Baldwin G. Burr brings the past into the present
In his cowboys boots, wide-brimmed cowboy hat and western-cut jacket, you would never guess Baldwin G. “B.G.” Burr was anything but a native New Mexican.
But Burr is not. He was born in central Ohio, and lived on his family’s farm near the small town of London, just outside of Columbus.
Best known locally for his volunteer work as a photo historian at the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts and the Harvey House Museum in Belen, Burr, 67, says his interest in history began with his family in Ohio.
“I was interested in history from time I was 4 or 5,” Burr says as he talks just a few feet away from the whirring of electric trains at the Harvey House. “My family are Ohio pioneers. I grew up on a farm that had been in my family since 1805,” “History was all around me.”
Burr’s says his interest in New Mexico was piqued when he arrived at the Philmont Scout Ranch near Cimarron, N.M. in 1960.
Four years later, he drove from Ohio to attend the University of New Mexico. Nine years after that, he became a resident of Valencia County, buying land in Tomé.
“They’re just starting to refer to me by my first name,” he dryly says in an aside, referring to his mercurial neighbors off N.M. 47.
Burr recently had his second book of historical photos published in Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” collection, a collection focusing on Belen. His first, about Los Lunas, came out in 2012.
Burr’s undergraduate degree from UNM was in art history while his master’s came in education, which on the surface doesn’t exactly make for the stereotypical image of a historian.
But Burr says it was his work experience that allowed him to more easily become a historian when he fully retired a year and a half ago after more than two decades of teaching at UNM, Central New Mexico Community College, the College of Santa Fe and the UNM-Valencia Campus.
Meeting people and talking to people is one of Burr’s favorite aspects of being a historian, which is also something that makes him a great volunteer and keeper of stories in Valencia County, says Rico Gonzales of the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts.
“He’s a great asset for both museums,” Gonzales says. “He has wide, extensive knowledge on area, but he’s also very approachable and friendly. Los Lunas and Belen couldn’t ask for anyone better.”
Burr says he only recently became a full-time volunteer and historian, he says he didn’t have time while he was working and teaching full-time. But he puts a lot of time in it these days, especially as volunteer photo archivist at the Los Lunas museum.
He said the Los Lunas book was a natural extension of his work at the museum in Los Lunas as he had been looking at photos, then researching and dating them.
As successful as the Los Lunas book was in its completion, Burr says the Belen book came together even faster.
“The Belen book was easier to do because Belen was always more prosperous than Los Lunas,” he explains. “Very few families in the Los Lunas area (took) photographs.
Burr, who is currently working on a book for Arcadia about Socorro, says although the photos hold a lot of history, as a historian, he inevitably comes back to talking to the people who are relatives of the folks in the photographs.
“Very few small towns have their history documented in a book,” he explains. “It (history) is in people’s minds. It’s like pulling the string on a sweater. You keep pulling and that leads to more stuff.
“You’ll be talking to someone and they’ll say, ‘Oh, you don’t want to talk to me. You want to talk to Uncle Fred …’ So you get information on them then get more information and put pieces together. It’s an interesting process. And, of course, you get to talk to people and hear a lot of interesting stories.”
Living in Tomé with his wife, Laura Gilbert-Burr, a former principal and curriculum director for the Los Lunas Schools — “I married up,” says Burr, referring to his long-time spouse — Burr keeps himself involved in Valencia County history at both museums. Gonzales said Burr is involved closely with the Los Lunas museum’s exhibits and presentations, as he was when the Smithsonian Museum’s “Salt of the Earth” exhibit came recently.
Burr’s professional career largely revolved around work on computers, not history or education. Working in the energy field, he says he “accidentally” created the first engineering application for micro-computers in 1977, a time when most energy companies worked on main-frame computers and micro computers were largely thought of as toys.
From there, he went into teaching at UNM, imparting the knowledge he got from experience, because, at the time, there were no degrees or certifications available, or needed, to teach solar energy to students. What you needed was experience, which Burr had in abundance.
These days, Burr takes his experiences in data basing and research to help others experience history in the form of photographs. And it’s something he says he relishes.
“This is just another chapter, just a continuation,” he says simply. “If I hadn’t done all these other things I did before, I wouldn’t bring to history what I do.
“A lot of work I did in other careers was very technically oriented,” he explains. “History can get loosey goosey,” he says, adding he can “bring order and system to it.”
Burr currently sits as president of the Valencia County Historical Society as well as secretary of the New Mexico State Historical Society and sheriff (or president) of the Central New Mexico Corral of Westerners International — all volunteer positions.
He’s also a member of the Los Alamos, Albuquerque and Socorro County Historical Societies as well as the Madison County Historical Society in Ohio.
“In all these organizations, you meet people who are interested in history,” he says earnestly. “They’re all neat people.
“(But) you get to be president and secretary because you’re not paying attention,” he adds sardonically.
“I’m fortunate, so far, to be a member of more organizations than I’m an officer of. That’s the way to keep it.”