BY NORMAN ROZEFF
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first part in a two-part series by local historian Norman Rozeff. Part two will appear in next Sunday’s edition of the Valley Morning Star.
The Llano Grande Lake Park Resort is one of the Valley’s largest recreational vehicle parks. It has numerous amenities including the adjacent Llano Grande Golf Course of 18 holes and 6,700 yards.
As adjudicated in the year 1790, Jose Maria Balli Guerra was the original grantee of the Llano Grande (Spanish for Great Plain) tract. Before being able to claim it, he died, but his wife, Doña Rosa Marie Hinojosa de Balli had been willed the La Feria Grant with its twelve leagues (53,140 acres) and also three leagues of the Llano Grande Grant. With her astute business acumen she would go on to accumulate even more land and come to be called the first “cattle queen” of Texas and “La Patrona “ for her many charitable endeavors.
It was in 1903 that John Closner bought a 1,466 acre parcel in the Progreso area for $2.00 an acre. He continued to accumulate land in this area, eventually selling 20,000 acres to J. P. Withers of Beaumont and Sherman, Texas for $2.50 an acre. [Closner was a pioneer land developer and one of the first to initiate large scale irrigation from river water in Hidalgo County. He amassed much land while sheriff of the county as individuals failed to pay real estate taxes on properties that were owned by multiple holders.]
Part of the sold land included 6,296.21 acres that would later be part of the Llano Grande Plantation holdings. This acreage was out of Shares Nos. 3 and 4 of the Dupouy Partition of 1848 of the Llano Grande Grant.
The coming of the railroad to the Lower Rio Grande Valley in 1904 and its immediate extension west to beyond Mission opened the door to large scale private irrigation projects. Soon giant canals were being constructed from one end of the Valley to the other. Earlier canals had been instituted in Brownsville and Santa Maria to be followed by one servicing newly created McAllen.
One of the next tier of canal companies to get started was the Llano Grande Land and Irrigation Company of San Antonio. It was chartered with a capital stock of $250,000. By December of 1904 J. P. Withers, the conceiver of the company, had constructed [present Texas A&M Experiment Station grounds, Weslaco] a 15 room lodging house to accommodate the engineers and workers expected. He was already promoting prospective land sales when he submitted a testimonial letter boasting his dry land crop yields.
It would take Withers until 1907 before he commenced building the Llano Grande Canal to water his Casa Blanca Plantation in the Progreso area and up to 3,469 acres lying between Lion Lake at Progreso and Llano Grande Lake to the north. He intended to subdivide and sell the parcel in lots of about 40 acre size.
In 1926 Rentfro and Cole, attorneys-at-law, published an abstract of titles relating to the Llano Grande. In it the dogged reader may be able to decipher the many convoluted dealings of numerous parties to the plantation’s evolution and disposition, starting with the 1903 sale by Peter Champion and his wife Gumecinda Champion de Cano of their San Pedro Ranch to developer John Closner.
P. E. Blalack, who divided his time between Brownsville and San Antonio, must have been making some money other than in the Valley or was independently wealthy, for in September 1905 the society page noted that he and his wife had left for a lengthy excursion to Colorado and the Pacific Northwest. In 1907 he and his wife Viola were listed in the San Antonio city directory at 820 Wyoming.
His real estate transactions this year included his making a second mortgage loan of $10,000 to J. P. Withers on 10,000 acres of Llano Grande land. [Peter Ebenezer Blalack had first come to the Valley in 1898, recognized land values early on, and came to amass large holdings, and with partner George L. Hawkins. These included 32,000 acres just west of what later became the city of Alamo.
In 1908 they sold this property to the Alamo Land and Sugar Company. A railroad stop named Ebenezer once existed in the area. Blalack also owned over 7,000 acres of land six miles north of Brownsville on what is currently Paredes Line Road. He enticed a group of Columbus Ohio investors to construct a state of the art sugar mill on the property. This was the Ohio and Texas Sugar Company.]
Engineer and founder of the town of San Benito, Sam Robertson, was to write in his memoirs, “Following this February, 1905 trip, Mr. Yoakum placed quite a sum of money at my disposal and instructed me to get up further data on the irrigation project. He caused options to be taken on about 45,000 acres which Lon Hill, Sr. owned at Lonsboro and where Mercedes is now located, and they continued to option or purchase several more tracts including the Llano Grande or Withers Tract.
“They organized the American Rio Grande Land & Irrigation Company and elected Mr. Tom Carter president and Judge S. Silver, General Manager. Judge Silver came down in March, 1905 and I showed him over the project.”
On 2/18/09 a press release from the La Feria Sugar Company’s main office in Minneapolis was titled “Llano Grande Tract of 10,000 Acres Sold.” It went on to state that J. P. Withers sold the 10,000 acre tract to W. T. Adams of Karnes City, Mississippi who paid $300,000 for land, irrigation plant and residence.
It continued, “It is Mr. Adams intention to devote the greater part of the tract to sugar which will make this the largest sugar plantation in the lower Rio Grande Valley. The tract lies a few miles west of Mercedes and is one of the finest in the entire Valley.”
This same year the La Feria Sugar Company was to construct the La Feria Hotel, the second major building in the community, however the company never went so far as to construct a sugar mill.
It was on July 19, 1911, that Withers executed and delivered a promissory note for $10,000 for value received to certain members of the Foster Family of San Antonio. [The Foster financial dealings would later evolve into the Foster Bank of San Antonio.] Until re-payed the interest per annum would be 8 percent.
Withers was soon in default and had failed to pay the state of Texas $223.08 taxes on the land as well as $1,731.39 interest owed the Fosters. They later extended payment on 12/18/13. By January 1914 Withers again failed to pay taxes, interest or principle.
In July 1919, 553.43 acres of his Llano Grande lands were ordered for sale to recover $20,210.30 owed including some court costs.
After J. P. Withers was unsuccessful in developing the town of Llano Grande (a location along the railroad now near the intersection of FM 1015 and Business 83) he participated in numerous convoluted dealings involving the section known as the Casa Grande Plantation between Llano Grande Lake and the river.
In 1916 financier Hiram U. Hart takes control of about 3,300 acres of it through a lease with option to buy. [Hart has been involved in various Valley sugar enterprises including the struggling San Benito Sugar and Manufacturing Company.] He does the same with the adjacent 4,000 acre Fordyce Tract to its east. Hart in turn leases the land to the Borderland Sugar Co. that operates a sugar mill just south of Donna.
The land goes back and forth between the speculators and mortgage companies as the former need cash flow and uses the property as collateral. In 1919 William M. Bancroft, the Louisiana sugar machinery magnate, purchases both parcels for $21,346.32 in a Hidalgo County tax auction in Edinburg. A year later he sells 6,271 acres of the tracts to the Llano Grande Plantation Co. with its plans to grow sugarcane on it.
Bancroft is president of this entity. This company is organized under Louisiana laws and is headquartered in New Orleans. [Bancroft was one of three partners in the major sugar machinery foundry of Dibert, Bancroft and Ross at the corner of Tulane Avenue and South Jefferson Davis Parkway in New Orleans. The firm was to close in the 1960s and its structures were demolished.]