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At 70, Bernalillo retains small-town character

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It may come as a surprise, given its long and colorful history, but it’s only been 70 years since residents of Bernalillo voted to incorporate the storied community as a town.

Mayor Jack Torres said the town plans to mark the anniversary with celebrations over the Fourth of July weekend and during the annual Fiestas de San Lorenzo in August.

Jack Torres

Over the decades, the town’s boundaries have expanded, businesses have come and gone and new subdivisions have brought an influx of people from all over the country. The town’s population is now more than 9,000, nearly six times what it was 70 years ago, but Torres believes Bernalillo has retained the character of a community with roots that date back to the 17th century.

“We still have a strong historic and cultural tradition but people are coming in with new perspectives. I think that combination is a real powerful one,” Torres said.

In December 1947, around 200 Bernalillo residents petitioned the Sandoval County commission to incorporate. At the ensuing election, held Jan. 13, 1948, voters approved incorporating, a move that would enable them to get water and sewer utilities. Back then, the town’s population of 1,607 depended on wells and septic systems.

Former Sandoval County Sheriff Ramon Romero on horseback in front of the Sandoval County Courthouse in Bernalillo in 1941, a few years before the town incorporated in 1948. The courthouse was built in the late 1920s and an addition added on the front in 1975. (SOURCE: Mickey Archibeque)

Roughly a month later, voters elected their first mayor, former county agent A.F. “Hookey” Apodaca. According to a Sandoval Sentinel article, Apodaca earned the nickname as a basketball player for New Mexico Agricultural College, now called New Mexico State University. Apodaca and the first town council had their work cut out for them, creating ordinances and finding funding for utilities and a fire department.

At the time, the town was much smaller. The northern boundary was just north of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic church, the western boundary was the irrigation ditch just east of the river, the eastern boundary was the railroad line and the southern limit was just south of Avenida de Bernalillo, according to Ron Abousleman, mayor from 1986 to 1990.

For several decades, the main employer in town was New Mexico Timber Mill, which processed lumber brought down from the Jemez Mountains. Abouslemen, 70, remembers hearing the whistle signaling the workers’ lunch break.

“I remember hearing that whistle and sawdust flying all over town,” Abousleman said.

Natural and man-made events have had a big impact on the town.

In 1949, floodwaters that roared down arroyos from the Sandias east of the town caused widespread damage, including at the Loretto convent near the church.

“Walls sagged and cracked as much as six inches. Outside walls leaned crazily,” according to a Journal story on Oct. 1, 1949.

In 1964, a road-widening project on U.S. 85 through the center of Bernalillo resulted in the facades of many buildings being removed, altering the look of the downtown area. Interstate 25, authorized by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, meant traffic bypassed the town, hurting the numerous gas stations and mom-and-pop businesses that lined the main street in previous decades.

“It was devastating,” said Martha Liebert, who helped start the town library in 1966. Liebert ran the library for 25 years and it was eventually named after her.

By 1986, when Abousleman became mayor, many of the buildings along Camino del Pueblo were empty. Economic development was a key theme of his four-year term. During that time, the town council approved a zone change for the shopping center on the northeast corner of what is now U.S. 550 and N.M. 313. Abousleman also supported the coming of the Centex wallboard plant, though some opposed it, saying it would be unsightly and create dangerous pollution. The plant opened in 1990, providing dozens of jobs.

The late 1980s also saw the first night time Christmas parade, the start of the annual Bernalillo wine festival and fundraising efforts to build a community center.

The community center became a reality under Charles Aguilar, mayor from 1994 to 2006, when the state’s congressional delegation helped secure an additional $869,000 in funds for the building.

Bernalillo’s boundaries have expanded, mostly through annexation actions by the council. The exception was the area west of the river around the former Price’s Valley Gold Dairy, which was annexed through a petition by residents of the area. The dairy closed in 1998. Subdivisions have since sprung up there and Walmart opened a superstore on the land along N.M. 528 in March 2008.

Other huge changes came with the transformation of N.M. 44, the two-lane road that cut through the northern edge of Bernalillo carrying traffic to the Four Corners area. Torres, 60, remembers it was a big deal when a Blake’s Lotaburger was the first chain restaurant to open along the road.

“It was the latest and greatest,” said Torres.

In late 2001, the project turning N.M. 44 into the four-lane U.S. 550 was completed. Since then, businesses have sprung up along the highway and Santa Ana Pueblo has expanded its casino operation and added other enterprises.

“One of the most important things though,” Torres said, “is that there is still a strong sense of community and small-town identity. I feel that people really want that and want us to find ways to strengthen that.”