian pottery, Atlas E-Z Seal pint jars circa 1910, vintage machine oil cans, Hopi kachina dolls, rusting hand tools, a large free-standing hand loom with a half finished rug, a dusty saddle, a Silvertone clock radio, souvenir plates from Knotts Berry Farm in Ghost Town, California, National Geographic magazines for $1.00 each, and enough carnival glass bowls, plates and glasses to supply prizes for every game at the county fair. Looking around the shop brought back a lot of memories of my early years growing up in rural North Carolina with my mother’s prized collection of carnival glass plates and bowls.
As I was about to leave the What Not Shop, I overheard Janet Mitchell Romero, the owner, telling another customer that she planned to close the shop. When I inquired about why she was closing, Janet said that running the shop is a lot of work for her and her husband. As soon as she can get an appraisal and find a buyer, Janet said she and her husband plan to go someplace and relax for a while.
As I drove up the short hill and back onto the Turquoise Trail, I thought what a shame it was that if the What Not Shop closes, Cerrillos might loose another business that brings tourists to the tiny, dusty town of just over 200 residents. With an aging population and an even older infrastructure, many locals have either died or skipped town for better prospects elsewhere. If Janet is unable to find a buyer, the town will be one step closer to being a place where people used to live.
But then I thought of Tom Morin’s Gallery. Perhaps his studio will encourage other artists to set up shop in Cerrillos. Other tourist attractions in the town include the 1891 Clear Light Opera House now a recording studio, Casa Grande Trading Post, Petting Zoo, and the Turquoise Mining Museum. I fear that without the kind of economic infusion similar to the one that has saved numerous other old mining towns along the Turquoise Trail and in other parts of the west and southwest, Cerrillos is destined to fulfill its destiny of becoming a true ghost town.