Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid), New Mexico, is a small but colorful cultural center situated 30 minutes south of Santa Fe and one hour north of Albuquerque along a national scenic byway known as the Turquoise Trail. The village of 300 is populated almost entirely by artists who have transformed the town into an arts destination. Madrid is home to more than 40 unique shops and galleries, and hosts festivals, parades and special events year-round. It hasn’t always been like this, though. For a while, Madrid didn’t exist at all.
The town of Coal Gulch, later renamed Madrid, was founded in the mid-1800s. It was a coal mining boomtown that, at its heyday, was home to 3,000 people. Thomas Edison lived here for a time and left behind a power plant that made Madrid the brightest town west of the Mississippi.
In the early 1920s, the village put on its first inaugural “Madrid Christmas,” a festival featuring 150,000 Christmas lights and attracted national attention. It was in the early 1950s that Madrid made a swift decline as neighboring towns switched from coal to natural gas. In 1954 the power plant closed and the town went dark. Finally, in 1973, the land was split into 200 parcels that cost between $500 and $2,000. The entire town sold in less than three weeks.
“Madrid became a way station for wandering young people and a home for artists and others who bought property and settled in,” reported the LA Times a few years after the town’s rebirth. The article describes a band of persevering “misfits” that struggled through many hardships—from wells that were black with coal dust to collapsing houses—to make Madrid the miniature arts capital it is today. This year the town is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its rebirth with a spectacular series of exciting activities and events.
“We like to say that Madrid is the perfect place to go if you want to get out of Santa Fe or Albuquerque for a day. It’s New Mexico’s day trip,” says Lori Lindsey as she wipes down the bar of the Mine Shaft Tavern. Lindsey is the owner of the pub and eatery, which has been around since the town’s mining days, and is president of the Madrid Merchant’s Association. That means she’s in charge of the town’s packed calendar, but Lindsey is quick to point out that even if there’s not a big event on the schedule, there’s a lot to do in Madrid.
The Mine Shaft Tavern and The Hollar Restaurant across the street are good places to start any Madrid adventure. You’re sure to meet some locals at these community hubs. If you’re here for lunch, sink your teeth into The Hollar’s pretzel burger with a side of fried okra and do some people watching on the patio. In the evening, sample the Mine Shaft’s signature Desert Dawg Pilsner. The tavern hosts an open mic night on Friday and performances by local musicians from Madrid’s robust music scene most Saturdays.
The recently renovated Madrid Old Coal Town Museum, open everyday April through October and on weekends in the winter, is a fascinating clutter of artifacts that will educate you on local history. The museum is connected to the Engine House Theatre, which hosts performances, events and exhibitions year round.
Next to The Hollar you’ll find Johnsons of Madrid, the town’s very first gallery that was founded in 1973. Behind The Mine Shaft is the arts and crafts haven Gallery Row. North of the Mine Shaft along the Turquoise Trail are most of the town’s businesses and galleries. Favorite galleries to check out are the Conley Studio Pottery shop, Color and Light Gallery, Range West, Weasel and Fritz, Indigo and Redbone Gallery. If you walk far enough you’ll find the Madrid Photo Park, where hilarious photo opportunities abound.
“There’s always something going on here,” says Lew French, director of the Madrid Old Coal Town Museum. “There’s only 300 people that live here, so we all have to entertain ourselves. It’s a lot of fun.”
In the warmer months, Madrid hosts several festivals and events that attract crowds from Santa Fe, Albuquerque and beyond. The Crawdaddy Blues Fest is a two-day outdoor event at the Mine Shaft Tavern that takes place in late May. Some of the state’s best music acts perform while guests feast on fresh crawfish from southeast Texas. This year’s headliners are Junior Brown and the Mississippi Rail Company.
June’s Gypsy Fest, at the Oscar Huber Memorial Ballpark, features music, food, fortune telling and belly dancing. The July 4th Parade and Ballgame, a resurrected tradition from Madrid’s mining days, lives on with quirky touches from the town’s citizens. Most of Madrid’s gallery openings take place in the summertime, with monthly art walks that are typically on the first Saturday of each month.
Even as the weather gets chilly, Madrid gets down to the business of fun. October is a busy month, starting with the Madrid & Cerrillos Studio Tour. This two-weekend event is an opportunity to meet dozens of local artists and learn how they work. Mid-month is the Madrid Chile Fiesta at the Mine Shaft Tavern, which hosts New Mexico food specialists and theatrical events. Later in October the Madrid Old Coal Town Museum hosts “Ghost Town” Museum Tours, and the Mine Shaft gets spooky with “Haunted Mine Shaft” Tavern Halloween Events which lead up to the holiday.
Madrid Christmas is a month-long celebration with festivities each weekend in December. The festival starts with the Christmas Parade and Town of Lights and features visits from Santa and Mrs. Claus, a Santa contest, horse and carriage rides and live music. The Old Coal Town Museum also presents its annual exhibition “Madrid’s Famous Town of Lights” in December.
The last—and first—event of the year is Madrid’s New Year’s Eve Party at the Mine Shaft Tavern, which includes a special dinner menu, live music and dancing with acclaimed music act Joe West & Friends.
“It’s all possible because of the creativity of the people that live here,” says Lindsey. “There’s only 300 people, but they’re almost all artists, musicians, writers or small business owners. It’s a real creative community that lends itself to interesting dialogue.”