Socorro’s territorial saloons – Part 2
The Early Days
Part 1 of this article looked at some of Socorro’s Territorial saloons. At one time, there seemed to be a saloon in Socorro on nearly every corner — like the Palace, Grand Central and Biavaschi Saloons.
In Part 2 we shift our focus to the Capitol Bar, and for good reason. Through a long line of ownership, the Biavaschi Saloon is today’s Capitol Bar. It is Socorro’s only surviving Territorial bar.
Italian immigrant Giovanni Biavaschi built a substantial two-story brick building on the southeast corner of the Plaza in 1896. This was the Biavaschi Saloon, built to “last the ages.” Biavaschi lost his saloon, in 1909, through a series a business misfortunes. It was re-opened as The Club Bar by Judge Amos Green and, for a time, leased to former mayor Jose E. Torres as the Torres and Gallegos Bar.
Prohibition brought an end to Socorro’s saloons. Judge Green’s bar survived Prohibition by being converted into Green’s Pool Hall.
The Emillio ‘Dynasty’
Fred Emillio migrated from Lincoln County and arrived in Socorro with his family, in early 1923, to team up with Damian Padilla to operate a pool hall. The Emillio family had long been established in Lincoln County. A portrait of Fred’s grandfather once hung in the Lincoln County courthouse. According to the family, it now hangs in the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe.
Fred’s son, Willie, recalled riding into town “perched atop the family belongings in the back of his father’s Model T Ford pickup.”
Tragically, Padilla’s and Emillio’s pool hall was a short-lived venture due to the bane of many such establishments — fire — which broke out early one Monday morning in March 1923.
The fire took out the entire block “extending south from the Plaza to the Sedillo store in the middle of the block facing Court Street on the east.” Only the superhuman efforts of the local hose company succeed in saving Sedillo’s two-story building. The Socorro Chieftain described the ruined block as “one of the old landmarks, being among the first buildings erected in Socorro.” About this same time, Amos Green was seeking another manager for his business and Padilla & Emillio, suddenly available due to the extenuating circumstances, moved across the Plaza. The furniture and fixtures in their pool hall were insured for $1,500 and this no doubt eased the pain of the transition.
Judge Green died on Jan. 13, 1925. Fred Emillio remained at Green’s Pool Hall throughout Prohibition and after. It seems that the Green family either continued to sub-let the business as before, or Padilla and Emillio may have purchased their interest after Green’s death.
Fred would not permit his sons to work behind the bar prior to their coming of age. He did, however, allow them to do custodial work, clean glasses, and more, but no bar work. The boys “helped out around the place, listening with youthful imagination to the many great tales emanating from the Green Front’s historical past as (they) swept and polished.”
Willie Emillio recalled several anecdotal stories from those Prohibition days of polishing and sweeping. Yes, Fred did keep a well-secluded stock of Kentucky’s finest on hand to soothe the parched throats of his more trusted clientele.
“Dad always sought out the very finest of whiskeys and refused to handle the cheap stuff … he bought old stocks of the highest quality ‘bottled-in-bond’ bourbon whenever he could,” he recounted.
Willie remembered his dad sterilizing bottles and affixing labels. One label, we’ll call it the “green,” was for the lower priced product and the other, the “black” label, for the “premium.” But the same high-quality spirit went into each! The working class fellows went for the more affordable green, while the upper echelon went for the black “and none of them ever knew the difference.” This little switch-up was a reflection of Fred Emillio’s compassion for his fellow man — he firmly believed that all should be treated equally and offered a quality product.
Magdalena was often the source of the contraband hooch as several wily old operators had the foresight to lay in copious quantities of J.W. Dant Bonded whiskey and other prime elixirs of the distiller’s art before Prohibition took effect.
On March 22, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Cullen-Harrison Act, which amended the Volstead Act to once again allow for the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. The official repeal of Prohibition came with the ratification of the 21st Amendment on Dec. 5, 1933.
Fred Emillio kept a close eye on the situation and when repeal was imminent, he applied for and received Socorro’s first liquor license. He immediately changed the name to Green Front Saloon and is said to have painted the brick facade green — traces of which are still visible today — in memory of the late Judge Green. A new sign was painted on the northeast corner of the building that stated “Wines-Liquors-Next Door” and an arrow pointing to the front door of the saloon. The sign is still there today.
The Capitol Bar
During 1938, Fred Emillio became seriously ill and, for a time, it was thought he might not recover. In 1939, sons Willie and Frankie Emillio pooled their resources, bought out their father’s partner (possibly still Damian Padilla) and went into the bar business for themselves.
“We were young,” recalled Willie Emillio, “and we’d become friends with most of the students at the New Mexico School of Mines. With the campus located right here in town it didn’t take long for the place to become a student hangout.”
The name changed to the Capitol Bar when the Emillios moved to the Plaza Café building on the corner (where today’s Spoken N Word bicycle shop is located).
Willie Emillio explained, somewhat cryptically, “We changed the name because the Green Front had changed.”
Why did they make the move? We should keep in mind that the Green family may have still “owned” the business, but not the building. Fred Emillio and his partner, as lessees, either worked for them or paid a monthly fee, in addition to paying rent, to Henry G. May.
Obviously, the Emillios now desired to have their own business. By renting the recently closed Plaza Café, adjacent to the Green Front on the north, and renovating it into the first Capitol Bar, they accomplished this goal. Fred Emillio owned the liquor license and when they moved to the Plaza Café building, the license went with him. The fate of the Green Front during this period is unknown and it’s quite possible the establishment remained open as a pool hall.
Along with the extensive remodeling and the name change to the Capitol Bar, Willie Emillio decided to make the operation even more of a class act by enrolling in the “Modern School of Bartending and Bar Management.” He was awarded his diploma on Aug. 14, 1939. The professional schooling is readily apparent in the boys’ spiffy dress of white shirts and bow ties, plus the bar aprons, towels, and serving trays. Willie passed his newly acquired bartending talents to Frankie Emillio. The boys took great pride in their ability to mix any drink “in the book.”
Fire Destroys the Capitol Bar
On Sunday evening, June 16, 1940, a small rubbish fire, fanned by a stiff wind, quickly engulfed the new Capitol Bar. The Socorro Chieftain announced the short-lived Capitol Bar, in business only about a year, with the headline: “Fire Razes Capitol Bar, Adjoining Building.”
“One of the most unfortunate features of the affair was the loss suffered by Mr. and Mrs. Frankie Emillio, who had but recently completed the furnishing of their apartment, which was on the second floor of the building,” the Chieftain reported.
Perhaps just as unfortunate was much of the family was out of town that Sunday night visiting relatives and learned of the fire upon their return to Socorro. Willie was in Detroit, Mich.
In those days, the Ford Motor Company permitted purchasers of new vehicles to visit the Michigan factory and observe the assembly of their car from start to finish, and then they were handed their keys as it rolled off the assembly line. Local attorney Carrie Enloe decided to take advantage of this. Willie Emillio went along for the ride and to help Enloe with the driving. Upon their return to Socorro, they stopped at the Wynoka Club on the north side of town for a little refreshment.
When the proprietor of the Wynoka Club saw Willie, he exclaimed, “Where have you been? The whole town has been trying to contact you. Your new bar burned down and it was a total loss.”
It was hard news, indeed. Even decades after the fact, Willie Emillio rarely talked about it. The Emillios’ loss far exceeded the amount of insurance they carried.
Rebuilding the Capitol
After the tragic fire there was only one place for the boys to go — back to the Green Front Saloon, which, thanks to the foresight of Giovanni Biavaschi, survived the flames. About this same time, a more positive event took place when Fred Emillio, once so gravely ill, recovered to the point where he rejoined his sons, at least on a part-time basis, in running the business.
The Emillios once again tackled the remodeling and immediately undertook extensive renovations. Some of their new ideas doubtless came with them from the previous remodeling of the corner building. These included beautiful knotty pine paneling on walls and ceiling, a spacious dance floor, newly designed booths, modern bathrooms, and — “one of the Emillio boy’s pet innovations” — bar-mounted remote control jukebox selectors. Much of the woodwork was performed by local rancher Earl F. “Smokey” Pound.
The Emillios also introduced “Schlitz direct draw from Keg.” It was said, at the time, to be the only such facility between Albuquerque and Las Cruces to offer the brew. Willie and Frankie Emillio decided the outer appearance of the structure needed modernization as well, and covered Biavaschi’s rock-and-brick work with off-white or beige-colored stucco.
A major milestone in the history of the Biavaschi-Green Front-Capitol Bar occurred on Nov. 14, 1943 — when Henry G. May, now well up in years, relinquished ownership of the venerable old structure to Fred Emillio, who by this time had recovered from his illness. This included the lot to the south where the beer garden is located today. From this point until the business was sold to the DeBrine family, the Emillios retained full ownership.
With the outbreak of World War II, Willie and Frankie Emillio enlisted in military service in 1941. Upon their discharge, they returned to Socorro to resume their bartending careers. During the boys’ absence, Fred Emillio operated the business with hired help — mostly School of Mines students. Willie and Frankie Emillio continued that practice into the 1950s, as have the DeBrine family into the present.
Upon their return from the war, father and sons entered into a three-way partnership, effective April 1, 1946, with each owning a one-third interest in stock and real estate. This arrangement lasted a little more than year, when Fred Emillio again decided he wanted to retire from full-time work behind the bar. Frankie Emillio developed health problems and decided to pursue other endeavors. Willie Emillio became the sole owner on Sept. 6, 1947. However, Frankie Emillio continued to work at least part-time through the mid-1950s and even Fred Emillio made occasional appearances when he felt up to it.
School of Mines student Bob Lane recalled Fred Emillio’s kindness and generosity upon his graduation. During his final shift, the day before he was to leave for Carlsbad, to begin a new career in the potash industry, Fred Emillio took him aside and pressed a $20 dollar bill into his hand, saying, “Here’s a little something to help you get started.” Lane was clearly overwhelmed by the gesture and to the day he died he recalled Fred Emillio as a man with a heart of gold.
The post-World War II years are fondly remembered as the “golden years” by many old-timers — a time when a night out at the Capitol with Willie, Frankie, and sometimes Freddie, was the epitome of Socorro’s night life. But Willie and Frankie Emillio didn’t operate in a vacuum. To the contrary, they had their share of notable competitors over the years and each was known for their own specialties and style of hospitality.
On the north side of town was the previously mentioned Wynoka Club, famous for its extensive dance area and “dancing every night.” Fence Acres was another popular club.
On California Street was the Sunset Bar, the predecessor of Sunset Liquors. Operating since 1932, the Sunset has the distinction of being the longest surviving liquor establishment under one family’s ownership – the Torres family.
On the northeast corner of Manzanares and California streets was the Coronado Tavern. Being located “just around the corner” from each other, the proprietors of the Coronado and the Capitol for years engaged in friendly rivalry. When the Emillios introduced keg beer on tap in 1940, Mike Piccinini and Pete Fellis (owners of the Coronado Bar) quickly followed suit. Likewise for the bar-mounted jukebox selectors.
The Coronado was locally famous for its hot buttered rum and Tom and Jerry recipes. However, Willie and Frankie Emillio’s closely held recipe for the latter was considered near legendary.
The success and popularity of the dance floors at the Wynoka Club and the Coronado encouraged the Emillios to provide a similar feature at the renovated Capitol. For a time both establishments featured cafés, in conjunction with the bars, and both had their specialties. For example, the Coronado was the local home of Chicken in the Rough, billed as “The Most Famous Chicken in the World.” Nestor Gonzales, who tended bar at the Capitol well into the 1970s, began his career with Willie and Frankie Emillio in 1954, by starting in the café located in the south half of the building.
Live entertainment was regularly featured and the practice continues into the present. During the big-band era, Willie and Frankie Emillio booked a wide variety of performers and instrumental combos. Posters and broadsides (or flyers) from this period are exceedingly rare.
Much has been said of the close relationship the Emillios enjoyed with the School of Mines students. However, the authors would be remiss not to mention their long-standing friendship with the ranching community as well. They acknowledged that friendship by decorating the knotty pine interior with exact facsimiles of as many of the local and regional cattle brands as could be “rounded up.”
This included cleverly configured and humorous “brands” over both the women’s and the men’s room doors. Other artistic touches included the famous and near-legendary series of eight oil paintings, rendered by Willie’s friend Fred Magher, which graced the upper walls around the bar area from 1949 until the building passed to the DeBrines. Magher was an accomplished artist and his renderings of Indian leaders Victorio and Sitting Bull were nothing short of remarkable considering that Magher painted strictly from memory.
Totally forgotten today are the three highway billboard signs that Fred created for the Capitol Bar. These were positioned just outside of town where U.S. 60 and 85 approached Socorro from the north, south and west. The signs were very colorful and depicted a thirsty sombrero-topped traveler riding a burro. Willie Emillio recalled that Magher bought the materials, built the framework, did the artwork and installed the signs — all for a mere $100 each.
Passing of the Torch
By the late 1950s, major changes loomed on the horizon for both the Coronado Tavern and the Capitol Bar. All the proprietors had been in the bar business for 20-30 years and either wanted to retire or at least move on to other things. In 1958-1959, the Coronado was leased to Kippie Olguin, who operated the business until the Piccininis decided to liquidate. That is also the approximate time Willie Emillio decided to venture into the manganese mining business. When the Coronado closed its doors, Kippie simply moved around the corner and leased the Capitol. Willie Emillio did not do well in the manganese business. He ultimately found renewed and lasting success with Socorro’s Pepsi-Cola distributorship.
Willie Emillio never forgot his many years in the bar business, however, and often recalled the many very special friendships that developed during those years, both with Socorro’s citizens, and especially with the School of Mines engineering and geology students. The latter held him in such high esteem that they made Willie an honorary member of the New Mexico School of Mines Alumni Association — an accolade bestowed on perhaps less than two dozen people. Upon his death, in January 1998, Willie left a bequest to the school to establish the William M. Emillio Scholarship fund.
Kippie Olguin maintained his lease at the Capitol until late 1963, at which time he relinquished it to Earl DeBrine and Raymond Gallegos.
On July 14, 1964, one of the authors, Robert Eveleth, went to work for DeBrine and Gallegos and spent an enjoyable four years practicing the ancient and honorable art of mixology. During this time, the proprietors decided that Giovanni Biavaschi’s vast and essentially unused basement constituted an undeveloped “gold mine.” The place was given a good scrubbing, the stone walls varnished, attractive light fixtures installed and comfortable custom-made cushions placed on the stone piers around the walls. A storage area on the south side was framed off from the rest of the basement by a gypsum dry wall and the north face of that wall presented an artistic opportunity: the services of a Santa Fe artist were acquired and he spent the better part of a month laying out and painting an attractive mural. The final improvement occurred when the proprietors installed a “dumb-waiter” hoist facility at the east end of the bar. This enabled trays of drinks to be raised and lowered without having to negotiate the steep basement stairs.
The remodeled basement now needed a name so the proprietors held a contest. The prize was to be a rare and valuable demijohn (gallon size) of spirits selected from the upper echelon of the distiller’s art. Rolls of tickets were rounded up and one could submit as many suggestions as he or she pleased. A large pickle jar sat on the back bar and was soon filled, almost to overflowing, when the great judgment day arrived. It should be pointed out that DeBrine and Gallegos were very much into the political scene at the time, and the winning name, “The Caucus Room,” submitted by Ila Mae and George Hildebrand, reflected that interest. When Gallegos dropped out of the partnership, in 1965, DeBrine went it alone for the duration.
The DeBrine Years, A Continuing Legacy
For years, Willie Emillio was reluctant to give up ownership of his beloved Capitol Bar. He finally relented on June 30, 1980, at which time Emerlinda “Mernie” and Earl DeBrine became the new owners.
With deed in hand, Earl DeBrine decided to remove and replace the old stucco facing, which due to its age, was cracking and chipping. Upon removal, he discovered that Biavaschi’s stone and brick facing was actually more to his liking than the stucco, and the old “Capitol Bar” sign painted above the doors was still serviceable. Another bonus was the “Wines & Liquors” sign on the corner brickwork, dating back to the Green Front days. Earl DeBrine added the porch to further enhance the bar’s territorial appearance.
Socorro lost a good friend when Earl DeBrine died suddenly and unexpectedly, in February 1987. The family bravely moved on with the sons and daughters assuming the managerial reins.
Fire Strikes Again
Several years after the death of Earl Debrine, tragedy struck again, in 1993, during a severe autumn thunderstorm. One of the authors, Paul Harden, was working at his print shop that evening when the lightning, wind and sheets of rain started. Following several very close lightning strikes, the smell of smoke filled the air. Venturing out into the heavy rain to investigate, Harden saw flames shooting into the street from the front door of the Capitol Bar. Oddly, like the fire in 1940, this was also late on a Sunday night. Calling in the alarm, the Socorro Fire Department responded immediately and fought the fire into the wee hours of the night in the pouring rain.
The interior of the building was badly damaged, but the early detection by Harden saved the bulk of the building. Biavaschi’s saloon building, “built for the ages,” again lived up to its promise.
Following the fire, the DeBrine family and friends were inspecting the burned building, trying to grasp the extent of the disaster. When Fire Chief Bob Brunson entered the building, they asked when the firemen would be done so they could secure the building. Brunson informed them all the firefighters were gone and the trucks back at the station.
“Then who is that man in the second story?” they asked, pointing to a man walking along the rafters — only pant legs and shoes were visible.
Moments later, the man disappeared and his footsteps went silent. They recognized the jeans and shoes as those typically worn by former owner Earl DeBrine. Was it Earl, inspecting his beloved Capitol Bar and ensuring everyone was safe? Only the century old bricks of the Capitol Bar know for sure.
The Cap was rebuilt with the DeBrine family going to great efforts to preserve as much of the ambiance of the original bar as possible — preserving Socorro’s only remaining Territorial saloon.
The DeBrines have also preserved the long-standing tradition of hosting live entertainment on weekends and during special events such as the annual 49ers weekend, SocorroFest and others. Many notable (as well as a few less notable) artists have performed over the years. Among them are the well-known Vigilante Band, who returned this year for their 33rd reunion, and Dr. Rock’s Dixieland Jazz Band for Mardi Gras weekend. Among the lesser-known was one of the authors, Robert Eveleth’s, own bluegrass combo, the “Not Broke Just Badly Bent” band.
Socorro of the 21st century is vastly changed from its predecessor of the 1880s. The earlier version claimed well over a dozen bars and saloons in the Plaza area alone, while today there are a mere three throughout town: the El Camino Restaurant and Matador Lounge, Ranchers Steakhouse and Road Runner Lounge, and the Capitol Bar. All provide a wide variety of entertainment but the Cap is the granddaddy of them all. It is the only Socorro saloon that can claim a Territorial pedigree.
Times change, and the name may have changed, but Giovanni Biavaschi’s saloon remains. Willie Emillio once wrote: “Through the years, both lean and prosperous, the Capitol Bar has survived …Today it is simply all things to all people. It is an extension of the friendly Plaza on which it sits. From the (old-timers) who think of it as the Green Front to long-haired college kids from nearly every state in the Union, the Capitol Bar (continues to be one of Socorro’s) favorite places.”
The authors, during their quieter moments, imagine they can hear the jolly, rotund Biavaschi letting out with a giant belly laugh. His contemporaries built their premises from milled lumber and framed adobe, and all were lost either to fire or the simple ravages of time. Biavaschi built his, instead, of native stone and brick, and his foresight has proven itself through two fires and a near-miss third. Although he lost his pride and joy to hard times and financial missteps, we imagine he is still laughing. And the last laugh is always the best.
Some of the references used in this article: “The Smallest Bottler,” by Willie Emillio (Pepsi Cola World, 1975); numerous issues of El Defensor Chieftain and Socorro County Courthouse records; Phyllis Reiche, the DeBrine family, Sarah Green-Padilla, and Max Torres for photographs and information; posthumously to Willie Emillio for preserving much of the Capitol Bar’s early history; and interviews and field work by the authors. All images are from the authors’ collections unless otherwise noted.