Wednesday, July 05, 2023

Interesting individuals artfully memorialized in a distinctive setting


Recently we toured the cemetery in Madrid in the San Pedro Mountains on NM 14 (the “Turquoise Trail.”) 30 miles south of our Santa Fe home.  Our guides were three local friends – current neighbor J, and former ones L and J, with whom we get together for lunch every month or so. This was our May meetup. “But why visit that town’s graveyard?” you might ask. Well we would respond, Madrid is much more than a small community of 300 people living in the remnants of a once-thriving, coal-mining company town. It now is one of “the 12 Best Hippie Cities For Stressed-Out Progressives.”  With such a unique past and present, who wouldn’t want to see how they memorialize their deceased?  Plus its  village tavern serves a pretty darn good buffalo burger.


There are nine other towns in the world named Madrid. The capitol city of Spain of course. Plus one each in Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Nebraska, New York and Virginia. Most pronounce it “Muh-DRID” – the way the Spanish do. Alabamans and Mainers say MAD-rid. New Yorkers accept either version.  “Madroids,” as the NM town’s residents like to call themselves, emphasize the “MAD.” 


All of these cities have their own history.  Here briefly is that of Madrid, New Mexico.


The town most likely was given its name by Roque Madrid – a 17th & 18th century Spanish conquistador who briefly became interested in mining lead in the area. “Madrid” is a “habitational surname” indicating where a person came from – meaning Roque would have pronounced both his last name and that of his namesake village in the Spanish way.  We could not find the answer as to why or when that pronunciation changed.


Roque’s interest in quarrying went nowhere. And the small village remained of no particular importance until 1822 when gold miners came to the area, found coal and used it to operate their nearby gold mill at Dolores. (There was a small amount of the yellow metal in New Mexico.)

By 1859 the New Mexico Mining Company owned the coalfield and sold the ore to military forts at Santa Fe and Las Vegas, NM during the Civil War.  More coal was discovered – ownership changed hands – and in the 1890's Madrid had become a regional mining center and company town with around 2,500 inhabitants belonging to the Albuquerque & Cerrillos Coal Co.  By 1920 all Madrid homes were wired for electricity from the company-owned power plant.  Plus there were Elementary and High Schools, a fully equipped hospital, a Company Store, and the first lighted ballpark West of the Mississippi – home to the Madrid Blues, who competed with squads from Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Bernalillo and Isleta Pueblo.

Madrid’s coal production peaked in 1928 with almost 200,000 tons. And in 1943 one hundred tons of coal a day were delivered to its new primary customer, the then secret city of Los Alamos. In 1947 the A&CCC’s Chief Operating Officer Oscar Huber purchased the company becoming the sole owner of the now flourishing town.

Life was good. Until natural gas came on the scene in the late 1940s and the coal market collapsed. By 1954 the mining company had closed, all but a hundred or so residents had moved away, and an ad in the Wall Street Journal listed the entire town for sale at a price of $250,000 ($2.8 million today.) There were no takers.

Oscar Huber died in 1962. In the early 1970s his son Joe rented a few of the old company houses to artists and craftsmen who wanted to work and live in the mountains of New Mexico. Having success he put the remaining buildings on sale – $1,500 to $2,000, sold them all in 16 days and Madrid’s population swelled to 80. Huber donated more land and a new Madrid began to rise from the coal dust. How well did it go?  In 2016 the town was named number four of “The 12 Best Hippie Cities For Stressed-Out Progressives” by ReverbPress.  “Madrid is a town reborn. Originally a coal-mining town, it disappeared along with the popularity of coal, becoming a ghost town of abandoned buildings. Those buildings have been restored … painted in a colorful array of hues [and] become home to an artists’ colony, but in a deserty, mountainous environment [and unlike SantaFe] removed from the madding crowd.”


(Actual, untouched-up photo of downtown Madrid.)


A brief stop in Madrid was a regular part of our New Mexico visits – usually after spending our arrival day and night in Albuquerque, and driving the Turquoise Trail to Santa Fe the next morning. And we’ve continued these trips now that the town is just down the road from our Santa Fe home. Easily 50 or more stopovers. But we had never heard about “Madrid’s Bone Orchard.”

And we definitely would have sought it out. As we’ve indicated in some of our earlier writings we are definitely “FoCs” (Fans of Cemeteries.)  Back in CT we particularly enjoyed visiting Hartford, CT’s Cedar Hill and Wethersfield, CT’s Old Village  – interesting individuals artfully memorialized in a distinctive setting, 


But there were no indications of Madrid Cemetery anywhere that we had seen. Like so many things out here – you gotta know somebody who knows somebody. It this case it was our neighbor J whose former companion’s ashes are interred there.


We rode in two cars – none of us having large vehicles. We were following J. As we slowly drove into the town (posted speed limit 15 mph) she made an abrupt right into what appeared to be a narrow alleyway. But turned out to be a slightly less narrow, two-mile long, uphill, winding dirt and rock road (unposted speed limit 10 mph.) The unimproved path passed by several colorfully and artfully decorated small houses before coming to an end next to a wrought iron entry gate welcoming us to the “Land of the Dead.”

Given our two-score-plus-ten previous explorations of the town, our self-proclaimed FoC zealotry and familiarity with our friends’ overall standards we had pretty high expectations for the burying grounds. And we have to say they were absolutely exceeded.

At this point we would normally interject a little history of Madrid Cemetery. But Jim’s internet research has turned up nothing. There is no Madrid Historical Society. Not surprising in a town that died then was re-birthed in the past 50 years by a small group of people who look more to the present and future than to the past. Jim thought of having one-on-ones with locals over beers at the town’s Mindshaft Tavern to see what they might know. But under doctor/spousal advice we will instead do our own conjecturing based on what we have learned about NM cemeteries in general.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish the only funerary practices were those of the Native Indians – most involving burial, some cremation. The 16th and 17th century conquering Spanish sought to change these rituals to those of the Catholic religion – with varying degrees of success. In most instances the Native Americans simply added Catholicism to their traditional ceremonies and belief. Sometimes they carried on their old rituals secretly under the veil of their newly taught religion. Only Catholics were allowed burial in Catholic cemeteries. For non-Catholics there were no official cemeteries

When Mexico acquired New Mexico in their war of independence from Spain they invited trade from the United States, largely in the form of merchants who traveled the Santa Fe Trail. Many were Jewish or Protestant. This brought missionary ministers and Rabbis to care spiritually for those newcomers who chose to stay. And to convert those already here whose religious needs were not being fulfilled by the inadequate number of Catholic priests. Their arrival resulted in the establishment of non-Catholic burying grounds. In Santa Fe the Masons and Odd Fellows established the initial such cemetery in 1853. In 1881 the Montefiore Cemetery in Las Vegas, NM became one of the first Jewish burial places west of the Mississippi. And many Company Towns established them for their deceased residents.

So why all this background? Today’s Madrid Cemetery is actually two graveyards – old and new, side by side – both set in a totally untilled, take-it-as-it-is, high desert landscape partially enclosed by one non-continuous strand of barbed wire. To the right is a typical western rural cemetery – wooden crosses, weathered/crumbling/intact headstones and piles of stones. (The corpses are “six feet under.” The rocks protect from the ravages of coyotes, etc.) The names that we saw here were Hispanic and the dates of death from the 1920s and 30s. Some sites were being taken over by nature. Others cared for and decorated with fresh plastic flowers. One new gravestone seemed out of sync with its plot.


The layout of this section is largely freeform and overgrown. We did not wander its entirety and could not even guess at its total size. Clearly from the coal mining era – but Catholic, private non-sectarian, company provided? No way to know for sure.
However, with just a little knowledge of today’s Madrid, even a first time visitor can decipher the heritage of the new section.

If not for the adjacent traditional burial ground, and a couple of similar stone-covered sites you might easily mistake this for a sculpture garden of quirky works of folk art with an ironically titled entry portal. Until you read the accompanying signage with names and date ranges and realize that you are gazing instead at a collection of highly personalized, heart-felt memorials. A front bicycle tire and handlebars, a sewing machine, a fire extinguisher and hard-hat – phrases such as “to the butte” or an illustration of racked pool balls on the marker – a wrought-iron portrayal of someone reading on a bench. By the shape of the plot you can tell that some are resting places for bodies, some for ashes.  The new section also had a rudimentary performance stage with folding chairs leaning against its side. As well as a Maypole complete with ribbons. (It was that month.)




Interesting individuals artfully memorialized in a distinctive setting? Most definitely yes! And as survivors of the 1960s we would also add, “far out!”