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Truth or Consequences: a tale of Geronimo, hot springs and Hollywood

  • Written by Deborah Stone

Native American history, healing waters and show biz are ingredients for an intriguing story about a unique town along the banks of the Rio Grande in the high desert of southern New Mexico.

Truth or Consequences, which was originally called Hot Springs, has a colorful past that can be traced to prehistoric peoples, who came to the area and built early pit houses and pueblo-like dwellings along the canyons emptying into the river. For hundreds of years, Native Americans met at the hot mineral springs that flowed from the ground where the town is now located. They bathed, socialized and cared for their wounds and ailments, discovering that the waters had inherent healing properties. It is believed that the famous apache warrior, Geronimo, soaked in these springs. In the late 16th century, the Spanish arrived and in time, white settlers began moving in to ranch and mine.

Truth or Consequences 018Bathhouses range from the rustic to the scenic, with in and outdoor tub locales. Photo by Deborah Stone.Hot Springs underwent a name change with the help of Hollywood. Ralph Edwards, host of the popular radio and later, T.V. show, “Truth or Consequences,” made an announcement in 1949 that he was seeking a U.S. city to rename itself in honor of the program’s 10th anniversary. The idea was meant to be a stunt to commemorate this occasion. Edwards promised that the milestone segment would be broadcast from the chosen town and that the national press corps would cover the name change, thus giving the city nationwide publicity.

Truth or Consequences 2 003The town has a thriving art community with an assortment of eclectic galleries. Photo by Deborah Stone.Several towns sent letters indicating their desire to participate; the most interesting one came from Hot Springs, New Mexico. Leaders of the community saw the opportunity as a chance to advertise their city and its resources free of charge. Better still, it would help to set the town apart from others with the same name and thus minimize confusion. The show’s producer, Ed Bailey, traveled to Hot Springs and interviewed the people and elected officials. New Mexico State Senator Burton Roach put his two cents in, telling Bailey and Edwards that the town centered around the hot mineral baths, which benefitted thousands of sufferers from rheumatism and arthritis. He explained how the waters helped rehab crippled kids from all over the state at the local Carrie Tingley orthopedic hospital.

Truth or Consequences 2 008History comes alive with a visit to the Geronimo Springs Museum. Photo by Deborah Stone.The final decision was left to the residents of Hot Springs, who subsequently voted on the name change on March 31, 1950. The next day, which was ironically April Fool’s Day, the first Truth or Consequences Fiesta was staged in town, where the radio show was broadcast over NBC to the entire country. A large parade was held and Edwards was front and center of all the festivities. This was the beginning of the special relationship between a man and a town. Even though the agreement was only supposed to be for one year, Edwards faithfully made the trip each year for the next fifty, always at Fiesta time.

Today, Truth or Consequences, or T or C as it is commonly referred to by those in the know, continues to celebrate the occasion with the Ralph Edwards Appreciation Dinner, Miss Fiesta contest, golf tournament and other activities, leading up to the parade, show and rodeo that marks the name and the changes that came to the town through the friendship of Ralph Edwards.

Truth or Consequences 2 011The upscale and elegant Sierra Grande Lodge & Spa is in a class by itself. Photo by Deborah Stone.Visitors to T or C can learn all about the city’s rich history at the Geronimo Springs Museum, where highlights include wonderful examples of Native American pottery, a life size wax statue of Geronimo, mammoth and mastodon skulls found in the area, a replication of a complete ranch setting, an authentic miner’s log cabin, Hispanic Heritage displays and of course, the Ralph Edwards Room, which is full of photos and memorabilia dedicated to the man, his show and the story of the name change.

Next to the museum is Las Palomas Plaza, the site of the original hot mineral springs where Apaches, then later settlers bathed. Hot mineral water actually flows directly from underground, cascading down artist-sculpted ceramic mountains and flowing along canals and benches. The water is geothermally heated with temps ranging from 95- 117 degrees Fahrenheit and surprisingly has no unpleasant odor or taste. Its high mineral content is said to have great restorative and therapeutic properties, which is what spurred the creation of the town’s bathhouse scene. By the 1930s and 40s, T or C was known as a healing center and people came in droves to take the “cure.”

Today, there are approximately ten public bathhouses offering private soaking tubs or natural pebble bottom pools on an hourly basis. Most of them have been restored in quaint and eye-catching styles. They range from the rustic Hay-Yo-Kay to the scenic Riverbend Hot Springs with its prime real estate on the banks of the Rio Grande. In a class by itself is the upscale and elegant Sierra Grande Lodge & Spa, an iconic hotel built in 1929 and now under the ownership of mogul Ted Turner. The property is a lovely sanctuary for body, mind and spirit, offering an array of holistic spa treatments, along with both indoor and outdoor private mineral bath facilities. Rooms are tastefully decorated with furnishings that reflect the distinctive qualities of this diverse region.

 Although T or C is a small town, with a population under 7,000, its quirky vibe attracts curious visitors from all over the country. It’s a place where folks can recapture the feeling of bygone days and step back in time. Downtown, which is basically two-one way streets, Main and Broadway, that make a loop through the central district, is dotted with historic buildings dating back to the 1920s. Many are on the State and National Historical Registry and remain the same as they were when the town was a thriving health mecca.

In addition to the Geronimo Springs Museum, there’s also the Veterans Memorial Park and Museum, containing a half-size replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in D.C. and the Walk of History, which pays tribute to the sixteen wars the U.S. has been engaged in from the Revolutionary War to the Iraqi War.

A number of artists make their home in T or C and their work is on display at several eclectic galleries. And if you’re into retro and antiques, you’ll be in seventh heaven with all the vintage and secondhand stores that are chock-full of treasures from eras past. When you’ve shopped till you drop, head for some sustenance at BellaLuca, a family-owned restaurant that boasts hearty Italian food, a progressive wine list, great service and a cozy, inviting ambiance. The menu, which touts primarily locally sourced and organic food, contains an assortment of creative dishes to excite palates of all kinds. Included are such delights as Lobster Carbonara, Calabasitas Fettuccini, Short Rib Pappardelle, Grilled Giant Sea Scallops, Grown-Up Mac-N-Cheese and Chicken Milanese, along with a number of tasty sides like braised broccolini, crushed fingerling potatoes, white bean cassoulet and more. You can also build your own pizza and calzone, with a host of fun toppings. And if by some chance you still have room for dessert, try the Brioche Bread Pudding with caramelized pear and brandy sauce, the house Tiramisu or the Tahitian Vanilla Bean Crème Brule. I guarantee you’ll waddle out the door, fully sated and satisfied.

For breakfast, just follow your nose to the Passion Pie Coffee Shop with its selection of yummy, freshly made baked goods, and when it comes time for lunch, the Happy Belly Deli is the place to be.

Outdoor lovers will appreciate the 350 days of sunshine and mild temps that make the area a great escape from the cold weather of the northern climes. There are plenty of recreation options, including golf, swimming, hiking and boating. Nearby, Elephant Butte Dam and Lake is the state’s largest and most popular state park. The lake takes its name from a rocky island northeast of the dam, which bears an uncanny resemblance to an enormous elephant head and torso rising from the water. The dam, which was completed in 1916, was once the largest of its kind in the country.

Further away is Spaceport America, the home of the world’s first civil spaceport. Exclusive preview tours of the facility and surrounding environs are currently offered through Follow the Sun, Inc. The experience provides visitors with an overview of the commercial space travel industry, past, present and future, the main players involved, New Mexico’s role and how and why the Spaceport was able to go from a dream to a reality. Along the scenic drive to the site, your guide will point out various geological formations and regale you with stories of the history of this beautifully stark and rugged area. Once at the site, you’ll get an up-close view of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space, the ultra-modern terminal hangar facility which will house Virgin Galactic’s spaceships. You’ll also take a tour of the Spaceport Ops Center and then cruise down Spaceport America’s runway, or “Spaceway.” It’s a fascinating and eye-opening look at the New Space Age.

If you go: 

For information about Truth or Consequences and the surrounding area:  www.sierracountynewmexico.info  

Sierra Grande Lodge & Spa: www.sierragrandelodge.com

Spaceport America tours: www.spaceportamerica.com or www.ftstours.com

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