Enchanting People of New Mexico - Conrad Hilton

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Episode 11 - Conrad Hilton

Michael Swickard here. Welcome to Enchanting People of New Mexico sponsored by the Fresh Chile Company in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Our award-winning Hatch Green and Red Chile is from locally owned farms in Hatch, NM, The Chile Capital of the World. Hit subscribe to automatically get these Podcasts. Every Monday and Friday we have regular Historical and Cultural New Mexico Podcasts. Wednesdays, today, we celebrate people important to our area.

One of the most interesting people of New Mexico was New Mexico-born Conrad Hilton Sr. You now know mostly about him because of the Hotels. You know, the Hilton Hotels. But there is ever so much more to his story. Today, when you say Hilton, the first guess is that I’m talking about Paris. Nope, I will mention Paris shortly, but it will be Paris, France where Conrad Hilton served as an Army Officer in the Quartermaster Corp during the First World War.

That is the only Paris I’m talking about. His grand and great-grandkids have little to nothing to do with New Mexico other than there are Hilton Hotels in New Mexico, and they are very nice.

So let me introduce you to the very interesting Conrad Nicholson Hilton, Sr. He is a Christmas Baby born December 25, 1887, in San Antonio, New Mexico. Not San Antonio, Texas. Yes, there is a San Antonio New Mexico on Interstate 25, where it intersects US 380 about 12 miles south of Socorro, New Mexico.

A little about San Antonio New Mexico today. Located there is the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, a 57-thousand-acre designated wilderness that provides a stopover site for migrating waterfowl. The refuge is the site of tens of thousands of cranes, geese, and ducks that winter in the area each year and was established in 1939. Sandhill cranes are especially appreciated by tourists who come every day to view the birds and animals in the wilderness.

What the tourists and many New Mexicans found is that San Antonio New Mexico has two excellent cafes with great Green Chile Cheeseburgers. I know because I have had lunch at both cafes, not on the same day. And the Green Chile Cheeseburgers are famous. In fact, there is a bit of a rivalry between the Owl Café and the Buckhorn Tavern over who has the best Chile Cheeseburgers. In the old west, I suppose it was the fastest Green Chile Cheeseburger, but both are excellent. Instead of the question, Red or Green, it is if you are on Interstate 25 going North are you stopping at the Owl or the Buckhorn? I love both. And I usually flip a coin when I stop there to see which of the two great cafes I am going to enjoy that day.

In 2009 Food Network’s Bobby Flay came to San Antonio to Challenge the Buckhorn’s Bobby Olguin, and after all the cooking and tabulating, The Buckhorn Green Chile Cheeseburger came out the best. I’ve had the Owls and the Buckhorn’s best, and it is a winner in either place. And as we say in research: further research is warranted. You bet I’d like to have more of both.

Back to Conrad Hilton. The Hilton story starts one generation earlier when Gus Hilton, Conrad’s father, immigrates from Norway to San Antonio, New Mexico. Actually, it was to a much smaller town nearby that is no longer remembered. Carthage New Mexico was the town, and in the 1880s it had a railroad spur because it was a coal mine town. Now it is a Ghost Town just east of San Antonio, but at its high point it had 300 residents, and Gus Hilton came to get work since he traveled from Norway.

Here is where the story gets interesting. At some point, he got a great idea since being a coal miner was no picnic, and he was looking for a way to make his fortune. The coal mine at Carthage was serving several Army forts, Fort Stanton, Fort Selden, and Fort Bayard. The life of a coal miner was difficult, to say the least, so Gus Hilton was looking to do something else, and somehow, the details are not clear. Somehow, he came up with an interesting plan.

Here is Gus’s idea. He would take a mule with two twenty-gallon wooden barrels tied to it to the gold and silver mining camps in the Black Range near present-day Hillsboro and sell whiskey by the drink for gold and silver ore. He was armed with a gun and had a couple of shot glasses. Obviously, he was tough, so he wasn’t robbed of his money and whiskey.

Gus Hilton did this a number of times until he had enough money to start a small store in San Antonio New Mexico right next to the railroad tracks. Conrad was the second of eight children born to Gus and his wife Mary and was the first boy born.

So Conrad grew up working in the Gus Hilton store, and a funny thing happened to the store. As new children were born, Gus added rooms to their house which was tied to the store. After each birth, Gus would get busy making another room to add to the home and store. Years later, after some of the Hilton kids grew up and left, the Hilton Store started renting out those rooms that were no longer needed for children. The store and Hilton house were right next to the train station in San Antonio New Mexico, and therefore it was the first Hilton Hotel with ten rooms that were appreciated by travelers in the area.

Michael Swickard, Enchanting People of New Mexico. Each Wednesday we do a podcast on people who are special to New Mexico. Hit subscribe to automatically get these podcasts.

Conrad Hilton was born in the Territory of New Mexico and was immersed in the operation of the Gus Hilton Store and Hotel. At age 22 in 1910 he attended a Constitutional Convention that wrote the Constitution of the state of New Mexico which intended to finally get the Territory of New Mexico to become a state. From the start of being a territory in 1850 one thing or another kept killing New Mexico’s attempts to be a state. This was the sixth try at statehood.

This time when the statewide vote was taken it was approved by a three to one margin in January 1911, and the state was officially a United States State on January 6, 1912. And Conrad was there watching it in another way since he ran for the House of Representatives in New Mexico and served two terms in a heavily Republican House of which he was a Republican.

But he was bothered by the politics because so much of politics was I win and you lose. Whereas in business it is win-win or no deal that both seller and buyer are happy or there is no deal. So 1916 was his last year in the NM Legislature. In April 1917 America joined in the conflict of World War One, and so Conrad Hilton joined the army as a Reserve Officer in an ROTC unit. He became a 2nd Lieutenant and went to France. Paris France. He was stationed in Paris France in the Quartermaster Corp which had many similarities to running a store.

While he was serving in the aftermath of the First World War, he got bad news. His father Gus was killed in an automobile accident, so he returned to San Antonio and with his siblings sold the store and hotel.

None of the other siblings wanted to run the store nor could they really. So it was sold and Conrad with his inheritance and what he had saved while in the Army was free to pursue his great dream of owning a bank. That is what he wanted to do at age 32. But there was a problem. His purchase of a bank fell through, and he was there in Cisco, Texas, and found the 40-room Mobley Hotel for sale at a reasonable price so he bought it and became a hotel owner.

At the time, in 1919 there was an oil boom in Texas, and at the height of the boom he bought a hotel instead of a bank. The bank purchase fell through, and he realized that in the boom times, the 40-room Mobley Hotel in Cisco Texas, north of Dallas was renting rooms for 8 hours at a time, so three times a day so that oil workers had someplace to sleep.

Over the next twenty years, there were very good times as he built hotels in Texas including in Dallas, Abilene, Waco, and El Paso. He also built an Albuquerque Hilton. Then the depression came, and businesses failed. He barely made it through without bankruptcy but learned a strong lesson so from the 1940s on the Hilton Hotel Corporation got stronger and stronger.

He was married three times: in 1925 for nine years with three kids, Conrad Jr., Barron, and Eric, and then in 1942 he married Zsa Zsa Gabor, and they had one child and divorced five years later. In 1976 Hilton married a final time and passed away at age 91 three years later.

What is interesting to me about the Hiltons, Gus, and Conrad is their entrepreneurial spirit that from the beginning to modern times was so special. He served New Mexico in the first state legislature, and he served his country. One of the most interesting New Mexicans.

Now I want to tell you about something just now on the shelves of the Fresh Chile Company. It is Hatch Sweet Onion Dressing. Everyone knows the Hatch Valley is renowned for its Chile since it is the Chile Capital of the World. Onions from the Hatch Valley and surrounding fields are some of the sweetest. This Hatch Sweet Onion Dressing combines those Hatch Sweet Onions with avocado oil and our very own Green Chile Dijon Mustard to create a dressing that’s so good you can marinate and baste with it as well as douse your salads and fruit with it. It is ever so much of a taste sensation. I really love this Sweet Onion Dressing.

One thing that happens when people live in Las Cruces or happen to be in our little slice of paradise. They can come by the Fresh Chile Company Gift Shop at 1160 El Paseo Rd, Suite D7A in Las Cruces, NM. It is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Now I need to tell you about some new products at the Fresh Chile Company that I find wonderful. There is a Local Honey with Hatch Red Chile that is great on biscuits. French fries are so much more with the Fresh Chile Company’s Hatchup which is ketchup and Hatch Red Chile. Come browse, there are many more surprises, and also, there are some frozen surprises that I assure you are wonderful. Again from Monday to Saturday, the Fresh Chile Company Gift Shop at 1160 El Paseo Rd, Suite D7A in Las Cruces, NM., 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Michael Swickard here. This is the Enchanting People of New Mexico. Thank you for your time today. We will always have lots of News and stories about New Mexico for you on these Podcasts. If you have something you want me to talk about in a future podcast, write to: michael@freshchileco.com. The same is true if there is someone you would like me to talk about who was or is important to our little slice of paradise. Have a great rest of your day. Oh yes and eat plenty of that good Hatch Valley Chile. Like I always say, “Some Chile is good, more is better.” Bye for now.

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