As I drove along the rolling hills of New Mexico's Turquoise Trail toward Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid, not MA-DRID), I passed a couple of bicyclists and met quite a few motor cyclists out for a scenic Saturday ride. Within minutes after leaving Ken's Studio 3115 just south of Cerrillos, I saw the Welcome to Madrid greeting on the shingles hanging in front of the green shuttered Old Boarding House. I stopped to take a picture but heeded the warning sign on the cedar planter box and looked for parking elsewhere. Uhmm, I thought, these people serious.
Traffic was much heavier in Madrid than I had seen further north on the trail and the wide shoulders had been replaced by dusty graveled sidewalks with some cars parked parallel and others parked at an angle along the street. Traffic moved slowly along the busy main street as pedestrians wandered from one side to the other. I found a parking spot in a graveled lot across the street from the Mine Shaft Tavern.
Before lunch I decided to take a quick walking tour of the town center which covers only a few blocks. Most of the old clapboard buildings were once homes to the more than 3,000 residents who worked in surrounding mines that produced over 250,000 tons of coals each year for use by the Santa Fe railroad, U.S. government and local residents.
A growing preference for natural gas as a home heating alternative brought an end to Madrid’s coal based fortunes. Most of its residents moved away when the Albuquerque and Cerrillos Coal Company ceased to operate in 1954. In that same year, the town of Madrid was advertised for sale in the Wall Street Journal for US$250,000. There were no buyers for the tiny now resource poor town set on a narrow road between juniper speckled hills.
Madrid was pretty much a ghost town for the next 20 years. Then in the early 1970s it was reborn as a niche community when artists, craftsmen and other free spirited individuals began to move into the town. Today the refurbished miners’ residences house art galleries, boutiques, theatres, cafes, restaurants, or bed & breakfasts that are doing a thriving tourist business. The town of about 300 residents is an easy tourist day trip from either Albuquerque or Santa Fe.
I took a self-guided tour of the three acre, seven tin covered buildings of the Old Coal Mine Museum. The museum contains the most complete non-operating steam locomotive in the U.S., a restored 1900 Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad locomotive Engine 769. Since Madrid was a company town, the displays include both mining equipment such as winches, coal cars, gears, and belts as well as non-mining artifacts such as x-ray machines, cash registers, antique cars and trucks, all used during the more than 50 years that the Albuquerque and Cerrillos Coal Company operated in and around Madrid.
On my way back to the Mine Shaft Tavern for lunch, I made a quick stop at Jezebel’s, one of several businesses on the short boardwalk on the east side of Route 14 in the heart of the town. Jezebel’s has an excellent selection of original items in its glass studio, gallery and sculpture garden. Just beyond the generous glass jewelry display is an original 1920’s soda fountain that serves 13 ice cream flavors, various hot foods, soups, sandwiches, pies, pastries, candy and cheesecake.
Since I was feeling quite hungry and fighting my urge to begin lunch with cheesecake, I headed for the Mine Shaft Tavern where I was greeted by a no-nonsense waitress who showed me to one of the stained wooden tables with spindle back chairs. The main feature of the tavern is the 40 foot lodge pole pine bar, said to be the longest stand-up bar in New Mexico. The bar as well as most of the other furnishings are original pieces and have been in place since 1946 when the Tavern first opened.
The town’s rich history is portrayed in several Ross J. Ward paintings hanging above the bar and behind the small stage. Of course, Ward may be better known for his eclectic collection of Americana on display at the Tinkertown Museum further south on the Turquoise Trail. One of the paintings “A Call to Weary Miners” is also a testament to the longevity of a good bar. An angel’s banner in the painting includes a phrase that when loosely translated, reads “it is better to drink than work”. The lunch menu was simple with a nice selection of burgers, Mexican dishes, beer and soup.
After lunch I left the Tavern via a side door that exited onto a generous deck, an ideal place for hanging out on warm weekend evenings. In the side parking lot were several pickup trucks and lots of shiny motor cycles. In fact, parts of “Wild Hogs”, a Disney fun movie staring John Travolta, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence, and William H. Macy, about four middle-aged men who hit the saddle of their bike to get away from it all, were filmed in Madrid in 2007.
As I walked down the steps from the deck, I spotted Mostly Madrid, the shop that Ken Wolverton from Studio 3115 had mentioned. Mostly Madrid was one of several small shops in an adobe colored building. The door was open so I walked into the long gallery featuring local and native art and jewelry along with hand-stitched leather and objects of spirit. I introduced myself to the comely woman behind a small desk and said that Ken had sent me. She introduced herself as Ruth.
I found that Ruth, like Ken and so many of the people I’d met on the Turquoise Trail, was friendly and loquacious. I learned that she was the owner of Mostly Madrid and Ken’s significant other (also known as the one and only model for Ken’s interesting gallery concept). She said that she agreed to display some of Ken’s sculptures only after he agreed to a less obvious display of anatomical correctness.
Ruth was full of stories about the town and how she came to settle in Madrid. As I poked around her shop, she told me how she first came to New Mexico on vacation with her former husband. She fell in love with the state; he didn’t. After they divorced, she came back and made Madrid her home.
She also told me how Vietnam veterans settled in modern day Madrid because of its proximity to the VA hospital in Albuquerque and because the town offered them the freedom to pursue their interest without undue interference from authorities. That freedom also attracted a large number of hippies and want-a-be hippies. Even with the diverse population, everyone gets along just fine socializing at The Mine Shaft Tavern where they eat burgers, drink beer, enjoy live music, and other social activities.
Without the usual expensive cars, big houses and corner office jobs to establish one’s status, Ruth said that people in Madrid developed their own set of questions to establish status. She said that the typical get-to-know you conversation goes something like this -
1. Do you own a working vehicle? The operative word in this question is “working”. According to Ruth, most houses may have several vehicles parked in the front yard but none of them may be in working condition.
2. Do you have electricity? Even though most of my readers may think that electricity is a necessity, that is not always the case in Madrid.
3. Do you have indoor plumbing? Apparently, not all of the residences in and around Madrid have installed this modern convenience.
4. Are your teeth your own? If someone has a beautiful set of teeth, there is good chance that they are the product of a dental lab in Santa Fe.
Now I don’t know how much of this discussion was tongue-in-cheek, but I spent $100 in souvenir purchases in Ruth’s shop and drove away with a warm spot in my heart for Madrid and a smile on my face.