Close to Home: Harvey House in Belen is full of history

This week we thought it would be fun to take this travel feature to the outskirts of our boundaries: We drove exactly one hour from the office and traveled to Belen to check out a Harvey House.

Prior to traveling to Belen, I had no idea what that was. I assumed it was a mansion or other grand building owned by a family or an individual named Harvey. I was close to correct but not quite.

Harvey Houses were America’s first restaurant chain. They were built at the same time as the appearance of the Santa Fe Railroad.

The railroad system that stretched across the Southwest during the early 1900s created an opportunity that Fred Harvey capitalized on. He saw a great need for better facilities after traveling and seeing the crudeness of what was available. Harvey Houses were only found in the Southwest; 13 are in New Mexico.

After seeing a map in Belen, we learned they were located in Raton, Santa Fe, Montezuma, Las Vegas, Lamy, Albuquerque, Vaughn, Clovis, San Marcial, Rincón, Belen, Deming, and Gallup. The one I found most surprising is the Montezuma Castle, (now the United World College), used to be a grand hotel built by Harvey. It surprised me because my family frequents the area as we have relatives in Las Vegas. I have looked at that building thousands of times, if not more, without knowing this part of its history.

Quite frankly, I have no idea how I didn’t make the connection sooner. I love rural New Mexican towns and I always go on self-tours of old buildings. I can’t help but wonder if I have wandered around other Harvey Houses and didn’t understand the significance of the buildings.

In terms of homeschool, the Harvey House also offered a cool opportunity. The building is filled with antiques, and the docents are very knowledgeable and happy to share. Additionally, as a native New Mexican whose family came here in the 1500s, learning about state history is also learning about the history of our ancestors.

Dustin does not yet appreciate the significance of all of this but I still feel it is important for him to learn about history for two reasons. The first is that history repeats itself and the only way for future generations to avoid repeating mistakes is to look to the past. The second is that I feel it is important for him to know where he comes from and to know the struggles that our family line survived.

Because Belen is so far away we did our usual number crunching before we left. The first thing I had him do was calculate how far away Belen is and exactly how many gallons of gas we would need for the trip to and from. We looked it up on the internet and round trip was 122 miles. I had Dustin figure out gas at $2 a gallon, and based on my car getting 35 miles per gallon. He calculated that it would cost $8 for gas; we opted to spend $10 just to be safe.

The drive to Belen is not bad after you get through Albuquerque, or you can drive through Mountainair and avoid the city altogether. We decided against that idea because it actually adds about 80 miles to the total, as beautiful as it is. There are idyllic views of mesas for most of the trip on I-25.

Photo by Dustin Barton

We used a GPS to navigate Belen because I hadn’t been there since childhood, and we didn’t want to buy more gas as our calculations didn’t leave much room for getting lost. Beware if you navigate Belen that way. We got turned around anyway, led by a bossy robot which we thought was extremely amusing. Luckily the GPS corrected itself quickly.

Had I known that the Harvey House was associated with the railroad, it would have been easy to find because the train tracks are visible as soon as you get to Belen. We could have followed them all the way there.

As soon as you approach the Harvey House you can see the railroad. When you walk in, you are standing in the original lunchroom, a pretty big space. Most of the glass windows are original and when you look through them everything looks kind of wiggly. We needed the restroom as soon as we got there and even the bathrooms are original—with the exception of modern toilets. You can see it in the windows, the doorknob and the sinks.

We opted for a guided tour from one of the docents and watched a short film about the history of Harvey Houses before we went exploring on our own. From the film we learned that Belen’s Harvey House was built in 1902, one year after Fred Harvey’s death. I had my son calculate how old the building was and then reiterated to him, “You are sitting in a room that is 117 years old!”

Photo by Dustin Barton

Another interesting thing we learned is that the Harvey Houses used to have all-male waiters but they weren’t welcomed by the railroad workers, and it was decided that it would be better to have women serve the food and wait on customers.

They named them Harvey Girls, and this brought in a new era for women in the early 1900s as most women at that time did not work outside their homes. They went from their father’s home to their husband’s and in most cases straight into motherhood, too.

While we were touring the upstairs area where the Harvey Girls lived, a train passed by. I had just been wondering how the girls knew when it was time to work. As it turns out, not only does the entire building shake, but you can see the train tracks from all of the rooms on the east side of the building.

The kitchen connects to the back area, which has a staircase leading upstairs. The kitchen is so quaint and tiny compared to modern kitchens, and the conditions in the early 1900s were insane compared to today. They didn’t have refrigerators, only a single icebox. They had zero kitchen appliances. All of the work was done by hand and in very limited conditions, yet they were able to produce quality food in a timely fashion. 

Although the Harvey House building is grand, the entire tour with wandering and silliness only took about an hour and a half. From there we decided it was time to find food. As we were driving into to town we were already scoping out good food.

Photo by Dustin Barton

On the way to the Harvey House we found a little restaurant sitting alone in a field along the main drag in Belen, called Montaño Family Restaurant. From the outside, it looked like it was locally owned and operated, and we were pleasantly surprised when we went inside. The family who owns it also greets you at the door, takes your order and serves you.

We were pleased to find that they passed our chile test with flying colors and a woman who reminded me of my great aunts and grandma made fresh coffee for us. It was a charming little place and the prices were fantastic. We easily ate for $30 which included our tip.

They even knew the first names of the next customers who walked in behind us. As a person from both New Mexico and the East Mountains I found that to be very cool. I love that about our state. Small town businesses still make the time to remember their regulars. We left with full bellies, smiles and a promise to mail a copy of the story to them.

Do you have suggestions for nearby destinations we could visit for this feature? Contact me at news.ind.manager@gmail.com with ideas.