Book looks at the history of the town of Bernalillo - Albuquerque Journal

Book looks at the history of the town of Bernalillo

Bernalillo: Between the River and a Hard Place by Martha Liebert

Martha Liebert’s book “Bernalillo: Between the River and a Hard Place” spills over with nuggets on every page.

It ranges widely, recognizing the contributions of people dating from prehistory through the late 20th century.

Some of those singled out, like conquistador Don Diego de Vargas, are historic figures. De Vargas founded Bernalillo in 1690s on the flood plain at the mouth of the Jemez River, west of the Rio Grande. Others, like Abenicio Salazar, are obscure but noteworthy. Salazar, who lived from 1858 to 1941, was a master craftsman of adobe, brick and stone masonry, one of the great craftsmen of his time. He and skilled carpenter-roofer José Sena turned out an incredible amount of high-quality work in the town of Bernalillo and in outlying villages, Liebert writes.

Private homes, public and religious buildings in Sandoval County have borne the stamp of their craftsmanship.

The book notes that the largest remaining example of Salazar’s work is the 1922 two-story, 12,000-square-foot adobe Loretto High School first owned by the Sisters of Loretto. Today the school is used as a county office building and the former convent next to it is rented out for events, Liebert said in a phone interview. Salazar received national recognition. In 1980, a historic district in part of downtown Bernalillo bears his name and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Abenicio Salazar was a humble artisan whose superb workmanship testifies to the stature and character of the man,” the book states.

Martha Liebert

The book often takes the form of a scrapbook. It is packed with archival photographs of diverse subjects – newlyweds, family gatherings, sheep herders, cowboys, volunteer firemen, altar boys, elementary school classes, lumberjacks, saloon keepers and 100 or so men on break from cleaning acequias, and many more.

The people in the book aren’t just from Bernalillo. They’re also from villages such as Angostura, Peña Blanca and Hagan, a one-time coal-mining town east of the Sandias.

Liebert said her book has its origins in a New Mexico Humanities Council grant to the Sandoval County Historical Society in the 1970s.

The grant was for a photographic history of the county, she said, but a wealth of documents the society had collected over 44 years supplemented the images. “Many, many people contributed over that time with photographs and interviews and all manner of historical material,” she said.

Liebert, a self-described amateur historian, has been the society’s archivist for 40 years.

“The book is good for Bernalillo. It needs to be respected as a historic site as things become so business-oriented,” she said. Recipes, time lines and snapshots of life spice up the chapters.

An introductory paragraph in Chapter 13 refers to an unidentified old-timer recalling that Sandoval County politics was a law unto itself back in the so-called good old days. The paragraph gives readers food for thought about how bizarre local politics can be. Here’s one example: “Voters’ registrations were highly suspect, containing names of bygone residents and sheep.”

Here’s another example, unbelievable, yet perhaps believable. A couple seeking a divorce asked the County Clerk for marital advice. The clerk finds their recorded marriage, rips it up and declares, “There is no record of it now, so you don’t need a divorce.”

Liebert, a native of North Dakota, received a master’s degree in art from the University of New Mexico. At UNM, she met Joe Liebert of Bernalillo. They married and made their home there. The image on the book’s front cover is a painting by Martha Liebert.

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