Belen in 1910
(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history, written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society. Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the author’s alone and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.
Sandy Battin, retired editor of the Valencia County News-Bulletin, is treasurer of the Valencia County Historical Society.)
For anyone who loves history, time travel is a favorite fantasy.
And, as New Mexico celebrates the 100th anniversary of its statehood, that daydream seems especially appealing.
How did Valencia County receive word that President William Howard Taft had signed the final statehood documents on Jan. 6, 1912? Were bells rung in celebration? Was there trepidation? If only we could walk the streets and talk to citizens.
Who lived in Valencia County back then anyway? What did they do for a living? Was the county prospering?
Luckily for history buffs, there’s available a snapshot of life in the New Mexico Territory on the verge of statehood. Like every other similar political entity in the nation, Valencia County was part of the federal census of 1910.
That enumeration tells of a thriving community two years before statehood, with Belen as its largest city, home to a busy stop on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, obviously a boon to the local economy and already the Hub City’s largest employer. Belen’s population was 1,733, while Los Lunas’ was counted as 719.
Valencia County’s total population — in 20 precincts — was 13,320. That was slightly down from 1900, when 13,895 people were counted, and even from 1890, when there were 13,876.
Back then, Valencia County stretched west to the Arizona border, taking in Grants, Acoma, Laguna and Cebolleta, as Seboyeta was then spelled. They helped make up the official portrait of life in New Mexico in the late territorial period, just prior to statehood.
At the time, unlike Valencia County, New Mexico was growing rapidly. The 1910 census showed a territorial population of 327,301. That was a 67.6 percent increase from 1900’s population of 195,310.
Albuquerque residents came to a total of 10,020 in 1910, while Santa Feans numbered 5,072. Roswell was larger than the capital city, at 6,172. The other substantial city in the state was Raton, where 4,539 souls were counted.
This summer, La Historia del Rio Abajo will focus, through the 1910 census, on different areas of the county at that time just before statehood, this first one spotlighting Belen.
Who was who Belen?
The 1910 census of Belen was taken from May 8 to 25 by Placido Jaramillo and Charles F. Tondre, the former filling out 28 of the 36 pages.
There are no addresses on the pages, so it is hard to determine where one neighborhood stops and another begins.
The first family listed on the census is headed by Francisco Chavez, 40, a servant for a private family.
We learn that he rented his home and he spoke Spanish, but not English. His wife, Maria, and he had been married for 21 years.
Of the 15 children born to the couple, six were still living in 1910. All six were still at home — Cristobal, 20, a laborer who performed odd jobs; Isabel M., 17; Emilia, 8; Eduardo, 7; Pormetiva, 3; and Maria L., 1 year and 3 months old.
The census shows a fairly cosmopolitan community, with at least one individual born in 12 different continents or countries. The largest number of foreign-born individuals came from Mexico, with 52 people stating they were born there.
German births also account for a large number of residents, 24 in all, many of them merchants such as the legendary John Becker, the 62-year-old owner of Becker-Dalies, the First National Bank of Belen and the mill that operated on the site now occupied by city hall.
Other German-born residents were also counted, such as Oscar Goebel, a 60-year-old general merchant, who had arrived in the United States in 1877.
Six people in Belen had been born in France, including the Rev. John A. Picard, the 49-year-old pastor of Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church, and his assistant, the Rev. Albert Costance, 28.
The prominence of these citizens can be seen in the names of streets in the Hub City: Becker, Goebel and Picard, among others.
Three Belenites had been born in China: Den-Lui, a restaurant keeper; Murgen Woo, a cook; and Doo-Lui, a dishwasher.
One can only imagine what a small world locals believed they were living in, when they could order not only a steak or a burrito at a local restaurant, but also, perhaps, chop suey for a change.
Austria, Ireland and, simply, South America contributed one Belen resident a piece, while two residents each were originally from England, Scotland and Sweden.
Five local residents, all men and laborers for the railroad, were born in Japan — Tora Tatumi, K. Takiaki, K. Suki, J. Bann and T. Hata. Tatumi, at 31, was the oldest — he and Takiaki arrived in America in 1898, the others following in the early years of the century.
But the largest number of Belenites by far, a total of 1,192, were born right here in New Mexico. Most of them were descended from the original Spanish settlers who had been living and working in El Rio Abajo for centuries.
Among the New Mexico-born families was that headed by Juan Rey Baca, the 48-year-old postmaster of the community. Also a general merchant, he was listed as an employer, someone who could read and write and who owned his home.
His wife, Guadalupe, 38, had experienced a sorrow common to women of her time — childhood disease, problems in childbirth and accidents often left parents grieving for their offspring.
Of the Bacas’ nine children, only three were alive in 1910. But those three thrived — Trinidad, 21, was a sales lady in a retail store; Timoteo B., 26, was a salesman for a retailer; and Silvestre B., 15, was an office boy at the railroad roundhouse and was still in school.
The census-taker himself, Placido Jaramillo, at 29, was the local jailer — and a hard worker. Obviously bilingual, he could read and write and he also worked his family farm, which he owned.
His wife, Altagracia, was 28 and an educated woman, who could read and write and who was staying home to care for the couple’s son, Albert, a 1 1/2 year old.
The Jaramillos were fairly typical in the county for being literate.
Education in Belen
Almost 80 percent of the citizens of New Mexico could read and write in 1910 — a fairly good rate. About 75.3 percent of the adults in Belen could read and write.
An additional 3 percent of the adult population could read, but not write. And 19.8 percent of adults could neither read nor write. Some people did not answer the question on the census form — 1.6 percent of adults.
Children and teenagers made up 40 percent of Belen’s population. About 47.3 percent of them were attending school.
Oddly, the census does not indicate whether the school-age population could read and write — the federal government probably assumed they were in the process of learning.
The other 52.6 percent of children in the community did not attend school — most of those were age 6 or under. Since the census was taken in the summer, probably quite a few of the 6 year olds were to start classes in the fall.
There were a few elementary school-age children, even one at 12, who did not attend school, but the majority in the appropriate age group seem to have been taking advantage of the opportunity to get an education. A few were especially ambitious.
At least one 12 year old worked as a waiter as well as attending school. All in all, the city could boast a fairly literate population.
Belen as a birthplace
Very few states of the union aren’t represented in the birthplace column of the census.
While neighboring Texas can claim being the birthplace of 44 Belenites, nearby Arizona can count only eight and Colorado was the original home of 17.
Missouri and Kansas represented the largest population of transplants to Belen, with 45 each — probably as a result of following work on the railroad.
Other states with big birth contingents include Illinois with 25; Indiana and Wisconsin, each boasting 20; Pennsylvania with 17; Arkansas and Kentucky with 14 each; and Virginia with 10.
Fifty-two people were simply listed as having been born in the United States.
Working in the Hub City
Belen’s economy appeared to be thriving — and was at a crossroads. While previously it had been a more agriculturally-based community, the railroad was then the primary employer in the Hub City.
A wide variety of railroad jobs were being held in Belen. The largest number of workers was the 120 who were employed as laborers of various sorts.
Also working for the railroad were three blacksmiths, a baggage employee, seven boilermakers, a boiler watcher, two brakemen, three car inspectors, a car man, two car repairers, two carpenters, a cashier, four clerks, seven conductors, a detective, 21 locomotive engineers, 24 firemen, four foremen, a depot freight inspector, an inspector, five machinists, a machinist helper, an office worker, an office boy, four operators, a roundhouse office worker, one secretary, a special office employee, five switchmen, one timekeeper, two yardmasters and one yard office worker.
And that includes only the railroad workers who lived in Belen, not those in the surrounding rural areas.
Hotels and boarding houses had sprung up to serve mostly railroaders. Probably the most well known was the Belen Hotel, whose proprietor was the 36-year-old German-born Bertha Rutz.
Staying at the hotel on May 17, 1910, when the enumerator arrived, were a housekeeper and 14 male lodgers, all of whom worked for the railroad.
Census-taker Jaramillo has written that information was “secured from another” rather than from the guests themselves, thus their birth places were all simply given as in the United States.
One lodger’s last name is not even registered; he’s simply listed as Joe. They probably weren’t at the hotel at the time to fill in details of their backgrounds.
Even the John Becker family, among the most prosperous in town, included four lodgers at his home, all probably working in his store.
Along with Becker, probably the most prominent member of the Belen community at the turn of the century was Felipe Chavez, El Millonario, the famous businessman whose trade reached to the East Coast as well as deep into Mexico. The census tells nothing about him, since he had died in 1905, five years before the count was made.
Farming and agriculture were still a major part of the economy, even within the Belen city limits. A total of 70 men listed their profession as farmer, one was a farm manager and 56 others were farm hands or laborers.
Some of the farm hands worked with their fathers on family land while many others appear to be hired out while living in town with their own families.
Others in agriculture worked primarily with livestock, mostly sheep. There were 13 sheepherders, a sheep raiser, a stock purchaser, two stock herders and two stock raisers.
Probably the most intriguing occupations were listed by one couple. Layton Corrix, a 37-year-old native of Virginia, who sold patent medicine, and his wife, whose name on www.ancestry.com lists as Millred, also 37 and born in South America, was a fortune teller.
A variety of occupations
In other ways, one can see how the economy of the city was good, despite the county’s decline in population.
There were many local residents working in the building trades: one in brick manufactory, 15 house carpenters, two housing contractors, a hod carrier (a laborer who carries supplies to bricklayers or masons), one brick yard worker, a house laborer, a house painter, a worker in a lumber yard, a sawmill worker, a laster, six masons or bricklayers, a plasterer, a real estate agent and a surveyor.
Numerous other Belenites worked in the sort of businesses that spring up around most small towns. There were three bakers, a banker with his clerk and accountant, two barbers, six bartenders, three blacksmiths, three bookkeepers, four butchers, a central telephone worker, five cooks, a dress agent, a livery stable express man, a coal chutes foreman, five mill workers, nine merchants, a poolroom foreman, a restaurant keeper, 17 salesmen, a saloon keeper, a shoemaker, two working in the telegraph office, two grocery wagon drivers, three hotel waiters, a warehouse foreman and a wine maker.
There was a small professional class in town. There were four physicians, two lawyers, five druggists and pharmacists and 12 teachers. The doctors were William Radcliffe, John Bendale, W.H. Dempsey and Howard Bartlett.
The town was served by three ministers — the two French priests and one Protestant pastor, the German-born John Utesch.
Teaching was probably among the most highly paid jobs for women. Some teachers were young single women living with their families, such as Severa Baca, 24, and Evelyn Davidson, also 24, a music teacher who gave lessons in private homes.
A number of married women were also teachers, but most had no children listed of their own.
While some other younger women, all living at home with their parents, worked as sales ladies, most of the older working women appear to be widows.
Their lives must have been hard: six of them were washer women or girls, 10 are housekeepers — nine for private families while one worked at a hotel — and three were maids for private families.
Only two women were employed as stenographers, a growing occupation for females in many areas.
Work was obviously also hard to find for many men — 55 of them describe themselves as laborers who sought whatever odd jobs they could find. Many of those were heads of households.
The final family visited by the census taker 18 days after the counting commenced was headed by Elijio Chavez. The 38-year-old stock herder — a cowboy, the quintessential job of the American West — could read and write and shared his rented home with his wife, Merenciana, 42, and their daughters, Bernarda, 8, and Maria, 7.
After their names, Census-taker Jaramillo wrote in dark ink in his very legible handwriting: “Here ends the Population of Precinct 2 Belen.” And thus ended his snapshot of the Hub City in 1910.
(Editor’s Note: In next month’s La Historia del Rio Abajo: Los Lunas in 1910.)