BY NORMAN ROZEFF
The City of Harlingen is very fortunate to have in its midst a unique and useful institution. This is the Harlingen Arts and Heritage Museum. Its ever-changing story goes back over half a century.
It begins with a suggestion made by Eustacia “Sunshine” Hill Caul, city founder Lon C. Hill’s youngest daughter. She had been asked by 86-year-old John David Hanes to look at the historic artifacts and gun collection that he had acquired over a lifetime.
She recognized its value and urged him to make plans for its survival as a whole upon his death. He drew up his will in the year of his death at age 86. It was signed 29 June 1961.
Hanes, who had come to Harlingen from Indiana in 1916 to work as a carpenter here, was to die of lung cancer on September 14, 1961. In his will he bequeathed almost all of his personal property to the Harlingen Historical Society.
It had been several years earlier that the idea for a museum to highlight Lower Rio Grande Valley history was first presented to the Lower Rio Grande Valley Historical Association (LRGVHA) and others in 1959 when Dr. John E. Westburg, a history professor at Pan American University, contacted Harlingen City Manager Douglas Henslee and Harlingen Chamber of Commerce manager Jeff Bell to explain details of tentative plans. The original formative plans were for the Harlingen museum to feature Fine Arts and Botanical Gardens. The museum was already selling art works and had established a garden for the blind. Dr. Westburg’s plans were never totally brought to fruition.
4/10/62 Hale Schalebin of Edinburg offers the Paso Real Inn on the Arroyo Colorado and two acres surrounding it to the LRGVHA. No action is taken on this offer though thoughts are given to making the area surrounding the inn into a state park. This too is never brought to fruition.
1963 This year, at the request of City Librarian Verna McKenna, Howard Butt donates the former detention center of the old Harlingen Air Force Base (built in 1952) to house a gun collection which has been donated (by Hanes). A secure repository for the guns is a prime criterion. This soundly constructed building has 2,925 sq. ft. of space. Mrs. Butt also arranges a $500 donation from the Butt Foundation.
The individuals who were then to organize to properly display artifacts are Mrs. Mac Caul (Lon C. Hill’s daughter Eustacia), Cecil Carruth (businessman), Gene McCullough (attorney), Mrs. Gerald (Verna) McKenna, Bill Pletcher (nurseryman and city commissioner), Lee Richards (Hygeia Dairy), Mrs. Dorothy Washmon, and Mr. J. D. Werner (schoolteacher, city commissioner).
Thus begins the origins of the Rio Grande Valley Museum, an idea first contemplated in the late 1950s.
The initial name of the museum is the Landmarks Historical Society Museum, but, in 1968, this is changed to the Rio Grande Valley Museum. Curator Eleanor Gault, state representative Menton Murray, and Mrs. Caul are especially active in collecting local memorabilia. After much cleaning and the collection of artifacts, the museum has its formal opening in March 5, 1967 when its doors are opened to the public.
In December of that year, the Rio Grande Valley Historical Museum Association is organized. Its docents will, over time, prove to be the backbone of the museum. Mrs. Charles Washmon chairs the fund-raising committee which raises about $184,000 to create the RGV Historical Museum Complex.
The early directors of the museum set a high goal for the enterprise as is to be seen in the early Mission Statement and Museum Philosophy. These are:
1) To collect and display historic objects and information in order to preserve and conserve them and use them for interpretation and education on the unique blend that has made the Lower Rio Grande Valley magic.
2) To use these and other materials to demonstrate the fusion of the six nations, Native American tribes, and countless individuals that have contributed to the cultural evolution of Texas.
3) To interpret the natural history of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
4) To develop a supporting library of historic and archival materials.
5) To perform other related activities that further these purposes.
The philosophy of the Rio Grande Valley Museum is to be a resource, an asset and a contributing member of the Valley community. We intend to be an educational and learning center for all our citizens, encouraging and fostering an interest in the cultural history and natural history of our area. We will accomplish this with exhibits at the museum complex, educational and fun activities for all ages at the Museum and beyond, outreach programs at schools, centers, and other gatherings and with speakers on topics of interest. Our new addition will give us a base to continue the successful efforts of the past and build for the future.
Early directors of the Rio Grande Valley Museum Association were: President George Pletcher (nurseryman); Vice-president M.H. Connelly (insuranceman); Secretary Ruth Lara; and Treasurer Henry Griffin. Including these, there were 16 directors in all.
2/66 The City Commission passes an ordinance setting up a board to organize and direct activities of a museum.
3/72 The original Hill home next to the Municipal Auditorium is restored by the Junior Service League, Mrs. Bob Clark, chairman.
1973 What is salvageable of the dilapidated Paso Real Inn is moved from its original site to the Rio Grande Valley Museum complex and will be restored in 1976. It is also this year that the museum, previously operated by a volunteer staff, acquires a full time professional director. Previously volunteer curator Eleanor Galt handled this job as she will also do in the 1980s during a vacant position period. Most importantly Harlingen’s first hospital, on F Street, and owned by Lou Levine, is donated and moved to the museum.
1974 The Hill House is moved across Fair Park Blvd. after having been restored in 1971-72. Now on the south side of Fair Park Boulevard, attractive gardens are established around the home.
It was this year also that the museum was presented with a significant artifact. This was the Pineda Stone discovered by Navy reservists during an exploration at Boca Chica. The controversial stone attests to the landing of explorer Pineda at the mouth of the Rio Grande in the year 1519.
1976 The old first hospital and the Paso Real Stage Coach Inn are moved within the museum complex. November 6, 1976 sees the dedication of the restored (rebuilt) Paso Real Inn with its authentic 19th century furnishings.
Likely in 1976 Verna McKenna, longtime Harlingen librarian and a historian, puts down a written reminiscence of the origins of the Rio Grande Valley Museum. It was reprinted in the Valley Morning Star 75th Harlingen Anniversary Issue 4/14/85. It reads:
“The City Manager requested me to call a meeting of the Local History and Landmarks Committee and the Library Board to consider the organization and operation of a museum. Mrs. M. C. Caul [Lon C. Hill’s daughter Eustacia] had been willed a gun collection valuated at $3,000, and she wanted immediate action (on Mr. John Haines’ (sic) will).
It was explained that none of the city-owned buildings at the old HAAF Base were fireproof. Objections were made to using a frame building. It was explained that Building 565, the old stockade or jail was fire-proof, but it belonged to H. E. Butt [the retail grocery chain owner].
I went back to the library and called the HEB office in Corpus Christi and was told Mr. Butt was in conference.
Mrs. Butt called back, and said they would make out the deed to the City of Harlingen. I called the Mayor and the City Manager and told them the good news of the gift.
Considerable change had to be made to the interior of the building. This was undertaken by the Jaycees under the supervision of the City.
I promised the Harlingen Museum a tape of my experiences in Harlingen. Pan American University also asked me for an oral history.”