BELEN—Imagine receiving an unexpected gift, revealing a part of your history. This scenario recently happened when a treasure trove of one Belen’s family memoirs was anonymously sent to Belen City Hall.
A large, Manila envelope delivered to city hall last month contained old photographs, high school and college diplomas, aged newspaper articles, property deeds and more. Along with the family’s artifacts, a handwritten note was included that reads, “Former residents & merchants in Belen, N.M. For town archives as you see fit.”
The envelope didn’t have a name on it, only a Canadian postmark. No one knows who sent it, but both city officials and family members are grateful.
The contents in the envelope tells the story of the Gilbert family — a clan of former residents who helped shape the history of the city.
When members of the Gilbert family went to city hall to inspect what had been sent, a flood of nostalgia set in. They cheerfully reminisced about family members and special events they shared.
Juliette Lujan Duran, the daughter of Rita Gilbert Lujan, and granddaughter of Antonio Gilbert, said she was elated when she heard the news of the mysterious package.
“We were excited when we heard that someone from Canada had sent this information to the city of Belen, because we were hoping that there were some old photos and documents that we didn’t already have in our possession,” Duran said.
Having grown up in Belen, Duran, who now lives in Albuquerque, said when she first saw the photos, she recognized her grandfather, Antonio, and her uncle, Oracio Gilbert.
“My grandfather — my mother’s father — died when he was killed in a train accident when my mother was 13 years old in 1930,” she said. “I never got to meet him, and all I know about him is what my mother told me. I have a copy of the newspaper article of when he died in the train accident.”
Duran said the Gilbert family originated in France, went to Canada and then migrated to the U.S. and New Mexico.
“We were not surprised (the envelope) came from Canada,” Duran said. “We didn’t still know there were relatives still in Canada. I assume it came from a distant relative.”
When the envelope arrived at city hall, City Manager Andrew Salas said he and his staff were pleasantly surprised.
“We have a general idea where it came from because of the postmark and other general features on the envelope,” Salas said. “When the envelope was opened, out spilled a lot of old photographs from the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, a lot of legal documents, deeds, a lot of them in Spanish, a lot of diplomas from the 1920s and ’30s that look like they had just been issued. Someone took really good care of them.”
There were also some old pictures of the old Gilbert general store and the Gilbert insurance agency.
Belen Mayor Jerah Cordova was also excited to see the contents of the envelope, saying he loves Belen’s history.
“My favorite was the school district handbook, I think was from 1910,” Cordova said. “There was some great details about what it was like at the turn of the century. It functioned kind of like a yearbook. It had pictures of the school board, had a list of all the teachers and a list of the students. It broke up the students by the disciplines they were studying.
“It had a guide in there for parents on how to produce good students,” the mayor said. “It included tips like ‘make sure your students go to school, make sure they’re not late for class.’”
After receiving the package, the city posted some photos on its Facebook page, and lo and behold, members of the Gilbert family began calling in, interested in seeing the memorabilia.
“... We started getting a lot of calls from various members of the Gilbert family — a good, long-standing family here in Belen,” Salas said. “Some of these family members came to look over these artifacts, bringing up a lot of memories and emotions, and reminiscing about days gone by.”
Duran said her family’s history in New Mexico dates back to 1853 when French secular priests were assigned to Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church by the archbishop.
The two priests were accompanied to The Hub City by a young man named Alberto Vincente Gilbert. Alberto was a carpenter, and was able to offer tremendous assistance to the priests.
He fell in love with one of the Spanish senoritas, Maria Rita Ortiz. She was the only daughter of Jose and Maria Ortiz, a prominent ranching family in Belen. Alberto and Maria were blessed with one son, Jose Manuel Gilbert.
Jose Manuel Gilbert became the owner of a cattle ranch near Rio Puerco. He was known as “El Doctor de Los Animales,” or veterinarian. Jose Manuel married Francisca Castillo, the daughter of Antonio Jose Castillo and Maria Guadalupe Pino. They had seven children — Felipe, Saturnino, Leanor, Juanna Maria, Alberto, Lugarda and Gavino, who was Duran’s great-grandfather.
The day the family gathered in the council chambers at city hall to look at the contents of the envelope, they brought their own collection of family memories, including photos and documents.
“It’s so exciting to see some of the new things,” Duran said. “We’re very grateful. We knew the Gilbert family was one of the earliest families in Belen, but we didn’t realize how prominent they were.”
City officials were also impressed with the stature of the Gilbert family, with the mayor saying they were “early movers and shakers in Belen — they were dedicated to their market but also from what I can tell, they were influential from Belen all the way down to San Antonio and Socorro.”
Antonio Gilbert, Duran’s grandfather, was not only a businesses owner but a member of the Belen Board of Education.
“The beautiful thing about getting these snapshots in time is it draws you back to a place in Belen’s history that is unique, that is part of the culture and the tone of why the city is the way it is today,” Salas said. “To have that intimate glimpse of one family’s story is just a reminder of the rich heritage we have in the city, and how grateful we are and to celebrate.”
As for the future of the Gilbert family memorabilia, both Cordova and Salas said the contents of the envelope are being archived with the help of the Belen Public Library and the Belen Harvey House Museum, and will hopefully be made digitally available soon to the public.
“Even if we can’t go in person right now, at least we’ll have online access,” Cordova said. “It’s not every day that an interesting package arrives at City Hall.”
Cordova said he always wants to learn more about Belen’s history, and hopes the Gilbert’s story will send a message to others.
“We see a lot of history escape us with families moving away, and things are thrown away,” he said. “Anything we can do, as city government to protect our history, we will through the Harvey House to anyone who wants to donate.”