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Belen Harvey House Museum is more than just a building — it’s living history

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Belen Harvey House Museum is more than just a building — it’s living history

BELEN—As one walks through the two-story, mission-styled building known now as the Belen Harvey House Museum, a wave of history hits not only your eyes but your spirit as well. 

The building has had many uses in its more than 100 years, from a Harvey House with its first-class dining room and lunchroom from 1910 to 1939 to a reading room for railroaders and finally a museum.

Frances Zeller, the Belen Harvey House Museum coordinator, said she sees the mission of the museum in three different historical aspects — women’s history, railroad history and hospitality history.

“The Fred Harvey company was the first to recognize and identify hospitality and how to make someone feel special, important and first class,” Zeller said. “First and foremost, the Harvey Girls were so well trained. They spent a whole month training before they were put on the floor.”

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This Zahner coffee pot, which is displayed at the Belen Harvey House Museum, is the same type of coffee pot that was used in Harvey Houses. This coffee pot was found in an antique shop close to the Fred Harvey headquarters in Kansas City, Mo.

The Harvey Girls were also well taken care of, Zeller said. They were all able to get a good night sleep in their own bedrooms upstairs, and were given their uniforms.

“They had everything they needed to do the job well,” Zeller said.

Waiting on railroaders as well as train passengers in the early 20th century, the Harvey Girls and staff realized that the weary train passengers needed a little comfort and catering.

“You can imagine that it was probably a pretty arduous journey for people traveling by train,” Zeller said. “By the time you arrived at a Harvey House, you were able to stretch your legs, get a really good meal in a comfortable chair, in a clean environment. They were treated first class.”

There were a lot of different reasons leading up to the closure of the Harvey House in 1939. Zeller points to factors such as the Great Depression, World War II, and automobile transportation was evolving.

“Belen wasn’t a destination; it was stop along the route,” the museum coordinator says. “It wasn’t the Alvarado, it wasn’t Santa Fe. It was simply a stop along the way.”

In the 1950s, the building became the Santa Fe Reading Room for railroad employees, serving as a break room and dormitory through the 1970s.

Zeller said the original Reading Room building, south of the Harvey House, was burned in a fire. It was then that the railroad took back control of the building and used it for employees.

“In spite of its name, there wasn’t very much reading going on,” Zeller said. “I think there were card games and magazines.

“Railroaders would have to rest up between their shifts and this was the perfect place to do it,” she said. “They had emptied the building out, including the kitchen, but they did have a snack shop, where they sold candy and sodas and cigars.”

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The Belen Harvey House Museum has a variety of displays of how the building looked when it was a first-class dining room and lunchroom from 1910 to 1939.

Zeller said locals still remember coming in to the building during that time to buy a candy or soda pop.

When the railroad didn’t have use for the building any longer, they boarded it up, and after several years, the railroad decided it was going to demolition the building. It was a group of like-minded citizens who successfully campaigned to save the building, and in the early 1980s, the Santa Fe Railroad donated it to the city of Belen.

Volunteers began restoring the building and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in October 1983.

The Harvey House reopened two years later as a civic center. Activities in the old building took its toll, and to ensure its preservation, the city turned over operations to the Valencia County Historical Society, who operated it as a museum.

In 2013, the city took over management and continued the museum’s mission. Now, the Harvey House Museum specializes in Harvey House, railroad and Southwest history.

“The Harvey House has been growing with exhibits and interest,” Zeller said. “There is so much interest in Fred Harvey these days, and people have become passionate about this whole industry and the Harvey Houses.”

Zeller said when the museum first began in the 1980s, it was based in the solely in the building’s formal dining room. Today, the museum has expanded throughout the building, including upstairs, which was the dormitory for the Harvey Girls.

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The gift shop at the Belen Harvey House Museum is stocked with plenty of railroad souvenirs, T-shirts, caps and other items. They also have a bookstore with many books from local and national authors.

“My vision was to make it like you weren’t just visiting the history, but rather you’re reliving it or stepping back into it,” she said. “You can visit any place, but to feel like you’re part of it, you need someone to paint the story vividly.”

That someone would be one of the 12 volunteer docents who guide at least four tours throughout the building each day. Zeller says the woodwork and the size of the building also tells the story of the history of the Harvey House.

“With the seed planted by the Valencia County Historical Society, we’ve been able to grow,” she said.

While the mission of the Belen Harvey House Museum is to share the history of the building, Zeller says she welcomes other exhibits on a rotating basis.

“Myself and our group of volunteers will build exhibits and right now, we’re starting to do a Belen room,” she said. “Some of those pictures are just priceless.”

Each room upstairs has its own theme, from a dentist room to a military room.

The biggest exhibit at the Belen Harvey House Museum came to Belen in 2014, when Norman and Joyce Bugg donated their handcrafted display of Christmas ornaments, lights and animated showpieces to the city.

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The Belen Harvey House Museum continues a 49-year tradition with the Bugg Lights, complete with more than 300,000 lights, vintage and homemade Christmas decorations, more than 100 Christmas trees, Nativity scenes, food, crafts, music and much more. 

Zeller says it takes about six months to plan, put up, display and to take it down every year.

“It’s our biggest exhibit and it brought in almost 10,000 people in the last two years,” she said. “People just love it.”

With at least 20 different exhibits, lectures and shows going on at the Belen Harvey House, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Being the only Harvey House in New Mexico, it’s a place that people can be proud of.

“We treat the building like it’s a piece of art,” Zeller said.

As a branch of the Belen Public Library, the Harvey House Museum has a vast collection of regional material used by many local authors and historians. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, they have an onsite volunteer librarian to help visitors with research.

There is also a gift shop in the building, which has everything from Harvey House T-shirts to handmade soap and vintage jewelry.

The Belen Harvey House Museum, 104 N. First St., is open from noon to 5 p.m., Mondays-Fridays, and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. The museum in closed on Sundays and Mondays.

To reach the Belen Harvey House Museum, call 505-861-0581, or visit harveyhousemuseum.org.

Editor/Publisher

Clara Garcia is a native of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. She is the president of the New Mexico Newspaper Association, and is a member of the Pilot Club of Belen.

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