Grants, New Mexico. The “City of Spirit”.
Travelers on Route 66 looking for a place to get lunch between Albuquerque and Gallup would likely find themselves in Grants, New Mexico. Grants is the county seat of Cibola County and has a population of about 9000 people.
To drive through Grants is to see a city in decline. Many Route 66 era businesses now sit abandoned. With the decline of mining and railroad industries, the most successful businesses in Grants now seem to be the WalMart Supercenter, McDonald’s, and the gas stations and hotels near the freeway.
What’s in a name?
The Atlantic & Pacific Railroad extended its tracks into northwestern New Mexico in the early 1880’s. The contractors who were tasked with building the line were three brothers from Canada by the names of Lewis, Angus and John Grant.
They set up their base at Los Alamitos which became known as Grants Camp. A depot and coaling station was built there as it was halfway between Gallup and Albuquerque. The train stop became known as Grants Station. In 1882, a post office was opened and was named Grant (singular, no “s”). The name was changed to the current day “Grants” in 1935.
Grants, New Mexico is the Uranium capital of the world
The Grants Mining District was the predominant uranium producing region in the United States from the 1950’s to the end of the 20th century. While this practice may have been financially successful, it was environmentally damaging. The residual affects of uranium mining can still be observed in over 320 square miles of the San Mateo Creek Water Shed. In 2010 the EPA, in collaboration with the State of New Mexico established a five year plan to assess health risks caused by soil and water contamination as well as physical risks from abandoned mines with unsealed shafts.
Iconic relics of Route 66
The part of Route 66 that ran through Grants is known as Santa Fe Ave. Most of the best things to see and photograph are on this road so, if you don’t have time to do a lot of exploring, a drive through town on Santa Fe Ave will deliver the highlights.
The Roarin’ 20’s Sign
The Roarin’ 20’s sign on Santa Fe Ave is possibly one of the most famous, and certainly one of the most loved, landmarks on Route 66 in New Mexico.
The first time I photographed this sign was over ten years ago and, not knowing it was there, I was ecstatic to have found such an amazing sign by accident. At the time, there was also a swanky abandoned building on the lot. Unfortunately, those photos were on a hard drive that went missing so a couple weeks ago Johnpaul and I made a return trip to Grants to visit my beloved sign.
After ten years, The Roarin’ 20’s sign certainly looks worse for the wear and the building no longer stands. I know the people of Grants love this sign and there is hope that the city will find funding to restore it.
What is not readily obvious is that the sign did not always reside in Grants. Originally, The Roarin’ 20’s was a topless club on Route 66 in Albuquerque. This was in the 1960’s. At some point the club in Albuquerque closed and a fellow by the name of Eddie McBride bought the sign and moved it to his father’s liquor store in Grants.
Yes, “theatre”, not “theater”. The West Theatre was originally going to be named the El Sol Theatre and construction was begun by owner, C.E. Means in the mid 1950’s. For reasons unknown, but probably because he ran out of money, Means was not able to finish the build so the project was taken over by a new owner, J.C. West. West completed the theatre and named it after himself. The West Theatre opened on Route 66 in Grants in April of 1959 as a single screen but was later converted to a twin.
Information about the Hollywood Diner in Grants is scarce to say the least. The best historical record of this place is probably the layers of paint on the building. Since it’s diner days, which have apparently been over for quite some time, the building has also been a thrift shop, a gun shop, and possibly a thrifty gun shop.
Today the Hollywood Diner serves as headquarters for the local raccoon population and a noteworthy photo-stop for travelers on the ol’ Route 66.
A Valentine Diner on Route 66 in Grants, New Mexico
Rumor has it that the Hollywood Diner began its life as a “Double Deluxe” Valentine Diner.
After the Great Depression, a man in Wichita, Kansas by the name of Arthur Valentine developed a unique business plan. He constructed small prefabricated diners in a warehouse and sold them via mail order. Imagine that, you could buy a restaurant from a catalog and have it delivered anywhere you want!
The idea was to have a small diner that would seat 8-10 guests and could be operated by only one or two people. If the food and the service were good, a motivated entrepreneur could easily build a successful business from a Valentine Diner.
The Lux Theatre predates the West Theatre by about 20 years. Like the West Theatre, the Lux was originally owned by C.E. Means. The Lux opened for business in September of 1937. It had a single screen and seating for 518 movie goers. In 1950, developer C.E. West purchased The Lux and the half-built El Sol Theatre from Means. In 1959, West completed construction on the El Sol and changed the name to the West Theatre. Currently, The West is the only surviving theatre in Grants.
In February of 1970 the Lux Theatre was closed as the result of a fire in the furnace room.
Charlie’s Radiator Service
On October 4, 2017 Charlie’s Radiator Service, officially known as Charlie’s Automotive Service (despite the name clearly painted on the building) was named to the National Register of Historic Places.
The name Charlie’s Automotive Service refers to the complex of five buildings that sit on this property on West Santa Fe Ave (formally Route 66) in Grants, NM. That little brown building on the right side of the photo below was a restaurant called the Star Cafe. Both businesses were owned by Charlie Diaz. Charlie partnered with his grandfather, Joseph Capelli, in the construction of the five buildings. Capelli was an Italian-born stonemason and he brought an innovative idea to the table. All five buildings are built with pumice block. Pumice has sufficient compression strength to use as a building material plus it provides better insulation and weighs less than cement block.
Charlie’s Automotive Service, together with the Star Cafe, would’ve provided a valuable service to both locals and travelers alike. Everyone needs somewhere to hang out while their car is getting worked on regardless if they lived in town or were road-trippin’ on Route 66. This type is road side establishment thrived in the days before commercialized service stations hosting chain restaurants became the norm.
Charlie Diaz owned and operated the service station and the Star Cafe from 1947 until his death in 1995. The former Diaz residence is also located on the property. It is towards the back and behind the main buildings.
The Sands Motel in Grants, New Mexico
I do believe that is was obligatory for every desert town along Route 66 to have a motel called The Sands but this particular one in Grants, New Mexico is still open for business.
Established in 1950 and located at 112 McArthur Street, The Sands Motel is budget priced and pet friendly. A quick look online says that rooms are available for around $40 and include Wi-Fi, microwaves, mini-fridges, and even continental breakfast. Reviews are pretty good, people say the rooms are clean and the proprietors are friendly. It sounds like a perfect resting spot and I wish I had found a place like this while driving back and forth to Maryland with a car full of pets.
An interesting tidbit of info that I came across is that apparently Elvis Presley used to enjoy staying at the Sands Motel, presumably on his way to Las Vegas. He even had his own special room that he liked. To this day, Room 123 is known as the “Elvis Room” and is stilled with Elvis memorabilia including his marriage certificate.
These photos were taken on January 12, 2020.