I’m thinking that today, in 2014, most people have little, if any, recollection of the old radio and TV game show Truth or Consequences. This was a comedic sort of game show that revolved around contestants usually failing to answer a trick question or meet some sort of challenge and then being required to pay the consequences. These were often elaborate practical jokes or even some type of slapstick activity as a “consequence”. The show started on radio around 1940 and transitioned to television in 1950. You can find a few shows recorded on YouTube to get a feel for how they went.
In 1950 the show sent out a challenge to small town America by daring any town to change its name to “Truth or Consequences”. This was a publicity effort to celebrate its tenth anniversary and its move to television. Many small cities offered to take the dare but the town of Hot Springs, New Mexico, was selected and officially became Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
I recently made a weekend trip to Truth or Consequences. Let me begin by saying that I’m a recent transplant to New Mexico. I’ve lived here for just over one year and I’m still exploring places and seeing things for the first time. My first impression of Truth or Consequences was very favorable. It seems to be an authentic and genuine place all its own…not a copy of someplace else. I would say that this is one of the most laid back little towns in America. There is not a whole lot to do here…which is one of its charms.
The town, known most often as “T or C” to most New Mexico residents, was formerly known as Hot Springs because of the thermal springs that rise up next to the Rio Grande. The springs were well known to native Indians and earlier settlers and way back in the 1800s a few cowboys and some settlers began making crude bath houses where they could enjoy the warm mineral water. The combination of the sun, dry desert climate, and the hot mineral springs made the town a popular destination and a few small lodging establishments cropped up for folks spending a few days or weeks taking the waters. Unlike some thermal springs, these have no sulfuric odor. In those days, people generally waded into the warm water or partially buried themselves in the warm river mud. The spring water was eventually channeled away from the marshy ground down by the river and into more accessible locations where numerous small commercial residential spa operations sprang up. The construction of Elephant Butte Dam on the Rio Grande in 1917 and the huge lake behind it brought more popularity to the town.
That’s the history of the town in a nutshell up until the years of the Great Depression. The little town benefited by many New Deal work projects carried out by the WPA and CCC programs in the town as well as at Elephant Butte reservoir. Many of those projects have lasted through the 75+ years since they were completed and the inscription “WPA” followed by a date is very common on sidewalks and public works in the town.
I was visiting as part of an organized architectural tour so about forty of us took a guided walking tour through the historic bath house district. If you have been to Hot Springs, Arkansas, I have to tell you that this T or C experience is somewhat different. The bath houses here are small, intimate places and not at all like the large institutional structures in Arkansas.
The largest bath house that we saw was the Sierra Grande — a classic T or C spa that was recently purchased and restored by Ted Turner. The place is very nice and rooms are upscale with private mineral bath facilities in the rooms. Turner is in cahoots, sort of, with Richard Branson who is the owner operator of the commercial space business located a short distance outside of town at Space Port America. As the closest town to the space port, Branson’s clients will be able to stay in some luxury at the Sierra Grande here in T or C. A few folks on our tour stayed at the Sierra Grande and enjoyed it very much.
The other bath houses are smaller, more eclectic, zen-like and, in some cases, a little bit 1960s funky. We strolled through several places and we were welcome as long as we kept quiet and did not disturb the guests who were, by all appearances, relaxed and enjoying the experience.
I’m not much of a mineral bath person (yet) but these places look very relaxing and maybe I’ll try one on my next visit.
One thing you notice about T or C is the use of color. One of the local developers mentioned that he was rehabbing one of the old buildings and discovered that the place was originally very brightly colored. He restored it back to the original color and then went on to the next building and discovered the same thing. Back in the early days the buildings were not the bland beige or even whitewashed but were very colorful. That started an effort to bring color back to the downtown area. There are brightly colored buildings as well as murals, decorative tiles and fanciful abstract painting on many buildings.
This was a very enjoyable trip and the place greatly exceeded my expectations. I have a hunch that anyone wanting to experience the ”old” T or C better get there pretty soon. I’m a little worried about the place. I’m guessing that when Richard Branson’s high rollers arrive for their space flight they will see that there is money to be made in this little town. I’m hoping that future development is managed and the place retains its character. The fact that the bath houses are in a special historic district will help. There are less than 7,000 residents in the town and only about 11,000 in the entire county and the average age of town residents is over fifty years of age…much higher than most places. Young people have been leaving so hopefully future development will provide jobs and opportunities that keep the younger generation in town.