The Heart of Ratón
Ratón’s location as a gateway to New Mexico along Interstate 25 brings many travelers to this town of 6000, but few find their way to the charming and historic downtown district.
Enjoying the evening breeze from a tree-shaded bench near the gazebo in downtown Ripley Park, Ratón strikes me as a throwback to a simpler time. The dusty rock building across the street was Ratón’s first residence, built in 1880 when the town was founded to serve the new Santa Fe Railroad. I can see down First and Second Streets to the magnificent two-story buildings created during Ratón’s heyday when jobs in numerous area coal mines attracted thousands of European immigrants; the historic buildings now house shops run by local families. The railroad bridge behind me is quiet; not far beyond is Interstate 25, unseen and unheard.
Few travelers find this Ratón. Exiting the interstate at the Clayton Highway, they stop at the fast food joints of Motel Row. Local merchants would love to draw them the extra mile to the Ratón Downtown Historic District, but the town has never developed an effective plan for showing them the way; the mañana philosophy is prominent here. Perhaps that’s why downtown Ratón remains undiscovered by lovers of the arts and the outdoors, why it’s stayed below the radar of the cognoscenti who have long since discovered New Mexico’s other small-town treasures.
I take my guests to Ratón’s northernmost exit, the 454 at the foot of Ratón Pass where instead of neon bustle we see only Rocky Mountains. Two minutes later we emerge downtown at Ripley Park. Perfect.
Speaking of perfect, the Melody Lane Motel sits by the park. My wife and I discovered this 1950s motor court when we planned our first Ratón visit back in 1997: the lodging map showed many dots bunched together but this one stood a mile apart. Then there was the name, Melody Lane! We couldn’t resist.
But it was the motel’s steam baths that hooked us and keep bringing us back. Eight of the 27 rooms have steam baths – be sure to ask for one. Take a steam bath before bedtime and you’ll sleep like a baby; follow a morning steam bath with a brisk cooling shower and you won’t need your morning coffee.
Coffee connoisseurs will skip the continental breakfast of the no-frills Melody Lane and walk through Ripley Park to Enchanted Grounds Espresso Bar & Café on Park Avenue, where Penny Kuhns’s coffee drinks and enticing homemade breakfasts easily fuel a downtown walking tour.
The National Register of Historic Places lists 70 buildings within five blocks. I start at the Ratón Museum with its extensive collections of local history and New Mexico art, where curator Roger Sanchez provides a Walking Tour brochure.
He shows me New Mexico’s first automobile license plate, with the number 100-R (R for Ratón) embossed on black leather-covered metal, issued in Ratón in May 1913. He explains how railroad workers named the town in Spanish for the various critters they saw in the Ratón Pass. Many visitors mispronounce the name: say it the Spanish way, rah tone’.
Roger conducts tours during Ratón’s annual Art of the Great Outdoors series that each September brings a street fair, dances, and art shows. The city’s 93-year-old golf course, tucked up against Ted Turner’s Vermejo Park Ranch property, hosts a golf tournament. There’s a baseball tournament – Ratón is a baseball town – a fly-fishing derby and organized hikes at Sugarite Canyon State Park, plus the Capulin Volcano Run.
From the museum, I walk to the Santa Fe Depot on First Street, deserted except in the late afternoon when Amtrak’s eastbound and westbound trains arrive. Here’s where Ratón was born, around the new depot built where the railroad replaced the Santa Fe Trail. Earlier settlements called Willow Springs and Otero were abandoned because Ratón had the new railroad and good water; even today Ratónians brag of having the best water in New Mexico, piped down from the high mountains at Lake Maloya and Eagle Nest Lake.
Sharing the depot property and its Spanish Mission Revival architecture is the old Wells Fargo Express Company building, now occupied by Old Pass Gallery and Ratón Arts & Humanities Council. Monthly exhibits showcase women, youth, photographers, and others from an area rich in talented artists such as watercolorist Marv Newton and pastel artist Cindy Montoya.
Across wide First Street from Old Pass Gallery, three shops form an irresistible triumvirate of treasure hunting. Charlie Walker’s antique shop, The Tool Shed, specializes in antique farm tools. Janet and LeRoy Valencia’s The Pack Rat Gifts is chock-full of ceramics, dolls, kitchen and bath items, cookbooks, and Ratón and New Mexico souvenirs, plus Janet’s own soaps and candles alongside LeRoy’s handmade pine benches, boxes, tables, and cabinets.
Janet loves quiet First Street. “My favorite time is summer when Boy Scouts come in droves, traveling between the depot and Philmont Scout Ranch. There’s a wonderful farmers market, too, right outside under the trees on Saturday afternoons, usually with live music.”
Next door, I find sister-in-law co-owners Brenda and Michelle Ferri in The Heirloom Shop, whose aisles evoke time travel. Typewriters, cooking utensils, table settings, furniture, and bath items take me back: I’m old enough to remember some of these styles. An upstairs loft looks like a teen’s bedroom – my bedroom – circa 1968.
Downstairs I meet Brenda’s dad and learn that the eye-catching 1947 gas station just south of downtown is his playhouse. Frank Ferri works on his cars in the beautifully maintained building whose sign proclaims simply, “The Station.” His 1942 Chevy, 1947 Hudson, and Brenda’s 1968 Charger compete for space with extensive Elvis Presley and Coca Cola collections. “It’s an old man’s hangout,” Frank smiles. “Guys bring their cars down and we barbeque.” He invites me to stop in sometime for bottle of Coke.
That makes me think of lunch so I drive to the Clayton Highway and All Seasons Restaurant, where Kelly and Jeanette Fissel met as new young employees 35 years ago; in 1992, they bought the business. For breakfast and lunch seven days a week, the place is packed.
Kelly says the key to success has been putting in the time. “We’re always here. This business gets in your blood. It’s the people, both the employees and the customers. Some of our customers are so regular that if one misses a couple days, we start to call around to make sure they’re okay.” Several employees have stayed more than 30 years.
Ratón’s longevity record, though, goes to Mike Pappas who has run Pappas’ Sweet Shop since 1954; his dad founded the popular restaurant in 1923. A former Ratón newspaper columnist and mayor, Mike literally “wrote the book” on Ratón: his Ratón: History, Mystery, and More is available all over town. When I stop in, he autographs my copy with “Enjoy Ratón’s history. Lots of fun stories in this book, and some sad ones.” Alongside coal camp tales, bordellos and a lynching, I like Mike’s story of his father’s immigration from Greece and the opening of The Sweet Shop as a candy store.
I walk off my lunch downtown, enjoying Ratón’s big two-story library, circa 1917, and the fascinating 1936 art deco Colfax County Building. My favorite stop is Solano’s Boot & Western Wear, founded by Andy Solano in 1956 as a small shoe shop but now staffed by three generations of Solanos and taking up half the block. Andy’s still there, working on shoes, boots, and leather goods in his shop at the back of the store. People bring him work from near and far, one customer remarking, “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”
Which makes Andy symbolic of Ratón itself. Both are resolutely old school, hard working, persistent, and understated.
Walking back to Melody Lane, I ponder tonight’s entertainment options. The next block from Solano’s is known as Theater Row, home of the 1930 El Ratón Movie Theatre, owned by four local couples and showing first-run digital-projection movies four nights a week, and the 1915 Shuler Theater, the venerable Vaudeville show house that stages 60 live performances annually in a lovingly-restored city-owned theater with impressive hand-painted historical murals and backdrops. Depending on tonight’s offerings, a two-night stay might prove irresistible.
Downtown Ratón feels like another time, not just 175 miles north of Santa Fe but 75 years behind it. Its undiscovered charm is just my style, the path less traveled. Although it sits directly beneath the landmark neon Ratón sign, new visitors will feel like they’ve made their own discovery, apart from the crowd and back in a simpler time.
Here's the complete Sidebar as submitted. The magazine feature, originally scheduled for the September issue, included only some of the following, as selected by the editors.
Sidebar: The Heart of Ratón
Melody Lane, 136 Canyon Rd., (575) 445-3655, www.budgethost.com/hotels/Budget_Host_Raton_Raton_NM.aspx; Wi-Fi; AAA & senior discounts; best rates & availability by phone.
Heart’s Desire Inn B&B, 301 S. 3rd St., (575) 445-1000, www.heartsdesireraton.com; Wi-Fi
Holiday Inn Express, 101 Card Avenue, (575) 445-1500, http://www.ratonsfinest.com/
Food & Drink
Enchanted Grounds Espresso Bar & Café, 111 Park, (575) 445-2219, www.egespressobar.com; Wi-Fi; open 7 a.m. weekdays, 7:30 Saturday
All Seasons Restaurant & Gift Shop, I-25 at Clayton Rd. (NW corner), (575) 445-9889; daily 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Pappas’ Sweet Shop, 1201 S. 2nd St., (575) 445-9811; lunch & dinner; full bar; on Facebook
Sands Restaurant, 350 Clayton Rd., (575) 445-4024, popular Mexican & American cuisine; www.sandsrestaurantraton.com
Oasis Restaurant, 1445 S. 2nd St., (575) 445-2221; American and Mexican foods made from scratch, family-owned since 1954, daily 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Mulligan’s Restaurant and Bar, 473 Clayton Rd., (575) 445-8501; popular upscale; Wi-Fi
The Ratón Museum, 108 S. 2nd St., (575) 445-8979, http://ratonmuseum.org
Old Pass Gallery, 145 S. 1st St., (575) 445-2052, www.ratonarts.org
Shuler Theater, 131 N. 2nd St., (575) 445-4746, www.shulertheater.com
El Ratón Movie Theatre, 115 N. 2nd St., (575) 445-7008, www.elratontheatre.com
The Heirloom Shoppe, 132 S. 1st St., (575) 445-8876, www.theheirloomshop.net
The Pack Rat Gifts, 134 S. 1st St., (575) 445-3242, www.thepackrat.org
The Tool Shed, 138 S. 1st St., (575) 445-5300; antiques & collectibles
Solano’s Boot & Western Wear, 101 S. 2nd St., (575) 445-2632, www.solanoswesternwear.com
Farmers Market, S. 1st St., Saturdays through Sept. from 1 p.m., (575) 445-8224
Santa Fe Trail Traders, 100 S. 2nd St., (575) 445-2888, http://santafetrailtraders.com; Southwestern & Native American arts, crafts, & gifts
Ratón Regional Aquatic Center, 100 Memorial Ln., (575) 445-4271, on Facebook; Wi-Fi.
Ratón Country Club, 510 Country Club Rd., (575) 445-8113, www.ratongolf.com/
Sugarite Canyon State Park, (575) 445-5607, www.emnrd.state.nm.us/PRD/Sugarite.htm
NRA Whittington Center, 11 miles SW of downtown, (575) 445-3615, www.nrawc.org
Ratón Municipal Airport, 12 miles SW of downtown, (575) 445-3076
KRTN-FM 93.9, 1128 State St., (575) 445-2911, www.krtnradio.com
The Station, 815 S. 2nd St., (575) 445-9103; Frank Ferri’s playhouse
The Art of the Great Outdoors – Events throughout September
See http://www.raton.info/ for updates.
Or NM Visitor Information Center, 100 Clayton Rd., (575) 445-2761; Wi-Fi, rest rooms
International Art Show, International Bank, 200 S. 2nd St., (575) 445-2052; Sept 11-14, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; artists’ awards reception Friday 5-7 p.m.
All content ©2012 Tim Keller