Sunday, January 19, 2014

Finding History in the Bottom of my Beer

I recently stumbled across an online repository of digital article reprints collecting local history stories originally printed in El Defensor Chieftain, the venerable twice weekly source of news for the residents of Socorro, New Mexico. I won't bother trying to catalog the maze of hyper-linked rabbit holes that brought me to the website, though I will grant you that I probably should have been spending my time more productively. In any case, I learned some interesting things about what I consider my home town.

Born in Virginia, my folks moved to the high desert when I was three. My first and haziest memories are of scenes and events in the east, but for all practical purposes I grew up in Socorro, completely unaware of and uninterested in the historical significance of anything I saw around me. Sure, I dutifully went on field trips to the San Miguel Mission, built between 1615 and 1626 (the church was founded in 1598, but the original building was replaced starting in 1615), and looked through the glass at the example of the original adobe, but I don't recall being particularly excited by it. I suppose that is the natural order of youth. The significance of the past pales against the prospects of the afternoon.

But San Miguel never held reign as the only historical building of note in Socorro, some of which were never recognizable to me as anything more than blight. Like the multi-storied structure east of California Street on the south side of town? Turns out it had been a flour mill, the Crown Mill, first opened for business in 1893 in an environment dominated by two existing mill operations. The mill flourished for a time, but fell victim to the vagaries of capitalism and the market power of Pillsbury. The Crown Mill closed in 1938. Other businesses operated from the building up until 1965. I only knew the building as an example of industrial ruin, a structure subject to rumor. Kids I knew in turn knew other kids (always several times removed) who had broken into the mill, reportedly finding the place booby trapped and inhabited by a crazy man who leered out at them from behind a pile of rubbish—or perhaps bones. It turns out a local man bought the building in 2003, and has since done some renovation, rebuilding the third story and roof which had fallen into disrepair. I hope he made provisions for the crazy man. You hate to see gentrification chase out a neighborhood's original residents.

I was most interested in an article detailing the long history of the Capitol Bar. The Cap sits today on the plaza where it did when first built in 1896, Socorro's only surviving bar from back when New Mexico was a territory. I had a vague awareness of the place growing up as a den of iniquity near the Junior High and Edward's barbershop, but never saw the interior prior to a remodel following a fire in 1993. Now it has been bestowed the honor of “Bucket List Bar” but none other than YouTube contributor “drunkenhistory.” If there is a higher honor, I know it not. There were two points in the article, however, that I found particularly striking.

First, the article notes that as of its publication date (2010), the Capitol was one of only three bars left in Socorro (the other two being the Roadrunner Lounge and the Matador Lounge at the El Camino, but a quick online search suggests the Roadrunner may have since closed). Are you seriously telling me that Socorro can't support more than three (maybe two) bars? What happened to the rest? And in particular, what happened to that sketchy little bar west of California Street on the south side of town, kind of across from the then-deteriorating Crown Mill? The little rectangle of a building, made out of cinder blocks, with a dark door and seemingly no electricity? This place too was subject to rumor amongst the kids. There it was rumored that murder occurred nightly (most of which must have gone unreported; looking back I do not recall reading about these frequent killings in the Chieftain). Indeed, you were guaranteed to, at the very least, be stabbed, if not shot, within minutes of walking through the dark doors. Maybe the rumors were true, which would account for its closure. It is hard to build a stable clientele if you keep knocking them off soon after they pass through the doors.

Second, the article told the story of the Emillio family, which was involved in the Socorro bar business from the repeal of prohibition until approximately 1960, at which time the son, Willie Emillio, decided to try his hand in other lines or work. Notably, the local college, the New Mexico School of Mining and Technology, made Willie an honorary member of the alumni association, and on his death Willie left the school money to start a scholarship fund in his name. All of which suggests the Tech students were perhaps spending more time (and money) at the Capitol than they were in their classes. Having spent time as a student in geology programs at three different schools, I can just think that, yes, that sounds about right. So, next time I'm in Socorro I'll need to stop in for a beer. And I will expect to see the geology students working away on homework, absorbing (I'm sure) the historical significance of the place.