March 2003

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Rio Grande Valley, Texas

Just to bring you up-to-date on the area we're in, I'll give you a little historical perspective of the Rio Grande Valley.  It is commonly thought of as Texas' four southernmost counties, has had a rich and varied history.  For 160 years, the Rio Grande, or "Great River," has acted as an international border and seen its share of conflict.  The last battle of the Civil War was fought a stone's throw from the river's mouth at Brownsville's Palmito Ranch.  As late as 1920, Pancho Villa was antagonizing U.S. troops with border raids.

Let's look at some of the towns that make up the 'Valley' from a historical perspective as well as how the future looks.  Brownsville, McAllen and Harlingen, are the Valley's three largest cities, in order, are tied together by U.S. Highway 83 and its parallel railroad system, along which most Valley towns sprang up around the turn of the century.  

Brownsville (pop. 140,000) is a seaport and port of entry from Matamoros, Mexico.  Established as Fort Taylor, after General Zachary Taylor, the settlement had its name changed to Fort Brown in 1846 after Major Jacob Brown became the first to die in battle there when he was hit on the leg by a cannon ball.  Brownsville's past has been both colorful and lively as the city passed from a frontier town to an international center of commerce without ever losing its sense of tradition or abandoning the charm of its friendly bicultural heritage.  It is the home of the Gladys Porter Zoo and the Valley Wing of the Confederate Air Force.  The former Fort Brown is now the site of the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College.  It has a growing industrial area and its seaport, serving South Texas and Northern Mexico, brings ships from all parts of the world to the tip of Texas.

McAllen (pop. 107,000) is the upper Valley's largest city, a financial center with a booming retail industry.  The city, founded in 1904, was named for Scottish-born Army Captain John McAllen, a Matamoros businessman who moved to Hidalgo County after the Civil War and bought 80,000 acres of land there.  In addition to its preeminence as a major port of entry with Mexico, a vital retail and wholesale center and a major health care center in South Texas, McAllen also boasts an excellent arts and science museum and a full calendar of cultural events.  As a mecca for winter visitors, the city also has the distinction of being the "Square Dance Capital of the World."

Harlingen (pop 58,000) lies at a crossroads in the Valley between U.S. 77 which leads to Corpus Christi and U.S. 83 which follows the Rio Grande to Laredo and beyond.  Harlingen was named for the Holland home of Colonel Uriah Lott, a founder of the city along with Lon Hill.  For years, Harlingen suffered from such nicknames as "Holland Gin" and "Howlin' Gin."  The Marine Military Academy is located here and boasts the original Iwo Jima Monument from which the Arlington, Virginia, statue was cast.  The city's excellent medical center and related facilities off services once found only in the largest metropolitan areas.  It also has the main technical college in the Valley.  Harlingen's revitalized historical area, the Jackson Street District, features architecture from the 1920s-50s.  The palm-lined business district features quaint restored storefronts, old-fashioned street lamps and sidewalk benches and masses of colorful flowers.  Stores sell antiques, apparel, collectibles, crafts, country treasures, flowers, furniture, jewelry and works of art.  Like anchor stores in a mall, these three cities have many other towns which have grown up between and around them, each with its own distinct personality.

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Northeast of Brownsville is Los Fresnos enroute to the shrimping and fishing town of Port Isabel.  Across the Laguna Madre is the resort mecca of South Padre Island, which draws thousands of tourists from across North America each year.  It is renowned as a magnet for "Spring Breakers."  Between Brownsville and Harlingen lies quaint San Benito, once known as "the Resaca City" for its reservoirs.  It was actually named for Ben Hicks, owner of the original townsite, whose nickname was "Don Benito."  Northeast of Harlingen is quiet Rio Hondo enroute to the Arroyo Colorado, the only other river in the region.  Further north is the ranching and farming community of Raymondville.  The Willacy County seat and gateway to the Valley on U.S. 77.  Due east of Raymondville you will find the angler paradise of Port Mansfield.

Between McAllen and Harlingen lies Pharr, named for Louisiana sugar grower H. N. Pharr.  The city is home to more than 10,000 Winter Texans each year and the Pharr/Reynosa International Bridge.  San Juan, named by the wife of John Closner for their San Juan Plantation, is home to the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan Del Valle National Shrine that yearly draws Roman Catholic pilgrims to its mystic holdings.  Alamo had several names, including "Ebenezer," before its citizens settled on the name in 1919.  The popular Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge is located south of Alamo on U.S. 281.  Pharr, San Juan and Alamo form a single school district and are supported largely by agriculture.

Donna was named after Donna Hooks Fletcher, the daughter of one of 10 men who made up the La Blanca Agricultural Company that established the area's first irrigation system and opened the land for farming.  Weslaco, short for the W. E. Stewart Land Company, is the geographic center of the Valley and is therefore a center for business throughout the Valley and a focal point for Valley nature tourism.  The town has a population of 27,000 with a market area that encompasses 160,000 mid-Valley residents.  Mercedes sits astride a floodway of the Rio Grande.  Location, location, location is the watchword here as the town's site in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley and its natural attractions have created a bustling economy.  Mercedes draws over 160,000 visitors each year to its famous weeklong Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show held every March.

La Feria, "the fair," was reportedly home to indians in ancient times.  This friendly community is supported by the rich land that surrounds it and produces year-round crops.  Edinburg, 10 miles north of McAllen on U.S. 281, is the Hidalgo County seat and home of the University of Texas-Pan American.  It was named (though misspelled) for the capital of John McAllen's native Scotland.  South of McAllen on the border with Reynosa, Mexico, is the original Edinburg, later renamed Hidalgo for Father Hidalgo of Mexican Revolution fame.  The county records were transported to present-day Edinburg under cover of darkness.  East of Edinburg on State Highway 107 is another string of smaller towns that parallel U.S. 83.  San Carlos, Elsa, Edcouch, La Villa and Santa Rosa supply labor for the surrounding sugar cane industry.

Monte Alto and Hargill in the northern mid-Valley are a little off the beaten path, but some Winter Texans prefer that.  West of McAllen is Mission, named for La Lomita Mission built in 1865 on the river south of the city.  Mission is the home of the Ruby Red Grapefruit and is so popular with Winter Texans that its population doubles during the winter months.  La Joya marks a distinct difference in the South Texas landscape as the terrain grows hillier and rockier through Sullivan City, on to Rio Grande City, the Starr County seat that grew up around Fort Ringgold and Roma.  Roma, named in 1848 for Major Roman, a volunteer in the Mexican War, was once the head of a 19th century steamboat operation.  It is a popular day trip for Valley tourists interested in its historic buildings.  

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So you can see that we've spent the last days of winter and the first few days of spring in a wonderful place.  Plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit.  Lot's of history, inexpensive (we don't buy cheap stuff) food and gasoline.  By the way, we bought gas yesterday and paid $1.509 a gallon.  Not too bad compared to some of the prices we've seen on TV.  Now, if we could just bring that price with us as we head East.  We are finishing up our stay and will be underway again tomorrow.  Our next update will be, next month, from Livingston, Texas, our (on paper) home.  I'll leave you with one final picture.  This sign is just before you enter the causeway leaving South Padre Island.  If you look real close you can see that the sign IS flashing.

In case you can't read the sign, it say's, "Watch for Pelicans when flashing."