Part II: From green sugar cane fields to golf greens

LLANO GRANDE LAKE PARK RESORT: ONCE THE LLANO GRANDE PLANTATION

BY NORMAN ROZEFF

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second part in a two-part series by local historian Norman Rozeff. Part one can be found at www.ValleyStar.com.

Cane was planned for the area south of Llano Grande Lake. Walter C. Shaw, who was in charge of the project, employed engineer Arvid Franke of Brownsville to draw up plans for clearing the area and laying it out for irrigation. Walter C. Shaw, not to be confused with American Rio Grande Land and Irrigation engineer William Francis Shaw, over time is a local front man for for various out-of-state investors.

In April 1912 W. C. Shaw, who had come to the Valley around 1910 to be manager of the Piper Plantation just east of Brownsville, reportedly purchased the Brulay interests near Southmost. [Actually Shaw was the front man for a New York copper magnate named Heinz. The paper reported that he would operate it together with the Piper Plantation of 389 acres. He did not operate the mill however.]

Hiram Hart of the Sunset Sugar Company which participated in the deal indicated that plans were to move swiftly into a 1,500 acre planting of sugarcane. He indicated to the press that Borderland had 2,700 acres of cane to grind in 1916-17 and wanted 5,000 by 1917-18. Existing mills could handle up to10,000 acres of cane.

By the end of August 1916 capital in Borderland, incorporated in Delaware, was raised by one-half million dollars to two million. Borderland’s leadership suffered a blow when at the beginning of February 1917 its president Stanley P. Gifford suffered a sudden appendicitis attack and died in Brownsville. The plantation manager Shaw accompanied Mrs. Gifford and the body back to New York.

Mr. Shaw oversaw the planting of 500 acres of sugarcane by Borderland at Llano Grande by April. Borderland was still talking of moving up to 8,000 acres of cane at Llano Grande. At this time it had a total of 900 acres of cane at Santa Maria, Progreso, and Llano Grande and was pushing for 600 additional acres at the two former locations.

While Hart indicated a smaller acreage for the 1920-21 season, he was optimistic about future expansion in sugarcane acreage. His projected cane acreage for the season was 500 at Donna, 500 on William Bancroft’s [He was the cane machinery manufacturer of New Orleans] Llano Grande Plantation, 200 in other parts of the Valley including 150 near Brownsville. W. C. Shaw planned to plant another 200 acres at Llano Grande where Bancroft had just spent $40,000 in buildings, a commissary, a plantation house for Walter Shaw and his family, and other buildings for employees. [The site is currently east of the USDA substation on FM1015, just north of the floodway, and currently encompasses the very large Llano Grande RV Resort.] Four hundred individuals were working here.

In April 1913 the Texas Department of State issued a permit to the Southern Irrigation and Sugar Company of Portland, Maine to do business in Texas. It would be capitalized with $2 million stock. W. C. Shaw was listed as its Texas agent.

Several weeks later the San Benito Sugar Manufacturing Company filed suit in the 53rd District court against W. C. Shaw of Cameron County, F. Augustus Heinz of New York, the Southern Sugar and Irrigation Company, and others for notes aggregating $175,000. These notes were executed in payment of land sold to the defendants by the plaintiff. The petition also asked for the appointment of a receiver to take charge of the mill and property of the irrigation and sugar companies.

In June a judge found no case for appointing a receiver or granting an injunction. An original case for $300,000 was still pending adjudication. In July 1913 additional indications that the company was in trouble came when a court order was issued to auction 64.81 acres in order to repay August Ehrhardt a $5,000 promissory note carrying 8 percent interest.

The following month the Borderland Sugar Corporation was incorporated in Delaware with a $500,000 capitalization. W. C. Shaw, who had lost the Brulay place, the Piper Plantation, and the San Benito mill in an attempt to consolidate sugar interests, was now ironically listed as the state agent for the company.

He told the newspaper media that there was about 900 acres of cane presently in the Valley and that Borderland controlled most of it. Hiram V. Hart, who with Borderland, controlled most of the sugar industry in the area, was an investor. Reportedly more capital was sought in Texas Charter #2450 which authorized $500,000 in stock of 5,000 shares. This was 2/6/15. On 8/20/16, a filing was made to increase stock to $2,000,000.

By the 1917-18 sugarcane harvest season only one of six sugar mills that once existed in the Valley was processing cane. This was at Donna and was to close its doors forever after the 1921-22 harvest season.

W. M. Bancroft was still president of the Llano Grande Plantation Company in 1927 when it sold 16 tracts to Agnes Harwood and others, lands which under the Progreso Development Company would be platted as Progreso and Lion Lake subdivisions.

Elizabeth E. Shaw, wife of Walter, would be secretary of the board of directors of the Hidalgo County Water and Irrigation District No. 5 that provided the Progresso area with irrigation water. For reasons unknown, but possibly related to economic matters, Walter C. Shaw, at age 50, committed suicide with a gun in December 1926.

Mississippi-born, in 1881, Miss Mildred Bridges was responsible for the construction, in the late 1920s, of the attractive two-storied house on the property near the south end of what is now Mile 2 West Road. It was designed by a locally prominent architect named Roscious Newell Waters, who also designed the Donald Amos Warner Sr. home across the road.

For over two decades Miss Bridges took charge of the citrus groves that surrounded her house. It was built in the Spanish Renaissance Style. It has a clay tile roof and is constructed of bricks, painted white as was common in this area in the 1920s. The house has four rooms and one bath downstairs, and the same on the second floor. It has a beautiful stairway and Saltillo tile floors on the first floor and original oak floors on the second story.

Most likely the bricks used for construction were from Toluca Ranch, which still stand today off FM 1015. In the summer months cooking was conducted in a temporary kitchen to the rear of the main house. In 1928 the golf course clubhouse was designed for Harold Lehman by Mr. Waters as well and constructed for $20,000.

Upon Miss Bridge’s death on March 4, 1977 the property came into the possession of her nephew general practitioner Dr. Marion Russell Lawler of Mercedes. He would later move into the house.

Dr. Lawler, born January 2, 1906, was one of seven children born to day laborer Marion Lawler and his wife Martha, who resided on old FM 62. Within the town of Mercedes, Dr. Lawler had resided at 1510 Missouri Avenue. He was to die in May 1987, and the property came into the hands of his son Dr. Marion Lawler Jr.

In 1975 Dr. Marion R. Lawler Jr., a heart surgeon practicing in Harlingen, was to sell the 500 acre property to the Hynes Group, a British Columbia-based development company headed by Stephen and Donna Hynes. This group, by 2016, operated 14 sites around the country. The development of the Llano Grande site began around 1985. Today the 134 acre park has well-paved roads, more than 1,000 mobile homes, three swimming pools, gazebos, a doggie park, tennis courts, pool hall, art studio, wood shop, and a gorgeous golf course among other amenities for the 55 and over community. The golf course occupies 188 acres while the remainder continues in citrus groves and farmland.

The former Bridges/Lawler home serves as the office of the resort that employs more than 20 full-time workers. Recently completed is a new $2.5 million 15,000-square-foot event center designed with 700 seats in theater style. It is named the Hynes Event Center. 200 additional acres to the north afford room for further expansion opportunities.

The city of Mercedes and its Economic Development Corp. inked an agreement to reimburse the resort up to $250,000 over two years for infrastructure improvements on site, like a new water line, and “Since the water line cost was not part of our capital improvement budget the company agreed to undertake and pay for the cost (upfront),” said Richard Garcia, city manager for Mercedes in February 2015.