SmallTownUSA: company town turn artsy

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May 4, 2014 by genelup

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MADRID, New Mexico –“You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store.”

Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 1955 song 16 Tons went off the charts; he may have been singing about the coal mining company town on a back road between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Coal was discovered in the nearby Ortiz hills in the mid-1800s.  The Albuquerque & Cerrillos Coal Company started operations in Madrid in 1906.  During its heyday in the 1920s and 30s about 3,000 people lived here.  Operations were closed in early 1950s.  Madrid then slid to ghost town status until artists and hippies moved in.


Now it is a popular artist town.  The miners’ cabins have been restored to arts and crafts stores.


During the coal mining days many of the miners owed big-time to the company store through the years.  They were given scrip if they took an advance on their pay. The scrip was valued at 80 cents on the dollar.  Many employees, particularly those who carried debts at the company store, were paid in company scrip, which could be converted to real money.  Of course, the store skimmed 10 to 20 per cent off before handing out the hard cash.

The Madrid coal mine was only one of three mines in the world that mined both anthracite (hard coal) and bituminous (soft coal).  Shafts were dug as deep as 2,500 feet. As much as 100 tons of coal was mined in a single day.  Most of the coal was sold to the Santa Fe Railroad, local consumers and the U.S. government.

Disaster hit two weeks before Christmas in 1932 when a mine explosion killed 14 miners. A local newspaper reported: “The most grievous aspect of the holocaust is the fact that 13 heads of families are removed, and one family of eight has lost its chief breadwinner.”

A few days after the explosion a woman offered to sacrifice her pet canary by sending it into the mine.  If it died, the mine was unsafe for humans; if it lived the mine’s air was okay.  However, the mine’s air cleared up before the canary was sent in as a guinea pig.

Not all in town was scrip, hard work and mine explosions.  The company (which in 1939 was bought by Oscar Huber, the mine foreman) was very community-minded. In the early 1920s, a popular “Christmas in Madrid” began.  The event used more than 150,000 lights and tens of thousands visitors flocked to see it.  Also, it was reported airliners would divert their planes for passengers to see the town from the air during this celebration.

Also, the ballpark was made into a Toyland that included a miniature train and a children’s Ferris wheel.  The company also sponsored the Madrid Miners baseball team; at one time New Mexico’s only Double A minor league team.  The Madrid Employees Club supplied uniforms and equipment, and the coal company paid for the transportation for the team to compete in other towns.

The team won numerous pennants after winning seasons against rivals such as Albuquerque Dons, Santa Fe Loosens, Las Vegas Maroons and Bernalillo Lumberjacks.  However, the team was accused to have a ringer, Emit J. Bowles, who had once played professionally for the Chicago White Sox.  The players received bonuses after winning seasons, and Bowles was probably thanked many times.

And people throughout New Mexico flocked to see the town’s popular July Fourth parade.

After the mine shut down in the early 1950s, the Huber family was left with virtually a ghost town with more than a hundred homes, stores and other buildings including a deserted mine.  In 1954, the family put an ad in the Wall Street Journal asking $250,000 to someone to buy Madrid.  There was no response.

In the 1960s, the Hubers had their hands full when artists, veterans, squatters and hippies moved into their buildings.  In 1975, son Joe Huber put his buildings up for sale.  In 16 days he sold 150 buildings.  The closing price ranged from $2,000 to $8,000 each.

Today, slightly more than 200 people live in Madrid.  The town now thrives on the tourist trade.  Galleries owned by artists and craftspeople, along with a few eateries, a bed and breakfast, a tavern and a coal mining museum line the main thoroughfare.

Part of the 2006 movie Wild Hogs, starring Tim Allen, was filmed in Madrid.


The Hollar restaurant, that features “Southern Fusion Dining,” has an outdoor patio.  Don’t be surprised if Baja, a town mutt, ambles to your table and waits for a morsel from your plate.  The waiter may shoo him away, but in a minute or two he’ll return to sit next to your knee.  Just smile, and take another swig from your beer or glass of wine.


The museum exhibits a wide array of mine, medical and other company town equipment, along with a huge locomotive parked at the entrance of a building. There are several mine buildings to explore.  But be quiet and don’t use a flash camera in the Parts Supply Building from early May until early October.  That’s when a colony of the endangered Townsend Big Ear bats invades the building to nest on the ceiling to give birth to their babies.








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