The month marks the 120th year the Capitol Bar on the Plaza has been in business, and a big celebration is planned for this weekend. It’s also New Mexico Tech’s 49ers weekend and the Cap will be wrapping each day of events with one of the most popular parties of the year – the original Vigilante Band will be playing Thursday through Saturday nights at the bar.

The Vigilantes was formed in 1975 by seven New Mexico Tech students, and re-forms every year for the 49ers celebration. The band, which is observing its 40th anniversary, will play from 9 p.m. till “late,” at the Cap.

Live music and dancing is a long standing weekend tradition for the bar, which has been thought of by many as one of Socorro’s historical landmarks, a venerable establishment on the same plane as New Mexico Tech or San Miguel Church. 

The story of the Capitol Bar is one of community.

Over the last 120 years it has survived fires, prohibition, a couple of name changes and a handful of owners. It has been a fixture on Socorro’s plaza since opening in October of 1896, and owners Earl and Joanna Brine are planning the anniversary party this weekend.

“We don’t know the exact day, but it was in October, 1896, and that was based on a Chieftain article,” Joanna Debrine said.

Socorro in 1896 was an understandably different place, and bars were thriving.

“Back then the silver boom had just ended and at one time Socorro was the biggest city in New Mexico,” owner Earl Debrine said. “Mostly because it was a tent city with all the prospectors living here. That’s why you had a town that could support 30 saloons.”

The bar has been in the DeBrine family for 53 of those 120 years.

The previous owners were Earl’s parents, Earl Sr. and Emerlinda “Mernie” DeBrine.

“My dad, Earl DeBrine Sr., followed his brother, Bruce DeBrine, from Rochester, New York, to attend New Mexico Tech,” Earl said. “Dad started out tending bar at the Capitol, and then he leased it from Willie Emilio beginning in 1963.”

The senior DeBrine ended up purchasing the bar outright in the 1970s. A rumor goes that its basement became an unofficial classroom for Tech students studying subjects of both higher and lower learning.

“So it’s been a part of the family really since ’63,” he said. “The bar is essentially the same since it was built by the Biavaschi brothers.”

The story of the Cap begins with the wine-making émigrés from Italy, the Biavaschi brothers.

“The two immigrant brothers, Giovanni and Tobaschi Biavaschi, used stone, adobe and brick to build the saloon in 1896 in order to sell Giovanni’s wine,” Earl said.

In other words, a bodega and bar; the Biavaschi Saloon.

“At that time the Socorro region was known for its wine production,” Earl said. “There’s actually an old New York Times article of someone traveling through New Mexico that mentions Socorro and its vineyards.”

“We like to say that when we started the only things here were the Capitol, New Mexico Tech and San Miguel Church,” Joanna said.

The Biavaschis eventually sold the bar to Amos Green, the Socorro Justice of the Peace who renamed the business the Green Front. Green paint can still be seen on the bricks.

Holding court at bar

Judge Green’s custom was to hold court in the bar, and there was a jail in the back for the guilty. Although the jail is long gone, the bars on the window are still visible.

“Judge Green would conduct all legal business here in the bar, weddings also,” he said. “One story is that he would charge the couple according to the beauty of the bride.”

To this day people still ask to have their weddings in the bar, he said.

“We’ve had weddings … receptions. Maybe a dozen couples said their vows in here,” Earl said. “I know, because I was witness for two.”

During prohibition the Capitol was turned into a pool hall and speakeasy, where drinks were 25 cents a shot. It’s said that moonshine smuggled in from Magdalena was also available.

“A trap door behind the bar led to the basement, providing an escape route from the law during that period,” he said.

The Capitol is listed on the New Mexico Register of Historic Places.

“Back in the day they’d open at 7 a.m. There’d be a full bar of people who’d start their day here,” he said.

“The breakfast club,” Joanna added. “For awhile the District Attorney, the judges and lawyers would all come in here for drinks. And they’d all leave together. It happened all the time.”

Changes since 1990s

Several noticeable changes have taken place since the 1990s.

“Lightning struck in 1993 and so the interior was completely charred, but it was redone like it was before,” Earl mentioned. “The bar looked different back then, and what my mom did, too, was she opened up the old windows on the front, because those were all boarded up. And the ceiling was lower.”

The dance hall adjoining the barroom was previously a café, and one can still see the entrance to the café behind the bar. Next door to the building was an empty lot, until a patio was installed around 1994. “There was an old shack on it, as I remember growing up, and there was parking there,” he said. “It was converted by my mother, she owned it. My father passed away in ’87 and then my mom assumed it.”

“We put a lot of work into the patio,” Joanna said.

As fitting for an old west watering hole, the Cap reflects the character and attitude of its countless patrons over the years. Curiosities abound, including a military sword taken from a captured German soldier in World War I mounted above the bar.

“It was given to my father by a customer named Earle Denise, but everyone called him Sarge because he was a veteran of both World War I and World War II,” Earl said. “This was his home away from home, you know. He lived in Lemitar.”

There’s an array of commemorative Jim Beam bottles lining the wall above the bar, and a crocodile skin attached to the ceiling.

A hat perched on deer antlers, according to Joanna, belonged to a local farmer.

“There was an old time rancher who would come in here every day and have a couple of beers and then go home, and he did that for quite a while,” she said. “When he passed away his family asked if they could have a memorial here. And my brother-in-law at the time was working and said, sure you bet, on the day they requested.”

“So they came in the morning about ten o’clock, and started coming through the door with a casket,” she said. “And my brother-in-law says, ‘well, what do you think you’re doing?’”

They told him they were bringing the coffin in.

“He said wait a minute, wait a minute, you said a memorial, but didn’t say you’d bring in the body,” Joanna said. “They said they thought they’d have the entire service here, and he said, ‘I don’t think the state will let us do that.’”

In the end the family had the memorial without the body “and then asked to have his hat put up there,” she said. “Because he loved this place so much.”

She said some people have also brought in family members’ ashes for one last drink.

El Defensor Chieftain ran a series on Socorro’s historic saloons written by Bob Eveleth and Paul Harden in 2010. The heavily researched Capitol Bar article appeared in the November 6 edition.

Both have longtime ties with the Cap.

“In fact, Bob Eveleth was tending bar here when we started,” Earl said. “Bob, actually, for a period of time lived in a shed … a tin shed on our farm. As a kid I knew Bob as ‘the guy in the shed’.”

Still as busy as ever, the Cap continues to bring music to town every weekend.

“We have a lot of acts that come through, and they will call for a gig,” she said. “A lot of times they just want to play for gas money or to fill their out schedule while they’re on the road.”

A highlight each year at the Cap is on 49er’s weekend, which is this weekend.

“The Vigilantes will be playing Thursday, Friday and Saturday, like they always do on 49ers,” she said. “This is also their 40th anniversary. So we’re combining our celebrations.”

“It’s also their last performance,” Earl said.

“We’ll have a beer garden out front, and we’ll have our Bloody Mary Morning,” Joanna said. “We’ll open at eight Saturday morning.”

New Mexico True extols the bar as “a melting pot where Techies, townies and travelers can wet their whistles and relax at the bar or in an outdoor beer garden and listen to live music on Fridays.”

Joanna Debrine agrees.

“I’d say it’s the only place you can go to where you can find people from all different walks of life, from completely different backgrounds. And they’re friends,” she said. “They’re friends because of this place…just a place they can come to have a drink and visit.”