The life and times of Eleanor Lake Love
(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society.
The author of this month’s column is a professor of history at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus. He is the author of 17 books, including his newest, “Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem in the Rio Abajo,” co-edited with John Taylor and available for sale at the Belen Harvey House Museum and the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts.
Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the author’s only and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)
Eleanor Louise Lake Love recently celebrated her 85th birthday with a party, calling it her “Surprised-I-Made-It-To-85” party. Those who know Eleanor are pleased, but not surprised, that she has lived so long.
I’m certainly not surprised. I met Eleanor 30 years ago when she was a student in my New Mexico History course at the UNM-Valencia Campus when it was still at a shopping center in Rio Communities.
I remember exactly where Eleanor sat and how she asked such good questions. I also remember the great stories she told about her life growing up in Belen.
Eleanor was born in Belen on Oct. 27, 1928, the youngest child of Everett and Lucille Lake. Eleanor had one sister, Mary Catherine, and four brothers, Gerald, Eppa, Edgar and Phil. The family lived at the northwest corner of Mesa Road and Gilbert Street, far enough “out-of-town” in those days to keep the boys “off the streets,” in their mother’s words.
The son of a Civil War veteran, Everett Lake had moved from Arkansas to New Mexico and had worked for the Santa Fe Railroad since 1922. He did well with the railroad, but loved farming and always kept a large garden and lots of farm animals.
Everyone in the family worked in the garden and helped with the animals. Eleanor remembers doing all sorts of chores, including milking. Once, when Eleanor was helping a girlfriend milk her family’s cows, the girls tied two cows’ tails together to prevent their burr-covered tails from hitting their faces. Unfortunately, the friends forgot to untie the cows before they went off to town. Hopefully, the cows didn’t try to stroll in opposite directions before someone noticed their predicament.
Eleanor liked the farm animals so much that she cried when her mother planned to kill an old red rooster for dinner. Eleanor spent the night at a friend’s house. On her return, the rooster was missing and her mother was preparing chicken (rooster) and dumplings for the family meal. Eleanor could not bring herself to eat dinner that day.
Lucille Lake was a hard-working, kind-hearted woman, known for her generosity. Eleanor remembers that homeless men, called hobos in those days, often came to her family’s back door, where her mother gave them good, hot meals in exchange for odd jobs, like chopping wood.
Eleanor thinks that her family’s house was probably marked with a symbol that told hobos they could hope for a good meal from a kind lady if they simply offered to do some chores. Why else would so many men come by, knowing exactly what to say to receive a meal?
Eleanor’s mother made most of her children’s clothes. Eleanor and her siblings changed their clothes as soon as they got home from school so they could wear the same clothes to school all week. This saved on the wash load, which was still done by hand on a washboard.
Eleanor’s mom did most of her shopping at Becker-Dalies, the biggest store in town (where the Wells Fargo Bank now stands). Children took their mothers’ shopping lists to the store in the morning and boys delivered their grocery orders later in the day.
Orders could be charged, although you could pay in cash if you went to the store on Main Street. The store’s cashiers sat in an office on the second floor where they received money via pneumatic tubes, much like at drive-up bank teller windows today. The odds of a robbery were much smaller if the store’s money was kept upstairs.
Everett and Lucille Lake were strict, but loving parents. They never gambled and never allowed their children to bet on any games. Everett went so far as to throw a deck of cards into his family’s wood stove when he found the “evil” deck in his house.
The Lakes preferred more serene, wholesome games such as checkers and dominos. They enjoyed listening to radio shows like “Amos and Andy” and soap operas, always Lucille’s favorites.
A lifelong member of the Baptist church, Lucille taught Bible school until she was 96. As one friend said, Lucille forgot more about the Bible than most folks ever knew. She lived to be 101.
Eleanor was particularly close to her father. She often tagged along with him, walking, fishing, deer hunting and gathering beautiful rocks. Eleanor admired her dad’s gentle strength and compassion so much that years later she wrote a children’s book, simply titled, “My Daddy and Me.”
Eleanor worked to help her family, but she also enjoyed hours of play with her siblings and friends. Eleanor preferred outdoor play to dolls and most indoor activities.
She especially liked roller skating. Mesa Road wasn’t paved in those days so she and her friends had to skate in front of Becker-Dalies, where there were paved sidewalks along Main Street.
Eleanor also enjoyed playing in the nearby ditch, although she remembers that she was forbidden to play there and got into serious trouble when she fell in while wearing her good clothes.
In May 1937, the ditch flooded during one of the worst floods in Belen’s history. Eleanor’s neighbors lost valuable beehives. Twenty families were forced to evacuate their homes. The water was so deep in town that Central School Principal Harriett Monroe had to be rowed to work in a rowboat.
Eleanor learned to swim at the community pool, owned and operated by Frank Garcia, near the corner of Reinken Avenue and 13th Street. She especially liked swimming at the pool when it was being cleaned and the water wasn’t so deep. Although her family had some hard times during the Great Depression, her parents always managed to buy season tickets so she could swim as often as she pleased.
Belen was a safe town to grow up in during the 1930s and 1940s. Eleanor and her friends played until dark and thought nothing of walking home in the dark after seeing a movie at the Oñate Theater. Parents never worried about their children being in town alone.
Eleanor felt safe in Belen, but there were a few places that she and her friends avoided. Bars and dance halls were not “nice places,” in Eleanor’s words. Several places had slot machines, a popular vice long before casinos became legal in New Mexico.
Eleanor was particularly scared of the Catholic cemetery, located a few blocks north of her family’s house on Mesa Road. She recalls that her brothers got into big trouble with their father when they brought bones home from land west of the cemetery, beyond the ditch. Eleanor’s dad made the boys give the bones a “proper burial.”
Eleanor always liked school. She normally walked to school, but if she hurried in the morning she could catch a ride with one of her friends, whose mother kept warm bricks on the floor of her car to heat children’s feet on cold winter days.
That same mother made good tortillas with green chile, which Eleanor liked but seldom had because her mother usually made biscuits instead. Eleanor liked tortillas so much that she gladly traded her biscuits for her friend’s tortillas.
Neighbors were always kind and helpful. Lucille often sent custard pies to her Hispanic neighbors, and they sent food from their matanzas to the Lakes.
“That was a treat for both families,” says Eleanor.
Eleanor remembers that only English was spoken in school. Children who spoke Spanish when they started school were taught English in a separate first-grade class. She doesn’t recall anyone being punished for speaking Spanish, as sometimes happened back then.
Teachers believed that speaking English was important to the children’s future success, especially in the business world. Hispanic parents often agreed, resulting in a loss of Spanish language skills for many unfortunate boys and girls.
Eleanor liked all her subjects, especially history. Lena Reed was her favorite teacher. Eleanor was fortunate enough to have Mrs. Reed twice — in the fourth grade and as her English teacher in junior high.
Mrs. Reed was fair, but firm with her students. One time in the fourth grade, a little boy kept kissing Eleanor. Fed up, Eleanor told Mrs. Reed about her overly amorous classmate. Mrs. Reed responded by making the two children sit together in a very small desk. They were both being punished: the boy for kissing Eleanor and Eleanor for turning him in.
School plays were performed far more often than they are now. Plays were given throughout the school year, but especially at holidays. Eleanor’s shining moment as a child actress came in the second grade when she landed the starring role in “The Little Red Hen.” Lucille Lake proudly made Eleanor’s Little Red Hen costume by hand.
Eleanor remembers the fierce rivalry between Belen and Los Lunas high schools. By the time she got to high school in the 1940s, the rivalry was so intense that rock throwing by both sides was not unusual. All Belen-Los Lunas games had to be played in the daytime to help prevent night-time violence.
Eleanor recalls a school dance at the gym after a typically heated Belen-Los Lunas basketball game. A boy from Los Lunas asked Eleanor to dance and, when she accepted, her boyfriend from Belen was so upset — and jealous — that he went home without her.
Eleanor did so well in school that she had time to work as the head cashier at the Oñate Theater during her senior year, 1946-47. She enjoyed the work, the customers and most of the people she worked with at the theater.
She especially liked Mrs. DeGiorgio, who owned The Sweet Spot. Mrs. DeGiorgio always arrived late to the movies after closing her nearby shop, but never failed to bring Eleanor a candy bar.
Eleanor recalls the day that the projectionist complained to the theater manager that he was only getting paid peanuts. The fellow was no happier when he opened his next paycheck to find his regular wages, plus a few peanuts as his “raise.”
Eleanor enjoyed nearly every day of her childhood, but she has particularly fond memories about several special days and events.
She always enjoyed going to the Oñate on Saturday afternoons to see serial movies such as “Tarzan.” She liked these movies so much that she often hurried home to play Tarzan in the jungle, or at least in a grove of trees by her house.
Eleanor only recalls having one birthday party, when she was about 8 years old. She remembers one gift in particular: a book of Mother Goose rhymes, which she still has.
As a special treat, Eleanor’s dad sometimes brought his family to Belen’s Harvey House where the food was good and everything was so starched and clean. As a railroad worker, Everett Lake received a discount for at least his meals at the famous railroad restaurant.
Using another of his railroader’s benefits, Eleanor’s dad sometimes took his family to Albuquerque on the old Doodlebug, a forerunner of the current Rail Runner. (A Doodlebug is now on display near the corner of Becker Avenue and Second Street.)
Eleanor looked forward to shopping in big-city stores such as the J.C. Penney department store and Woolworths, a “five-and-dime” store.
Of course everyone in Belen looked forward to the Belen fiestas each year. Although there was some division among Catholics and Protestants, according to Eleanor, no one seemed to care about a person’s religion during fiestas.
Eleanor especially liked to listen to the music and watch people dance at the fiestas. There were so many dancers and such small dance floors that she remembers the couples dancing up and down rather than around the floor. It was all fun, regardless of the dancers’ directions.
World War II
Eleanor has vivid memories of World War II, fought during much of her junior and high school years. Many young men from Belen entered the service, including two of Eleanor’s brothers.
Edgar served in Europe, while Phil served in the South Pacific. Both served as captains in the Army Corps of Engineers.
Most young men were eager to serve their country. Eleanor recalls that George “Kotch” Matsu was particularly eager to serve because many Americans questioned the loyalty of Japanese-Americans, even if they had lived peacefully and productively in the United States, as had the Kaneshiro and Matsu families in Belen.
Eleanor remembers the day when Kotch Matsu enlisted in the army and ran down the street crying,
“Uncle Sam took me! Uncle Sam took me!”
Matsu served as a proud member of the all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most highly decorated American unit in the war. Like many other men in his unit, Kotch was seriously wounded in combat; the 442nd’s nickname was the “Purple Heart Battalion.”
Despite Kotch’s obvious loyalty to the United States, his father, Tom Matsu, lost his job with the railroad and had to move his family south to Jarales. Eleanor was disturbed by this development, especially because her friend, Violet Matsu, was affected during her high school years.
While most people in Belen knew and trusted the Matsus and Kaneshiros, there were some local people who let their feelings about the war shape their feelings about all Japanese families.
But at least the Matsu and Kaneshiro families were not forced to relocate to distant relocation camps scattered throughout the West. More than 112,000 Japanese-Americans suffered this fate because many in the country feared that they might assist Japan in an invasion of the United States or otherwise sabotage the war effort.
Far too young to join the Women’s Army Corps (or WACs), Eleanor at least joined Belen’s Civil Air Patrol. She recalls marching to Goebel Field (Belen’s first airport) with her fellow Civil Air Patrol members. Most memorably, she flew in her first plane, if only for a few miles over the west mesa.
Eleanor remembers rationing scarce goods during the war, causing minor hardships that people lived with and made do. When sugar was rationed, Eleanor’s family used lemon drops as sugar for their iced tea. When gasoline was rationed, everyone walked as often as possible. When leather was rationed, they found shoes made of artificial materials.
Many local residents visited the train depot to greet the thousands of young servicemen traveling to and from training camps across the country. Belen welcomed these young men in several ways, including with bags of fruit and candy and with songs played by the high school band.
Eleanor and her friends joined those at the depot, using their school lunch hour to meet appreciative “soldier boys.” Eleanor admits to flirting with some of the boys and even giving one of them her name and address. Eleanor corresponded with the fortunate soldier, sending him cookies along with her letters.
Eleanor was surprised that her mother allowed her to write to a soldier. She now realizes that her mom probably didn’t mind because so many boys had left school to join the military that there were very few males for Eleanor to meet, no less date in her high school class.
There were so few boys left that girls often had to dance with one another at high school dances. When the boys came home from the war, they claimed that it was hard to dance with the girls because they all wanted to lead.
Lucille Lake also probably didn’t mind Eleanor writing to a GI because two of her sons were in the war. She hoped that girls might write to Edgar and Phil to help boost their morale and improve their chances of returning home safely.
Although Eleanor probably didn’t think of it as such, her mother likely thought that writing to a soldier was simply part of her daughter’s patriotic duty.
Fortunately, both of Eleanor’s brothers returned from the war in good health. Eleanor recalls that some young men who returned home from combat went back to school to finish high school.
Eleanor’s graduating class of 1947 included several male classmates who were three or four years older than their fellow graduates.
Eleanor could not have guessed that a returning GI would be her future husband. And she could not have guessed that her future spouse would be former sailor John W. Love, especially after they first met at a church picnic by the Rio Grande in 1946.
Eleanor was not initially impressed with John because she considered him a country “hick” with western clothes and a hick way of talking. Later, when she was walking home from school, she noticed John building the roof on the new First Baptist Church. Eleanor recalls John smiling down at her and calling her name. To her surprise, John Love wasn’t quite as hickish anymore.
The couple began dating, fell in love and soon began planning their wedding. With Eleanor only 18 and still in high school, her mother opposed the union, although her father expressed his support. John got a job in Wyoming, but continued to write to Eleanor and even had his sister-in-law give Eleanor her engagement ring “by proxy” on Valentine’s Day.
With only a weekend off from his job in Wyoming, John didn’t have time for a big wedding ceremony. Eleanor graduated from Belen High School on a Thursday and married John the following Sunday, May 25, 1947.
The courthouse was closed on weekends, so the couple hunted down a courthouse official, who they found in a local bar. John and Eleanor convinced the man to open his office and issue them a marriage license. They paid the usual fee plus $5 as a tip for disturbing the public servant on his day off.
Raising a family
John and Eleanor Love spent the next several years moving from Wyoming to California to Albuquerque to Guam and back to Belen.
During that time, John trained to become an electrician, returned to the Navy during the Korean war and finally opened his own business, Love Electric, in Belen.
The couple had three children: John Jr., born in 1950, Ralph born in 1953, and Laura, born in 1956.
Ironically, given Eleanor’s childhood fear of cemeteries, she and John helped found the Terrace Grove Memorial Gardens Cemetery, Belen’s only Protestant cemetery, in 1968.
Coincidently, given Eleanor’s early experience with flying, John learned how to fly, bought his own airplane and moved his family to the Mid-Valley Air Park to live and fly as much as possible.
With her love of school and service to others, it was not surprising that once the couple’s children had grown up Eleanor decided to go to college to become a special education teacher. Although it took several years, she completed her bachelor’s degree with excellent grades — including an A in New Mexico history — and served as a well-respected, much-appreciated teacher in Belen and Los Lunas for 11 years.
She also taught a special education Sunday school class at the First Baptist Church of Belen for 20 years. She still serves as a substitute teacher in Los Lunas.
And now Eleanor Lake Love is celebrating her 85th birthday. About 100 old friends, relatives (including her sister, Mary Boucher) and former classmates (including Henry Jaramillo and Wanda Ray Garrison) gathered at Teofilo’s on Saturday evening, Oct. 26.
Those in attendance had a wonderful time, enjoying the warmth of Eleanor’s personality, her charming smile, and her dancing “Put Your Little Foot” with her nephew, Mike Lake.
Each of us had memories about this wonderful lady and how she had influenced our lives. Eleanor Lake Love has influenced so many lives because her life and values were clearly shaped by her supportive family, her church, her school and the hard times they bravely endured in Belen during the Great Depression and World War II.