What began as a “periodic column” in the Valencia County News-Bulletin has become a mainstay and reader favorite feature for a quarter of a century.
First making its appearance in the Oct. 24-25, 1998, edition of the paper, La Historia del Rio Abajo was the “bright idea” of local history professor and member of the Valencia County Historic Society Dr. Richard Melzer. During a society meeting, Melzer pitched the idea of a monthly history article for the newspaper and after some work shopping of the name by the members, it was off and running.
“We brought the article down to (former editor) Sandy (Battin) and she was nice enough to put it on like page three of the (B) section,” Melzer recalled.
It actually debuted on the first page of the B section, with Melzer’s photo, which suspiciously hasn’t changed much over the decades. The article was a recounting of children’s Halloween traditions from days gone by, complete with a photo of a group of local school children.
In the beginning, Melzer would submit the articles to the News-Bulletin in hard copy and Battin would have to retype them. The system eventually progressed to digital files on a thumb drive and now it arrives via email.
During the days of retyping if there was a typo, Melzer subtly inferred that fell to Battin, but now he has no one to blame but himself.
“If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s mine,” he said with a chuckle. “My dear wife reads it. She’s so good. She was born and raised here. She knows the community so well and is very sensitive about things and helps me find the best way to say things. Over the years, Sandy and (current editor) Clara (Garcia) have been absolutely wonderful.”
Battin said during her time as editor, the VCNB had done many stories with the society and had always received good input from the members.
“When they suggested it, I didn’t really hesitate. I thought it would be a wonderful thing for the paper and the people would really love it. People in Belen and Los Lunas have always been very interested in historical information,” Battin said. “We always got excellent feedback about stories from the historical society.”
The La Historia columns — called such since the writers often bring their own opinions into the pieces by way of historical analysis in addition to the facts presented — were always “amazingly good pieces,” Battin said. “Well written, well researched. Everyone who wrote for it took it seriously, but they seemed to have fun with it too.”
The former editor said she always looked forward to the weeks when the columns would run, eager to read the stories, especially the ones about trains and unsolved mysteries. Battin said she always liked the more “modern” stories about people she knew.
“Half the time, I think people might have seen a story and started reading, then realized it was about their ancestor,” she said. “I loved all the comments. They were always positive. I remember only one complaint. It’s been one of the most popular features in the News-Bulletin. It has been such a good addition to our community in very many ways.”
Keeping the column going for two plus decades certainly wasn’t a one-man effort, Melzer said, noting many members of the historic society have contributed regularly — John Taylor, Matt Baca, Sandy Shauer and Jim Boeck — and even Battin after her retirement.
“We also had a lot of writers that just loved to create,” he said. “I’ve always been very curious about a lot of things, especially history. Things come up in conversation, especially with the ‘old timers,’ and when I had an office on the (UNM-Valencia) campus, people would just walk through the door with their family stuff — pictures and photo albums.
“I really want to thank the people who shared their stories. They trusted me with this information, and it’s very personal. This was their families. And who am I?”
In addition to photos from families, the writers rely on local museums — the Belen Harvey House Museum and Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts — as well as the New Mexico State Archives from time to time, for the images that are published with the La Historia pieces.
Melzer said people always seem to enjoy the articles and look forward to them, noting he knows some readers who have clipped the articles since the very beginning.
Those who haven’t been collecting them can purchase the books of the columns, which are co-edited by Melzer and Taylor. The newspaper doesn’t pay for the articles and the society retains the copyright to them. Over the years, the pieces have been collected into anthologies — six in print and a seventh in the works, due out next year — and sold to benefit the Valencia County Historic Society.
La Historia appeared monthly for 18 years, until Battin retired, then went to every other month, although sometimes, the columns are so long the News-Bulletin has to break them into two or three pieces so readers get multiple doses of history in a month.
Books based on La Historia del Rio Abajo articles
- “Murder, Mystery and Mayhem” in the Rio Abajo (2013)
- “A River Runs Through Us” (2015)
- “Tragic Tails and Enchanted Journeys” (2017)
- “Mountains, Mesas and Memories” (2018)
- “Years Gone By in the Rio Abajo” (2021)
- “History Surrounds Us” (2023)
Books can be purchased locally at the Belen Harvey House Museum, Los Lunas Museum of History and Arts, Teofilo’s Restaurante in Los Lunas, and on amazon.com.
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.