September 14, 2006
If it wasn’t for Jews, Las Vegas wouldn’t be the town it is today
Hollywood has shot films here for nearly a century, from early silent Westerns to "Easy Rider" (1969) and "Red Dawn" (1984). But as evidenced in the 2001 cross-country documentary, "Freedom Downtime," people sometimes confuse this Las Vegas with the Nevada gambling mecca.
Located nearly 700 miles east of the The Strip, and founded 70 years before Sin City was first established as a railroad town, Las Vegas, N.M., was an early destination for Jewish settlers hoping to stake a claim in the burgeoning West. Today Las Vegas is largely a Latino town of about 16,000, located in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, an hour's drive east of Santa Fe.
Its main street is straight out of a Western movie, and its architecture ranges from one-story adobes to Victorian painted ladies. The former synagogue, Temple Montefiore, established in 1886 as the first Jewish congregation in the New Mexico territory, is now the St. Paul's Newman Center. However, the space is still used for monthly Shabbat services on the first Saturday of the month by the Jewish Community of Las Vegas, a 40-family congregation.
While settled by Spaniards in the 18th century, the Santa Fe Trail helped put Las Vegas on the map in 1821. It was the first town that American pioneers came to after hundreds of dusty miles on the Great Plains, and Las Vegas soon became a center of commerce.
With the arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad in 1879, Las Vegas became a boomtown, attracting Jewish merchants driven out of Germany by social and economic restrictions. From 1880 to the early 20th century, the city's Jewish population rivaled that of Albuquerque.
Its most prominent Jewish pioneer was Charles Ilfeld, who came to America to avoid the draft in his native Prussia. In 1865, he arrived in Taos, N.M., at the age of 18 with $5 in his pocket. Ilfeld went to work with another Jewish merchant, Adolph Letcher. Hearing that trade in Las Vegas was better, they loaded their goods onto 75 mules and moved.
Ilfdeld's three-story department store, The Great Emporium, was labeled "the largest and finest department house in all the Southwest" by the Las Vegas Daily Optic, a newspaper still in operation today. His business, The Charcles Ilfeld Co., eventually branched out into 20 communities and continued to operate into the 1950s. His building stands at 224 Plaza St., next door to the imposing 1882 Plaza Hotel. On one exterior wall, in faded letters, you can still read: "Charles Ilfeld Co. Wholesalers of Everything."
Las Vegas' synagogue was established in 1884, after Charles Ilfeld purchased the lot for $640; many non-Jewish locals contributed to the construction fund. The building was later moved to Eighth and Columbia streets and modified.
Ilfeld Auditorium on the campus of New Mexico Highland University, where Charles Ilfeld served as president on the board of regents, was established in 1920 in memory of his wife, Adele. The purplish sandstone structure was recently restored, and has been called the finest example of Roman Revival in New Mexico.
Pictures of the Ilfeld family and other Jewish pioneers hang on the walls of La Galeria de los Artisanos, a homey bookstore that's been in the same location at 220 North Plaza for 45 years. Formerly the law offices of Charles Ilfeld's son, Louis, the building is now owned by Diane Stein.
Another prominent arrival was Emanuel Rosenwald, whose building at the corner of the Plaza and Bridge streets, the town's main drag, once sported a large glass and cast-iron awning. Now a storage facility fronted by a faded sign, "Navajo Textiles," it awaits restoration.
The Citizens' Committee for Historic Preservation at 127 Bridge St. has a useful brochure, "Historic Las Vegas, New Mexico: Along the Santa Fe Trail," which provides maps and descriptions of residences of Ilfeld family members and others.
The 1890s saw the beginning of years of economic depression in Las Vegas, and by the 1920s the Jewish population had begun to decline. Restrictions on U.S. immigration prevented new blood from arriving, and many Jewish residents, including Ilfeld, moved to Albuquerque and other large cities.
Jewish Las Vegas in the 21st century is more subdued than in its late 19th century heyday. And while no descendants of the original settlers remain, a new generation of Jews has taken root in this unspoiled Western town.
Newcomers include Ken and Carol Weisner, owners of Victory Alpaca Ranch, and Francis Salman of nearby Salman Raspberry Ranch, which features a 19th century hacienda and a u-pick farm.
Some 40 families belong to the Jewish Community of Las Vegas. There are baby-naming and b'nai mitzvah ceremonies, and the Jewish holidays bring out a fair crowd to the St. Paul's Newman Center.
Las Vegas resident Michael Immerman said that the Jewish community continues to thrive here. In lieu of a regular synagogue space, "[religion] is pretty much done in everyone's home," he said.
Jewish Community of Las Vegas
The Citizens' Committee for Historic Preservation
Victory Alpaca Ranch
Salman Raspberry Ranch
Renata Polt is a film reviewer and freelance travel writer based in Berkeley.