Devoted volunteer keeps Belen museum running smoothly
Story by Amanda Schoenberg Photos by Greg Sorber Of the Journal
BELEN May 2010 — Maurine McMillan began what would be an 18-year volunteer post at the Harvey House Museum because of a layer of dust.
In 1992, the museum was open two afternoons a week and artifacts were crowded in one room. McMillan, 82, noticed the dust and asked if she could do something about it. Soon she was helping at the museum, even washing black-and-white Harvey girl by .
“It was January, what else was I going to do?” she says. “I was retired.”
McMillan soon was hooked on Harvey House history. She started volunteering regularly and became co-director with Julie Van Valen in 1996. A year later McMillan became sole director, working six days a week to keep the growing museum running.
British immigrant Fred Harvey started the elegant Harvey House eateries for train passengers in 1878. They soon spread to towns across the West.
At the Harvey House in Belen from 1910-1939, “girls” in crisp uniforms served lunch and dinner and slept upstairs. During World War II, the building was used to prepare food for troop trains, says Richard Melzer, professor of New Mexico history at the University of New Mexico and author of “Fred Harvey Houses of the Southwest.”
The building was used as a rooming house and reading room from 1954-1978. It was then used by the city, which gave the Valencia County Historical Society a small area for the museum. The museum expanded into the former lunchroom in 1997.
McMillan knows the history well. “Everything has a story,” she says.
Walk the rooms with her and you may soon share her enthusiasm. In a stairway, McMillan says, “This is where the girls would eat their lunch.”
She gestures upstairs. “If you got a spot on your apron you ran up here and got another one,” she says.
On the second floor she shows a room that will house a replica of a 1920s beauty shop. During her tenure, the museum has received many historic finds — recent gifts include an iron from the early 1900s and a 1920s toaster.
But artifacts are only part of the appeal of her work. When former Harvey girls and railroad men visit, she asks them to share their stories in a little red book she keeps at the museum counter.
“It’s not only artifacts, but meeting people,” she says.
Honored for work
McMillan’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed.
She was named 2008 Citizen of the Year by the Greater Belen Chamber of Commerce and honored with a star in the Heart of Belen pavilion on Becker Street. She was awarded the Pioneer Award by the New Mexico Commission on the Status of Women last year at the annual Extension Association of New Mexico meeting.
Melzer, a professor at UNM’s Valencia campus who volunteers at the museum, has known McMillan more than 20 years. Melzer calls her a “great organizer” who runs the museum smoothly with her team of volunteers.
“She cleaned us all up,” he says. “We kid around about her being the boss. But the volunteers needed it.”
Melzer says McMillan comes to work “at least” six days a week. She tackles everything from plugging leaks to organizing schedules.
Close friend Cindy Robison says McMillan is always willing to do what she can to make things run well.
“If she knows how to do it, she’s in charge,” she adds, laughing.
McMillan is from rural Shelby County, Ill. She attended Eastern Illinois University and worked as a teacher. She says she could have been a Harvey girl herself if not for her mother and grandmother, who pushed her toward college.
Her mother and grandmother were active in the cooperative extension service in Shelby County, teaching others to quilt and preserve and starting a hot lunch program. McMillan soon joined — she has volunteered with extension programs since 1956. She and her late husband then left Illinois for Los Alamos, where she joined the American Association of University Women, ran its preschool for three years, worked as a part-time office manager and started a Los Alamos Chapter of the Embroiderers’ Guild of America. She is also active in the New Mexico Quilters’ Association.
Robison, a past president of the Extension Association of New Mexico, says McMillan embodies a pioneer spirit.
“She’s enthusiastic about everything she does,” Robison says. “She’s just a phenomenal lady.”
McMillan credits her organizational skills to watching her mother and grandmother when she was a child. “We had big families, so you had to figure out how you were going to get everything done,” she says.
In 1987, the McMillans moved to Belen, where her volunteer work trickled into her personal life.
“My husband and I took off and followed the railroad,” she says. “All the way to Galveston. The next year, why we followed it all the way to Topeka and Kansas City.”
McMillan has big plans. She’d like a paid director to take her spot at the museum; someone trained to care for historic materials.
But she isn’t planning on leaving soon. She says her sons want her to keep busy while her health is good. And she is gearing up for the 100th anniversary of the building in June.
McMillan says she is proudest of her work connecting the museum with the community through a rotating gallery that has included fiber artists, painters and model trains.
“I’ve really made an effort in terms of getting out there in the community,” she says. “We want the museum to be some place people will come and enjoy. They’ll probably learn something. If not, why, they’ll see something different.”