MAGDALENA – Howard Bryan, an Albuquerque newspaper reporter and columnist from 1948 to 1985, told a story years ago about his first trip to the old cow town of Magdalena.
It was 1949. Bryan, a native of Ohio, had not been in New Mexico long, but he already had cowboy boots. He said a newsroom veteran warned him not to wear those boots to Magdalena.
“He told me that old-timers would be sitting on benches in Magdalena, and if they saw somebody who didn’t own or work cattle walk by in boots, they’d throw him in a water trough,” Bryan said. “So, I didn’t wear my boots. But I didn’t see any old-timers on benches or water troughs either.”
The hills are alive
Times and perspectives change. Jim Sauer, who has lived in Magdalena since 1995, thinks of himself as one of the town’s old-timers.
Even so, Sauer – who is in charge of organizing the Saturday, June 12 Magdalena Frontier Festival – said his favorite thing about his festival job is hearing stories about his adopted hometown’s past.
“One gentleman told me he’d go to sleep at night and the foothills he could see from his house would be brown,” Sauer said. “But when he’d wake up in the morning the hills would be white with sheep.”
From 1885 until 1971, stockmen drove many thousands of sheep and cattle from as far away as Springerville, Arizona, into Magdalena where they were herded into stock pens for loading onto trains headed to markets back east.
Those trail-driving days are gone like the old-timers on benches and water troughs. Even the railroad tracks that once ran from Socorro into Magdalena have been pulled up.
But the stock pens are still here, and many buildings dating back to the early 20th century stand throughout Magdalena, which is on U.S. 60, 26 miles west of Socorro.
A walking-tour map lists 35 places of interest, and many people could do the whole route in this small town of less that 1,000 people without getting in their car. In fact you can just sit still and see a lot of Magdalena history.
On a recent weekday, Sauer was sitting at a table behind the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway depot, which was built in 1915 and is now the town library. Just across the street is the Ilfeld Warehouse, which dates back to 1913 and in the past provided general merchandise to ranchers and small businesses in southwestern New Mexico and eastern Arizona.
South of the warehouse is the Market Place, which sells antiques and other treasures of all sorts and is located in a 1913 building that once stored the wool and hides ranchers and trappers brought into Magdalena to send east.
“The sheep are pretty much gone, but the cattle are still around,” Sauer said. But not as many cattle, or cowboys, or bars as there once was.
“Someone was telling me how he used to watch cowboys spilling out of the Silver Rose (bar) fighting,” Sauer said.
A wild hair
Sauer, 67, retired with the rank of major after 20 years in the Army and duty assignments with the infantry and in aviation and research and development. He moved to Magdalena to teach at the elementary school and recently retired after 25 years on the job. Now he is in charge of Magdalena’s Kids’ Science Café.
“It’s for young kids and we just do stuff, model rocketry, photography with kites” Sauer said. “We find algae and put it under a microscope, we send balloons up to the edge of space.”
At the corner of Main Street and U.S. 60, Willie Mozley, 28, was painting the door of Evett’s Cafe, which specializes in milkshakes, coffee and sandwiches. The cafe has been closed during the coronavirus pandemic, but Mozley is getting ready to open for the Magdalena Frontier Festival.
The cafe is in a building that was the Magdalena Bank in the early 1900s and a drug store in the 1940s before becoming an ice cream shop. Mozley, who grew up in Socorro, remembers the ice cream shop when it was under previous ownership.
“We used to drive from Socorro just to come here,” he said. “They had the best milkshake and burgers.” Now he is trying to carry on that legacy.
South of U.S. 60 at the corner of Spruce and Second streets is the remodeled Magdalena Hall Hotel, which first opened in 1917 and is the sole survivor of several large hotels that once served Magdalena. Cattlemen in town after getting their herds to the stock pens used to sit along the first-floor veranda or second-story balcony, smoking and talking, maybe enjoying a strong drink, after days of eating trail dust.
Rooms are once again available for rent at the hotel, and Kelly’s Place Cafe is located in the lobby.
Just west of the hotel is the home of John Keller, 70, and his wife, Cheryl, who moved to Magdalena from Lawrence, Kansas, in December 2019. Keller is a retired mail carrier who enjoys doing woodwork.
“A wild hair,” he said when asked why he moved to Magdalena. “We enjoy traveling the southwest part of the country, and we saw this house for sale.” Keller said he and his wife were expecting quiet and remoteness, but could be they got more than they bargained for, arriving as they did just months before coronavirus restrictions kicked in.
Sauer, who served in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, said Magdalena was just what he was looking for when he retired from the Army.
“I needed small and not a lot of people,” he said.
Sauer stopped on Elm Street, just north of Second and pointed at a small, grim building with a metal grate for a window. This is Magdalena’s first jailhouse, believed to have been built in 1885, the year after the town was founded.
“There is a story that Butch Cassidy spent a night in our jail,” he said. “Or maybe it was the Sundance Kid.”
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