By Kathaleen Roberts / Journal Staff Writer
The train depot in Lamy won’t be entertaining passengers this summer; the Santa Fe Southern Railroad has suspended operations. (Dean Hanson/Journal)
LAMY – More than 60 fans helped shutter a slice of the Old West at Lamy’s Legal Tender Saloon on Monday.
Diners packed the restaurant patio tucking into ribs, beans and beer as the Buffalo Nickel Band serenaded proprietor Cindy Jednak with her favorite song, Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar.”
Monday was the historic building’s last day as a restaurant, bar and community center operated by Jednak and her husband, John.
The Jednaks have run the current iteration of the restaurant as a nonprofit with a staff of about 30 volunteers. The restaurant shares its roughly 5,000-square-foot building with The Lamy Railroad and History Museum, located in a front room of the old structure. The museum is occupied by glass cases of old Fred Harvey memorabilia, ranging from railroad china to matchbooks, notepads and playing cards. Board members want to expand its operations into the restaurant’s Tumbleweed Room, which seats about 50 diners and features a popular dance floor.
Former Legal Tender owner Richard Fisher donated the property to the nonprofit Railroad and History Museum in 2006.
The Jednaks have said the intrusion into their space would mean re-applying for a beer and wine license, and that the reduced area would not be enough to make the business financially viable.
Customers came from as far as Sandia Park and Santa Rosa on Monday to revel in the music and camaraderie at the 1881 landmark. Its cherrywood bar was imported in three pieces from Germany in 1894.
Located directly across the street from the Lamy train station, legend has it that lawmen brought Billy the Kid through its doors in chains during his recapture after his escape from the Lincoln County Jail.
But drinkers and diners at Monday’s Memorial Day blowout were more focused on the loss of what they saw as a gathering place for food, fun and music. The news that the Santa Fe Southern Railway tourist train connecting Lamy to Santa Fe will be closed for at least this year had some worrying what would become of the tiny town.
The rail company laid off its full-time employees and seasonal workers last week. The spur line also has been used to carry construction materials and even military vehicles, but Santa Fe Southern owner Karl Ziebarth said the freight business essentially ended in 2009.
As she dashed between the kitchen and the patio, Jednak said the restaurant has served between 120 to 140 patrons daily during the warm weather, when outdoor dining is popular. People from Santa Fe, Eldorado, Pecos, Galisteo and even Albuquerque are regulars. A rotating group of volunteers split the tips; otherwise, they earn no salary.
Santa Fe’s Marlene Foster showed up Monday because she knew it might be the last time she gets to see Legal Tender.
“It’s a local business,” she said. “Are we going to be left with Denny’s or IHOP? The local people are trying so hard. You know, it’s a community. That little railroad is important, too. I think it’s terrible when you close down a community. I won’t be coming if there’s no restaurant.”
Eldorado resident Anna Lopez said she dines at Legal Tender about once a month “for the music, the food and the beer.
“You just come out and have a good time,” Lopez said. “It’s going to be a ghost town. It’s ridiculous the trustees think the museum is more important. We don’t come for the museum; we come for the atmosphere.”
Sandia Park’s Norm Toy agreed.
“This is a landmark,” he said. “It’s going to hurt the town. This is the focal point, the community center.”
Carol Wantuchowicz has been coming to Legal Tender since she moved to Santa Fe in the 1960s. “When I moved to Santa Fe, it was a one-horse town,” she said. “It’s now a team of Clydesdales.”
The restaurant and bar “is the heart of old New Mexico,” she said. “It’s laid back and relaxed and people have fun. It’s very sad.”
Volunteer Phillip Heard of Eldorado said a single group of “six or seven” women takes the Amtrak train from Albuquerque and back the same afternoon to eat at the restaurant.
“They walk across the tracks and get lunch,” he said. “I told them, ‘Don’t order burgers.’ Sometimes they take a little time.”
A group of cowboys comes regularly from Santa Rosa, he added.
Heard has been volunteering at the bar for about a year. “I like Cindy and John,” he said. “You get to meet a lot of nice people. They can’t believe that you’re a volunteer.”
Lamy volunteer server Denise Sanchez likes working at a local business. “It’s just tips, but it helps,” she said. “It’s going to be a dead town. This place brought it back to life. It’s going to be sad.”
Blues slide guitar player Raven Redfox got married in the old dining car restaurant the Jednaks operated across the street, before they moved to Legal Tender. “It’s a big part of New Mexico history,” she said. “The railroad and Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project.” (Los Alamos physicists came through Lamy before going on to Santa Fe).
“It’s not just a town sitting in the middle of the desert,” Redfox added. “You feel you’re walking in the past.”
A harmonica player named Holly (who declined to give her last name) said she met “the love of my life” at Legal Tender.
“I was standing right here in a gold miniskirt, broken-hearted,” she explained from the patio. “This man came up and kissed me on the neck because he said I looked like I needed it.”
“They really built this into something,” she said of the Jednaks. “They made something out of nothing. No one else could get so many volunteers to show up,” she insisted.
Galisteo resident John Benjamin said he volunteered because of the Jednaks, calling his job “the second funnest job I’ve had.”
A former mechanic and history buff, he enjoys talking to patrons about local history.
“I once managed a hotel in Costa Rica,” he said. “You’re there to help people have a good time. It’s the same way here.”
The first business to open on the site was a combination mercantile store and saloon in 1881, about the same time the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway built its spur line from Lamy to Santa Fe. The saloon was known as the Pink Garter. Cowboys rode into the saloon just for fun. It was renamed the Legal Tender in the late 1960s, when it was owned by Roswell oilman Robert O. Anderson. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in the mid-1980s.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.