For the last 20 years, the management and staff at The Owl have kept up the time-honored practice of bringing down the bills. Hundreds of ones, fives, and tens tacked on the wall of the venerable Owl Bar and Café by locals and tourists throughout the year are taken down and counted in an annual ritual the week before Christmas.
The Owl’s Janice Argabright, who has taken over managing the family-owned place from her mother Rowena Baca, said when all the bills were tallied up, there was approximately $2,000 this year to donate to needy causes, which traditionally have been voted on by customers.
“This was even more than last year,” Argabright said. “It feels so good to give back to the community.”
Now, the money will be divvied up to various charities, including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Shriners’ Hospital for Children, Carrie Tingley Hospital, New Mexico Vietnam Veterans, APAS, Make-A-Wish Foundation and the New Mexico Boys and Girls Ranch.
Judging by the notes pinned to the bills, one could learn a little about geography and the world. Visitors seeking out a green chile cheeseburger at the Owl came from all four points of the compass and nearly every continent. Not to mention most of the 50 states, from Alaska to Florida.
The Owl has raised well over $35,000 since the tradition began at the legendary San Antonio eatery 20 years ago. But the Owl has been around much longer than that. Owner Rowena Baca recounted the beginnings of the establishment eight decades ago, back before the café existed.
“Grandpa had a grocery store on this spot,” she said. “Grandpa’s name was J.E. Miera, and he started the grocery store in 1939. Grandpa and Conrad Hilton worked for Conrad’s dad, Gus Hilton, at his general store when they were young.”
Gus died in a car wreck in 1919, and Conrad Hilton had already moved away from the area to become a hotelier after attending New Mexico Tech.
The all-adobe building was built by her grandfather in 1939, which included the actual bar from Gus Hilton’s establishment two doors down.
“There was wide open gambling here in New Mexico back then, and people would stay late into the night gambling in the back room. Like night owls,” she said. “Maybe that’s why he named it The Owl.”
Six years after opening, the little business at the corner of Highway 380 and New Mexico Route 1 played a small part in world history.
It was 1945, and preparations were being made to test the first nuclear weapon not far from San Antonio at the Trinity Site on White Sands Proving Grounds.
“There was no place to eat in San Antonio back then,” Rowena said. “The scientists who came down from Los Alamos kept asking him for hamburgers. Back then there were cabins behind the store. They had told my grandpa they were prospectors and wanted to rent cabins.”
No one knew that the “prospectors” included J. Robert Oppenheimer, Neils Bohr and William Teller of the Manhattan Project.
“They wanted to have hamburgers, so he set up the grill where the kitchen is now. We still have that first grill,” she said. “It came to be the only place in town to eat. We also had gas pumps. This used to be the main highway.”
Rowena said the physicists were regular customers for several weeks.
Then one morning she was awakened by her grandmother, Theresa (Zimmerly) Miera, who told young Rowena to her hide under the bed.
“The whole sky turned red and she thought it was the end of the world,” Rowena said.
It was the detonation of the world’s first nuclear bomb, not much more than 20 miles away.
She said eventually the hamburger business got so big the grocery store was moved to where the back dining room is now.
“I believe my dad, Frank Chavez, invented the green chile cheeseburger right here,” Rowena said. “First, he started out with a bottle of picanté sauce on the table but pretty quickly added the green chile. That was many years ago.”
In the 1970s, the grocery store closed, but the Owl Bar and Café continues to win awards for its green chile cheeseburger.
Baca said she is proud of her family’s contribution to the war effort in 1945, in the form of the original green chile cheeseburgers.