When Jim Sloan looks back at the history of Belen, he relishes in the details and images, saying he was probably born in the wrong time period.
Sloan, the volunteer historian at the Belen Harvey House Museum, is also a member of the Belen Historic Properties Review Board and is a recent member of the Valencia County Historical Society’s board of directors.
In his spare time, Sloan administrators the Belen Memories (formerly Remember When in Belen …) Facebook page, sharing old photos, anecdotes and facts about the Hub City with its 4,453 members.
Sloan has lived in Belen since he was 2 years old, attended Jaramillo Elementary School, St. Mary’s Catholic School and Belen Junior High School and Belen High School. When he was 17, he enlisted in the Navy, serving three years, and he then returned to Belen.
“There was something about Belen that always drew me back, and a lot of people say the same thing,” Sloan said. “But back then, when you left Belen, you missed a lot of things, like a Circle T burger and Sachs Auto Parts.”
For much of his early adult life, Sloan traveled across the Western United States working in coal mines. In 2000, he got really sick, diagnosed with heart failure and repository arrest, and was in a coma.
After he recovered, he was unable to do a lot after his illness, he decided to do something that made him happy — he began collecting historic postcards.
“In high school, I didn’t like history because it wasn’t local history,” Sloan said. “Now that I look back, I’ve lived local history — I know it, I’ve done it, I’ve seen it or I’ve had friends who have done it.”
After he obtained his first postcard from 1913 titled “View to Mountains from the Curio Shop,” which was a view of the Manzano Mountains from Main Street that showed the old two-story brick building that once was Central Elementary School, Sloan couldn’t understand why Belen had a post card.
A friend of his told him there were more postcards, so he started researching online. Much to his delight, he found numerous photo postcards of Belen created by a 12-year-old Belen girl, Pearl Hayerford.
“I wanted to know more about this lady, so I researched and it just snowballed,” Sloan said. “I wanted to know more and more. I’ve always had a curious mind, and the more I researched, I realized I had already knew but had forgotten.”
With more than 100 postcards of Belen, Sloan collects others, including some from Albuquerque and Socorro.
One of the items of Belen’s history Sloan most researched was what happened to the canon that was used in the Bataan Death March that had been at Anna Becker Park. Kids, including Sloan, used to play on it.
“After researching for a couple of years, someone had reminded me of where it was,” he said. “I remember them moving it, and it’s in the same spot and it’s been hidden and no one is supposed to know where it’s at. It’s been there ever since.”
Researching Belen’s history is like a scavenger hunt for Sloan, looking through old archives and newspapers, collecting photos of way back when and talking to old timers who remember the good old days.
“When you find something you’re looking for, what a thrill it is,” he said. “If I found a postcard I wanted online, I would have to bid on it until I got it.”
Sloan admitted he spent $300 on a single postcard, but says he’s seen some as high as $4,000. What might be valuable to some isn’t to others, he explained, saying local history buffs like him will pay more for something that’s related to Belen.
One of his most prized possessions is a $500 check made out in the year 1880 from Don Felipe “El Millionario” Chavez to John Becker’s brother, Frederick Becker, who was in charge of the railroad at the time. When fellow historian, history professor and author Richard Melzer saw the check, he told Sloan it was probably the most valuable item in his collection.
“I only paid $1.79 for it,” Sloan said. “I don’t know what it was for, but it was for $500, which was a lot of money back then. To me, it’s invaluable, but to anyone else who doesn’t value Belen history, it doesn’t mean anything to them.”
As Sloan collected anything and everything about Belen — from calendars to matchbooks — his love of the city and its people grew. The research became an addiction, he says, as he would look at numerous auctions every day.
“I have a good memory for some things and a bad for others,” he said, laughing. “I can remember things from when I was a year and a half old — I proved it to my mom, but I remember a lot of different events and people, and photos bring a lot of that back.”
Photos are worth a lot to Sloan, so when he was brought on board as the volunteer historian at the Belen Harvey House Museum, he was like a kid in a candy store.
He started archiving the thousands of photos in the museum’s possession, as well as much more that the Valencia County News-Bulletin donated to the Harvey House a few months ago.
Shari Pierce Allen, a friend who nominated Sloan as an Unsung Hero, said, “He spends countless hours repairing museum exhibits; he consults with the mayor, Richard Melzer and others on special projects, and he helped with the prep work to put the old City Hall building on the state (and national) historic register,” Allen said. “So prices won’t break the budget, he regularly checks online auctions to obtain equipment needed to run and maintain the museum. Because of these purchases, the museum has file cabinets and other equipment it would have to do without because of budget restrictions.”
Allen also praised Sloan for giving tours of historic places and buildings in Belen, all of this is without any pay.
“He is completely committed to Belen and the Harvey House Museum,” she adds. “The whole city benefits from Jim’s love of and devotion to Belen.”
Sloan says the Hub City has a long, rich history. He says the heritage continues to make Belen a unique place. Having attended to history for years, Sloan hopes others will continue to treasure local life stories of Belen.
“Why me?” Sloan asked of why he was nominated and chosen as a 2019 Unsung Hero. “I love it. It’s actually been a goal of mine since seeing in the paper years ago. I thought it would be great — a legacy.
“It’s a great honor, but I embarrass easily,” he said. “I don’t want to be famous, I just enjoy what I’m doing.”
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.