John Closner, a Mixed Bag If Ever There Was One

Part IV: The mill closure and Closner’s political demise

By NORMAN ROZEFF, Special to the Star

According to the Handbook of Texas Online, “Closner gave Edinburg its first public school, served for years as president of the Edinburg State Bank and director of other Valley banks, and encouraged development of Edinburg’s irrigation system. In 1902 he started a private telephone system, which later developed into the Hidalgo Telephone Company.” It was in August 1908 that the Brownsville paper reported the sale of the Closner plantation; 7,000 acres were involved, 600 under cultivation including 400 in sugarcane. $250,000 was the price less Closner’s reserving the growing alfalfa and cane for the upcoming harvest. The buyers were Northern Colorado irrigated sugar beet growers from Fort Collins. Their intentions were to increase the pumping plant capacity and cane acreage.

The realty firm consummating the deal was the American Colonization Company. Closner expressed his intentions to re-invest his proceeds in a major canal project. The new 1908 owners included Dr. A. W. Roth, a former beet grower, F. G. Gregory, and Dr. J. W. Skinner. They invested $300,000 to put 600 acres in cane along with 160 in alfalfa. They increased the mill’s capacity to 450 tons per day with part of this investment. Ten months later this group, after incorporating a new San Juan Plantation Company, reported a sale to Otto M. Pratt, of Albany, New York for $237,000.

This encompassed 2,200 acres of the 7,000 purchased from Closner and the mill. The new owner was said to plan to develop a sugar enterprise. As the 1909-10 grinding season approached, E. J. Gregory, secretary and treasurer, reported little damage had been sustained from the flood waters which so devastated the Monterrey area and that the mill was being put in order.

By February 1910 additional sales by the syndicate of Roth, Skinner and Gregory were conducted. Apparently the sale to Pratt had not been consummated because it was announced the partners would retain 2,000 acres, the old mill and part of the plantation in cane. Charles E. Hammond would acquire 2,000 acres, John C. Kelly and W. R. Crim 2,500 with the remaining 500 acres to John G. Fernandez. The total price for the 7,000 acres was estimated at $225,000.In the second week of June 1910, parts of the property were again turned over. John J. Conway purchased 1,735 acres of the San Juan Plantation, 150 of which were in cane.

Along with the acreage came the sugar mill, farm machinery, 70 mules, and other improvements. Conway’s son Roy was said to manage the property. The 1911-12 harvest season was apparently the last for the San Juan mill. There was simply not enough cane in the surrounding area to warrant its opening the following year and to compete with the newer and larger Donna mill. Closner, who was first elected Hidalgo County Sheriff in 1890, served until 1912 at which time he became county treasurer.

In February 1918 an audit of the county finances appeared to indicate that he had misappropriated over $150,000 from the county drainage and school accounts. He was forced to resign. Adding to his woes was the perception by an Anglo segment, mostly newcomers to the county area, that Closner was pandering to Hispanics. Newt Dyer, a former cane grower of the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers, Inc. who farmed along the river south of Pharr, pointed out the location of Closner’s mill. It is on a small ranch site now owned by the widowed aunt of his wife Maggie. Peter Doffing’s wife, Maribel (Judy), has a small cottage with a historical marker on the house. It is located on Doffing Road. The site is reached by going south on the caliche road which extends FM 2557 south of Hwy. 281 as one comes from San Juan.

Just past the levee, one turns west on Doffing Road and goes one quarter mile when the levee diverges to the southeast. The property is to the south of this point. The foreman’s house built in 1904 provides the only structural remnants. The area formerly had, in addition to the mill, a post office, general store and pumping plant. A boiler-like cylindrical tank is still near the house and another from the old factory has been moved to another aunt’s (Josephine) house on Hwy. 281 south of Pharr.

John Closner’s marital and descendants status is complicated to say the least. He was, on the record, married three times with children born to his second and third wives. In addition he apparently had a forth and fifth family whose offspring took his surname though they weren’t officially his. They resided in Brownsville and in San Antonio. One, John Anaya Closner, a young Mercedes farmer, gave his life during Would War I. This division of Closners exists to this day. Closner, in 1923, moved to his wife’s hometown, Brownsville, and retired there.

He was to die of heart complications on June 3, 1932 and is interred in the Buena Vista Burial Park. The importance of Closner’s many enterprises, but especially sugarcane growing and raw sugar refining, should not be underestimated. It was his success which caught the attention of numerous other ambitious individuals. Mr. Closner was himself a shrewd promoter, who could only benefit from rising land prices and land sales, and he did.