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Valuable ‘wallpaper’

Hundreds of ones, fives, and tens tacked on the wall of the famous the Owl Bar and Café by locals and tourists throughout the year were taken down and counted in an annual ritual earlier this month.

The Owl’s Rowena Baca said when all the bills were counted up, she had $1,500 this year to donate to various charities, including the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Shriners Hospital for Children, New Mexico Vietnam Veterans, Animal Protection Association of Socorro, Make-A-Wish Foundation, Carrie Tingley Hospital and New Mexico Boys and Girls Ranch.

Judging by the notes pinned to the bills one could learn a little about geography and the world. Visitors to Socorro County came from Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Dubai, France, Germany, Guam, Istanbul, Japan, Madagascar, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, Slovakia, South Korea, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Vietnam. Not to mention most of the 50 states, from Alaska to Florida. The Owl has raised $30,200 since the yearly tradition began at the famous San Antonio eatery 15 years ago.

But the Owl has been around much longer than that; 75 years ago there was no bar or café.

“Grandpa had a grocery store on this spot,” Baca said. “Grandpa’s name was J.E. Miera and he started the grocery store in 1939. Grandpa and Conrad Hilton worked for Conrad’s dad, Gus Hilton, at his general store when they were young.”

The all-adobe Owl Bar and Café was built by her grandfather.

“There was wide open gambling here in New Mexico back then and people would stay late into the night gambling in the back room,” she said. “Maybe that why he named it The Owl.”

The bar, which was originally in Gus Hilton’s business a couple of doors down from the Owl, was brought in, and six years after opening, the little grocery store played a small part in world history.

“There was no place to eat in San Antonio back then,” Baca said. “The scientists who came down from Los Alamos kept asking him for hamburgers. Back then there were cabins behind the store. The scientists told my Grandpa they were prospectors and wanted to rent cabins. No one knew they were working on the atomic bomb.

“They wanted to have hamburgers so he set up the grill where the kitchen is now. We still have the first grill,” she said. “It became the only place in town to eat. We also had gas pumps. This used to be the main highway.”

Baca said the physicists were regular customers for several weeks.

Then one morning she was awakened by her grandmother, Theresa (Zimmerly) Miera, who had her hide under the bed.

“The whole sky turned red and she thought it was the end of the world,” Baca said.

It was the detonation of the world’s first atomic bomb, not much more than 20 miles away.

She said eventually the hamburger business got so big the grocery store was moved to where the back dining room is now.

“I believe my dad, Frank Chavez, invented the green chile cheeseburger right here,” Baca said. “First he started out with a bottle of picante sauce on the table, then pretty soon added the green chile. That was many years ago.”

In the 1970s the grocery store closed, and the Owl Bar and Café continues to win awards for its green chile cheeseburger.

Baca is proud of her family’s contribution to the war effort in 1945.

But that’s not her only link with local history. She is a descendant of Ethan W. Eaton and Marie Marcellina Chavez. Eaton fought in the Civil War at Valverde, later becoming a colonel in the U.S. Army. Eaton also served as Socorro County Sheriff and the mayor of Socorro.