BY NORMAN ROZEFF
Harlingen, in its 112 year-history, has been fortunate to have had many capable mayors. Among them was the dynamic, self-made man, Hugh Thomas Ramsey. His is a story worth recounting.
This native of the small town of Milford, Ellis County, was born on February 5, 1894. The family farm, however, may have been just over the county line in Hill County, Texas, as this is noted as his birth county in some of Ramsey’s documents. His parents were Texas-born Francis Arthur Ramsey, a farmer, and his Missouri-born homemaker wife Mary E. Holliway.
Hugh was one of two children of the Ramsey’s, his sister Bessie being nine years younger. From the 1910 U.S. Census taken in May, we learn that Hugh, at age 16, has already left school and is employed as a laborer. The teenager joined the Army in 1913 and was stationed in the Valley in 1916. In World War I he served overseas with the Texas 36th Infantry Division before being discharged in 1919.
The census of January 1920 would find him a boarder in Waxahachie (20 miles northeast of Milford) and employed as a carpenter. At this time he may have been working with a possible cousin, Walter Bruce Ramsey, who was a carpenter involved in construction in Waxahachie and would later move to Harlingen where he was also involved in building.
Once moved to Harlingen in 1925, Hugh readily found work as a builder in the fast growing city central to the shipment of produce from the Valley. He apparently did fiscally well for the April 23, 1930 census of Harlingen indicates that the 36 year old is living in a $9,000 house at 602 W. Buchanan. He is married to 41 year old Lola Jane Brackett Ramsey, and they have a 4 year old daughter, Martha Dean.
Hugh Thomas Ramsey is elected Mayor in 1936, then re-elected for four consecutive terms, and again to serve 1948 to 1950. His terms of office are: 12/8/36 to 12/16/46 and 12/15/48 to 12/15/50.
By the late 30s Ramsey is owner of a furniture store bearing his name and is also a general contractor.
7/11/37 There is an acute shortage of apartments and no houses available. While house construction picked up the first four months of the year building materials are scarce at present. The city’s popula- tion is said to be 16,000 now and growing.
11/37 When the 16th Valley Mid-Winter Fair is held in Harlingen late in the month, Fair officials are Stanley B. Crockett, president, Bob Adams, Jack King, A.L. Benoist, and D.E. Ewing, vice presidents, Hugh Ramsey, W.P. Briscoe, H.A. Swafford, S.D. Grant, R.L. Hill, directors and Sidney Kring, secretary-treasurer. Prize money totals $3,500 while admissions remain 25 and 15 cents.
1/38 V.J. Eckelkamp is appointed as the first ever city manager. On February 4 the city, now with a population of 12,124 and under the Council-Manager form of city government, puts the new city manager into operation. The 1927 charter sets the maximum salary for this position at $7,500 a year, far above any salary a manager at the time would reasonably receive. Eckelkamp resigns effective 8/1/38. Mayor Ramsey was not open to sharing power and decisions with any city manager. It is not until 1/47 when W.P. Briscoe is appointed that the position is again filled.
1939 St. Alban’s parish builds a more sizable sanctuary at the corner of 11th and Van Buren. Contractor Hugh Ramsey builds the brick edifice for $8,500 and at no profit to himself. It will be enlarged and remodeled in 1946. The old church, now to be used as a parish hall, will be moved behind the new one. The church’s first rectory, at 718 E. Van Buren, will be purchased in 5/42.
Ramsey indicates on the 1940 Harlingen census that he is both mayor and contractor, however he only puts his mayorial compensation down at $2,400 in the earnings column. By this year the family has moved to 901 E. Filmore and a more modest house valued at $4,250.
9/40 Mayor Hugh Ramsey makes a definitive proposal to the War Department to establish an Army Air Field at Harlingen. On 6/17/40 he had reported to the C of C that land suitable for a base had been pinpointed and that the city was attempting to acquire it.
1941 Mayor Ramsey and Harlingen City Commissioners J.L. Head, Guy Leggett, Bouldin C. Mothershead, W. E. Gaines, W. C. Anderson, and Arthur Dabney together with U.S. Senators Tom Connally and Morris Shepherd go to Washington to present the city’s plans to the War Department.
3/41 Army Air Corps officials in Washington announce approval of Harlingen Air Training Base and on May 6 this is confirmed when Connally telegraphed from the Capitol that the War Department had officially announced its choice of Harlingen as a site of an air base under the U.S. Army Air Corps “30,000 Year Pilot Training Program”.
“Authority was granted to begin construction as soon as possible. Mayor Ramsey then entered into negotiations with Major L. H. Hewitt of the Corps of Engineers, and on May 31, 1941, signed a lease between the City of Harlingen and the U. S. Government. The city agreed to rent 960 acres of land adjacent to the city for $1 a year for 24 years, subject to renewal and bearing an option for purchase at $75 per acre. The lease was approved by the Adjutant General on June 14, 1941. That same month, the Adjutant General gave approval authorizing the construction of a flexible gunnery school here, allocating $3,770,295 for the project.”
7/41 Harlingen Army Airfield is established for the training of gunnery students. By 1945 more than 48,000 gunners have utilized the facility, now the Valley International Airport. With its palm-lined streets and flowering shrubs it was known as the “showplace of the air force.”
5/8/43 Mayor Hugh Ramsey declares “Aerial Gunner Day” in Harlingen honoring the premier of the motion picture Aerial Gunner which was set and partially filmed at the Harlingen Army Aerial Gunnery School. Robert Mitchum, who played a very small role in the film, would go on to become a major Hollywood star.
1945 The City purchases the Municipal Water Plant and System from the Central Power and Light Company for $575,000. To finance this purchase the City voted and issued $850,000 in revenue bonds and to secure the bonds, a trust indenture or mortgage was given on the entire water system. The balance of the bond funds would be used for future system expansion.
The City Commission then created a Board of Trustees to take charge of the properties and management of the entire operations. The first board included J. Lewis Boggus, Hill Cocke, Sr., Earl Breedlove, and Mayor Hugh Ramsey. Gene McCullough was named recorder and attorney for the board.
In 1945 city voters also overwhelmingly passed a $575,000 bond issue for needed city improvements including remodeling of the city hall, erecting a new fire station, storm and sewer extensions, etc.
In such a long-tenured service there had to be some controversy about the mayor’s rule. It came when The Committee Favoring City-Manager Form of Government ran a full-page advertisement in the Valley Morning Star. In part it read: “How HUGH RAMSEY’S ‘One-Man Government’ Favored Ramsey and His Political Cronies. On May 15, 1945, on motion by City Commissioner Bouldin Mothershead, the city commission took legal measures to force Mayor Hugh Ramsey to cease political favoritism in issuing tax exemptions. The minutes of the commission meeting instructing the tax collector to “collect all interest and penalty on taxes without exception beginning July 1, 1945” were signed by Mayor Hugh Ramsey. Yet, without the knowledge of the city commission, and AFTER the specified date, Mayor Ramsey made deal … etc.”
1/1/46 The “Pivot City” shows record breaking bank deposits at $15 million for 1945, a growth of almost $5 million over 1944. Bank deposits over the decade reflect the importance of the coming of the military to the city. They have been: 1935 $1.015 million; 1936 $ 1.383; 1937 1.825; 1938 1.747; 1939 1.872; 1940 2.098; 1941 2.487; 1942 4.173; 1943 6.238 and 1944 9.580. Building permits will edge over $600,000 for the year.
2/46 Harlingen Army Airfield is deactivated and formally taken over by the city on March 21. On 3/21/46 the field is taken over by the city. 9/7/46 Harlingen Field dedicated as a municipal airport by Rear Admiral C.A.F. Sprague, commander of the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station. From this field is flown the first air cargo ever from the Valley. It is a planeload of strawberries for Canada.
2/1/49 Taking the place of Bill Briscoe (city manager) who resigned is 54 year old R.J. Brule, former city manager/engineer for 18 years in Navasota, TX. This Palestine native, veteran and experienced government employee starts work in Harlingen as the city’s manager and also city engineer, a position just relinquished by Alfred Tamm. His salary is $6,000 a year plus $900 for automobile expenses.
He resigns 10/20/50 and the position is filled on an acting basis by city secretary F. R. Lucas until January 1951 when L.M. Crow, Jr. is permanently appointed. Mayor Hugh Ramsey, who was returned to office in 1948 after an interval and, had in the past personally handled city management and engineering, so was apparently stubbornly reluctant to give up power.
In the 1950s Ramsey was likely then involved in the real estate business at Ramsey and Hull with his likely cousin, Walter Bruce Ramsey, builder of the Ramsey Apartments. At this time he and his wife are living in an apartment at 523 ½ N, 1st Street, but by the time he becomes, at first, a port director for the Arroyo Colorado Navigation District in 1952 and. then later in 1954, its secretary, he resides at 1622 E. Taylor Avenue.
Ramsey died on August 20, 1971, in the Valley Baptist Hospital. He has been stricken with pneumonia for six days but had experienced chronic granulocytic leukemia for some time. He was buried in the Mont Meta Cemetery, San Benito. His wife, Lola died in January 1977 and their only child, Martha Dean Ramsey Hull in June 2008.
Despite his somewhat autocratic tendencies, Ramsey was re-elected by the electorate of Harlingen time and time again. Obviously they were satisfied with his leadership and the progress that the city was experiencing.
Ramsey was a member of the First Baptist Church and the Rotary Club for over 24 years. The Hugh Ramsey Nature Park on Loop 499 near the East Harrison Avenue intersection is named in his honor.