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Madrid lights once lured Walt Disney

January 04, 2010

Marc Simmons | For The New Mexican
Posted: Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas in New Mexico's early-day mining camps was often the year's high point for men who labored with pick and shovel underground. The holiday gave them a welcome chance to let off steam in local saloons, if they were bachelors. Or if family men, they were apt to revel in traditional pleasures of the season with their loved ones.

The coal-mining town of Madrid, 25 miles south of Santa Fe, presents a special case in the way of Yuletide observances. The memorable celebrations there, however, came relatively late in the community's history. First developed in the 1890s, Madrid's coal mines passed through various hands before Albuquerque banker and businessman George Kaseman took over their operation in 1906. A few years later, he sent young Oscar Huber in as the new mine superintendent. It was Huber who would transform Madrid into "The Christmas Town," some would say, with a national reputation. Initially, Kaseman owned the entire community, including the stores, hotel and shack houses rented to the miners. One of Huber's duties was to provide diversions to keep the labor force content. Among the activities he introduced was a baseball team, the Madrid Miners, who won several pennants in the Central New Mexico League. Of larger importance, though in promoting community pride, was the annual Christmas extravaganza of lights. Preparations for the event involved months of effort by everyone. The several hundred miners routinely volunteered to work evenings after a hard day in the coal tunnels. They had to string 50,000 lights and build illuminated displays on hillsides and bluffs. Atop one of the hills, they put up a figure of Jesus more than 35 feet tall. Nearby, visitors were astonished to see a re-creation of the town of Bethlehem, newly constructed of wood and adobe.

On the north end of town in the ballpark, the miners annually installed Toyland, perhaps their supreme achievement. It was populated by huge figures from nursery rhymes and from animated cartoons, with the likes of Popeye the Sailor and Mickey Mouse. In fact, Walt Disney himself, having heard in Hollywood of the Madrid Christmas spectacle, paid a visit in 1930. From this arose the local legend claiming he was so delighted with it all that the Madrid example led him to develop plans for a future Disneyland. Others continued to come by the thousands to view the panorama of lights in the little coal town. The happy crowds provided a reward for the miners and their families.

In 1938, George Kaseman died in an oil well explosion in Hobbs. Huber obtained the operating leases and later became full owner of both the mines and the town. But the market for his coal began to decline. The Christmas celebration with its dazzling lights continued into the 1940s. Then World War II siphoned off the miners who joined the armed forces or took better-paying jobs in defense industries. Madrid's population, which reached 1,500 at its peak, plummeted. The town shriveled, died and became a ghost.

In 1954, Oscar Huber placed an ad in The Wall Street Journal offering Madrid, with all its structures and land, for sale. But there were no takers. Finally, in 1975, his son and heir Joe Huber sold off the individual buildings at bargain prices, mainly to young people of the counterculture. Madrid thus was reborn. And so, too, a few years later was a new community-wide, scaled-down Christmas display of lights. To the occasion now was added Open House for the 40 local shops and galleries that had taken root. Once more the town draws eager visitors from mid-December through New Year's Day. In Madrid at Christmas, history appears to have come full circle.

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