Reading Room remembrances
Judy Ricker’s memories of the Harvey House Museum are a little more intimate than most. As a little girl, she lived in it, when it was the Santa Fe Reading Room.
Ricker, a retired schoolteacher from Albuquerque, was born in 1945, the year before her aunt and uncle started managing the Reading Room in Belen.
Claude and Opal Young became the second librarians of the Reading Room after being transferred from the Santa Fe station in Slaton, Texas. They lived in an apartment in the back, where the Belen Model Railroad Club is now headquartered.
Opal kept a detailed log of all their guests on both sides of nine pages. It covered their years in Belen from March 1946 to May 1955 when they were reassigned to Waynoka, Okla.
Their first guest was daughter, Lori Ann, who came from Slaton for a visit on March 19.
Another frequent entry on the log’s brown pages was Ima Ricker and her two young children, Jerry and Judy. Ima was married to Opal’s brother, Cecil, who ran a dry-cleaning business in Lubbock, Texas.
While her husband stayed home to run the business, Ima would bring her children to Belen where all three spent summers with Aunt Opal and Uncle Claude.
Last month, Judy Ricker returned to the Reading Room, now the Harvey House Museum, to share photographs and memories of those summers.
“It was fun being a kid here,” she says.
Sitting with several museum volunteers in the old Harvey House kitchen area off the lunchroom, the museum’s main exhibit room, Ricker looks through the double doors, toward a passing train rumbling by.
“I look out there,” Ricker begins. “I’ve done this a million times, just sitting here, watching the trains.”
Her attention returns to the kitchen area, known as the break room during the Reading Room era.
“You knew the minute you came through those (double) doors, there was to be no talking, period. People were sleeping,” she said.
She looks down, at the red-tile floor. The tiles would turn black from all the soot-covered foot traffic.
“But we kept everything spic ‘n span,” she said, recalling how she got to help mop. She liked helping the grown ups.
Once big enough to make a bed, Judy joined her mother and aunt in the morning’s chores.
“We made all the beds upstairs, every day,” she recalls.
“When the conductors would leave, we’d all get up. We’d go up there 90 miles an hour, pulling sheets off the beds,” she says. “We’d collect all the sheets and drop them downstairs for cleaning.”
Belen native Mike Moreno, the volunteer in charge of museum exhibits, remembers a dry cleaners nearby — Society Cleaners, where Hodge’s Oil is today. He said that is where the linens likely were taken.
“The beds had to be done pin-perfect,” Ricker recalls. “I still make my bed today like I learned here all those years ago.”
All the beds would be changed by noon.
“We stripped the bed immediately after anyone left,” she said.
The freight crews slept upstairs, each man had his own room.
Downstairs, were two rooms (where the museum’s office and branch library are) that Ricker thinks were reserved for passenger train conductors and engineers who took extended naps rather than sleep over.
Once the beds were made, the days could be reserved for exploring the ditch bank with her older brother or helping her mother and aunt in the concession stand.
“When the passenger trains came, we had to sell fast. Mother helped sell cokes, candies, newspapers… . We’d get ice from the ice plant and chip it,” Ricker recalls.
“We’d be eating and suddenly we’d hear a train coming and we’d run to the concession store, open the window and get ready for the train coming through.”
She also helped the Indians sell their jewelry to train passengers.
“The Indians were my best friends,” she recalls. “We called them Indians then.
“I was a little afraid at first,” she recalls, noting how she grew up in Lubbock, Texas. “There were no Indians there.”
But that soon changed as she saw the Isleta Pueblo jewelers on a daily basis.
They would wait outside and, when a train slowed, they’d hold up boards with jewelry on them for passengers to buy.
“I’d just sit there with them all day,” she said. “They treated me like I was one of their kids.”
A highlight of one summer was when she went to Albuquerque to buy an orange squaw dress.
She was 7 or 8 and there’s an old, faded color photo of her sitting outside, a big smile on her face as the dress fans out perfectly around her. She got a belt with quarter-size silver conchos from her pueblo friends to decorate her new dress.
Ricker’s mood changes as she walks through the model railroad rooms in the back of the museum.
“It breaks my heart to see it like this,” she says, standing in the middle of raised platforms with tiny trains, villages and mountain scenes — all to scale of how New Mexico looked in the 1940s and 1950s.
“It was warm back there,” she says of her aunt and uncle’s apartment. “It had such a warm feeling.”
“Opal loved to cook,” she says. “They had a magnificent kitchen back there,” she says, pointing to an area along the eastern wall, by the double doors on the building’s south side.
“We’d open the double doors and eat at the dining table, right here,” Ricker recalls of a space directly in front of the doors. “That way we could hear the trains.”
Many of the entries in Aunt Opal’s log comment on her great cooking.
Ricker recalls how they got fresh eggs and cottage cheese from Anna Ware’s farm down the road.
Memories of meals unfold: “One time we got lamb chops from Albuquerque. We had lamb chops and scalloped potatoes. I loved it. It was the best thing I ever put in my mouth!” It also was her first time to ever eat a lamb chop.
“And every night, we’d get ice cream from the Dairy Queen (on Main Street, next to the present city hall.)”
She opens a door, now a storage closet, and remembers it was the bathroom.
The old, claw-foot bathtub fascinated the little girl back then.
“This was the den,” she says of a space that is part of the train display now.
At night, when no more trains were coming, the family would watch TV.
There was another room next to the den. It was Uncle Claude’s rock room.
“Claude was a rock hound,” she says. “He kept one tiny room pitch dark. Then he’d turn on the black light and all the rocks would glow,” she recalls with a hint of childhood delight in her voice.
Ricker returns to the main room, the old Harvey House lunchroom area.
She remembers all the railroad men, sitting in it, reading Santa Fe train magazines and newspapers.
As the librarians — the name Reading Room managers were called — her aunt and uncle would check in the railroad crewmen from behind the old newsstand counter.
According to an article by Belen historian Richard Melzer, each man received clean sheets, pillowcases and towels.
Woolen blankets with the Santa Fe logo were in the sleeping rooms.
Ricker remembers the blankets and how, each day, her uncle made sure the newspapers hung straight on their racks.
“I remember the railroaders being friendly to me, but I really didn’t go into that room much,” she says.
She was encouraged not to bother those men.
Most of the men smoked, leading one brakeman to call Belen’s Reading Room “the smokiest place in the world.”
Museum volunteer Donna Nicholas of Belen remembers going to the Reading Room as a girl in the 1950s to pick up her father.
“You’d open the door and you could see the smoke come billowing out,” Nicholas said.
“Dad was a railroader,” she said. “I didn’t know about Harvey Girls. This was the Reading Room,” she said from her docent’s desk the day of Ricker’s visit. “I didn’t know about the Harvey House until I was 50 years old!”
Ricker’s aunt and uncle were transferred to Waynoka, Okla., in 1955.
Her family visited them there but she can’t recall much of those visits.
It’s Belen’s Reading Room that she holds dear.
“I remember it well, as if it were yesterday,” she says.
To the little girl, it was huge; it meant freedom and fun adventures, as well as getting to do grown-up chores.
“I just loved this place.”