History of Harlingen
Lon C. Hill
Founder of Harlingen and Valley Developer, 19081
"Lon C. Hill was a true pioneer and one of the most forceful characters I have ever known. Surmounting obstacles was his life and he was never known to dodge a fight - whether it was via the six-shooter route, a legal courtroom battle or the type of political battle that was common to the Rio Grande country of Texas a generation ago.
While on a business trip to Brownsville, from Bee county, Texas, in the late nineties, Lon had his chance to look that country over and then came his dream. Man of action that he was, he immediately began to get his hands on all the land that he could.
....His first job of salesmanship was to persuade his friend B.F. Yoakum, of the Missouri Pacific Railroad system, to build a railroad from Corpus Christi to Brownsville with a branch line traversing what was to be later known as the "Valley". This valley line branched off the main line some twenty-five miles north of Brownsville, at a point where Lon had built his home. At this junction was born the township of Harlingen - known in the early days as "Six-Shooter Junction." This pseudonym was given the town due to the fact that its first Anglo-Saxon population consisted mostly on Texas Rangers, Border Patrolmen and Lon Hill. At Harlingen Lon Hill built a house, barn and corrals that was to be used as Texas Ranger headquarters. Company A of the force was then moved from Alice to Harlingen to take up the job of making the "Valley" a safe place in which to live and rear families.
....Some of us would argue with Lon Hill along this line: 'You are crazy - you can never have a town here: every time the Rio Grande gets on a rampage it comes down through old Tiocano Lake and floods this whole dame county stirrup deep. And besides how are you going to populate and keep up these towns you are promoting: what are the people going to eat - cactus apples and javelin hog?"
Old Lon would always say - "That's all right. We are going to levee that old river so she can't overflow. Then we are going to cut away this brush and cactus, build pumping plants on the river, canals and laterals. You just wait, this is the finest soil in the world and when we get water on it you will see a garden spot. You boys just clean out the lawless element, make it a safe place to bring people to, and leave the brush, cactus and water to me.
...Six-Shooter Junction had now developed into a Main Street town. Two general stores, Drug Store, Hardware Store, Barber Shop. Blacksmith Shop, four saloons, and of course, the house, barn and corrals that constituted Ranger headquarters.
Harlingen is no longer Six-Shooter Junction. It is a city with modern office buildings and air-conditioned hotels. The brush and cactus of the Valley has been displaced by glistening highways; prosperous towns and miles upon miles of blossoming citrus groves and gardens. Old Lon Hill's dream came through in a big way and I am proud that I was privileged to be present during the growing pain days, of the 'Magic Valley.3
Construction of the first Irrigation Canal in the Rio Grande Valley. Called Harlingen, No. 1, it was dug with mules, fresnos and had labor. The canal still retains the No. 1 designation but is now know as Cameron County No. 1.2
Harlingen in 1910
The date of April 15, 1910, marked the official founding of Harlingen, Texas, when the oath of office was administered to the Ike B. McFarland, mayor, and Commissioner John D. Hill and Homer N. Morrow.
The first meeting of the "Commission of Harlingen" was held that day. M.M. Osborn was appointed city clerk, assessor-collector, and treasurer of the commission.
A case in the Brownsville court brought Hill by stage to that city in 1900. As he rode about the country on horseback he observed that in a few isolated places Mexicans were growing abundant crops and various kinds of produce on small plots of land in resacas. He also observed that the bed of the Rio Grande was higher than the lands which sloped down from it on the Texas side which made gravity irrigation feasible. His first experiment in irrigation, made on a rented farm near the Nueces River, was successful and this fired his imagination for the development of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.4
BACK IN THOSE DAYS when Jackson street was called Main street. What seems to be a traffic light in the center of the picture is actually a street light. Traffic was limited and there was little need for traffic lights.8
Land Company Chartered
The Lon C. Hill Improvement Company was chartered August 10, 1903, and the following year the company became the Lon C. Hill Town Improvement Company with a capitalization of $200,000. Incorporators were Hill, Jim Dougherty and Dr. S. H. Bell. From time to time Hill added to his holdings and on September 10, 1907, he chartered the Harlingen Land and Water Company capitalized for $300,000 with Hill, John D. Hill (no relation), Miss Paul Hill, Dr S. H. Bell, and P.E. Blalock as incorporators In January, 1907 Hill began work on his irrigation system and by November 5, 1908, was able to make a certified statement that approximately 26 miles of canals were in a state of operation and approximately 75,000 acres were in irrigation or ready to be irrigated. He helped frame the state law that put into being the first irrigation district, Cameron County Irrigation District No. 1. Election returns filed on August 10, 1914, gives the date for its establishments.7
In January, 1905, the Hill family moved from Brownsville into the first home built in Harlingen, but without the lovely wife and mother and little George. Both had succumbed to typhoid fever the preceding November. The home is now a museum site. By September, a small frame house had been built near the Hill home for Harlingen's first school which opened with fourteen pupils, seven of whom were the Hill children. Three were children of Mr. Hill's sister, Mrs. J. C. McBee and Mr. McBee, Frank, John and Elizabeth; two of the Jones' children, Lynn and Etta, also Henry Bell and Katherine Weller, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. A. H. Weller, who were recent arrivals.
W. A. Francis, first teacher, 1905-07, later was head of the English Department of A & I College. Miss Johnnie Phipps was the second teacher and Miss Lillian Weems (Mr. Baldridge), the third, taught in 1908-09.
The little school building was also used for Sunday School and for an occasional church service when a circuit rider or a missionary minister of any denomination was available.9
When Harlingen's population numbered 1,126 in 1911 the city, then eligible under state law, voted a change to the city council form of government. H. D. Seago, presiding judge, certified that 26 votes were cast with E. L. Fender, Jacob Miller, and J. M. Denton, Dr. C. W. Letzerich. They with Mayor Cunningham became Harlingen's first city council.
In the city election of April 1912, L. S. Ross was elected mayor and A. H. Weller, J. M. Denton, M. V. Pendleton, former city clerk, H. A. Gibbs, and R. L. Chaudoin were elected aldermen. Osco Morris became city marshal and D. T. Kirkman, the new city secretary.
Mayor Ross, son of former Governor Sul Ross, famous Texas Ranger, was also president of the Harlingen State Bank. He provided a private office in the bank for the conduction of the city's business. He was authorized to buy office furniture and provide stationery. In an attempt to get Harlingen out of the mud, a contract was let to William Tennant to build and install wooden platforms for street crossings.
In 1914 Mayor Ross and three of the aldermen were re-elected. W. J. Weems, Jr. became the new city tax assessor collector. In October, Mayor Ross died and Miller V. Pendleton was named to fill the unexpired term. On July 20, 1915 the city fathers made an accounting and determined that the city was $6,000 in debt and ordered the amount be funded by treasury warrants. There was no change in the city officials in the 1916 election.12
A Salute to Service
The Valley Baptist Hospital opened its doors on January 22, 1925. It charter members, S. C. Tucker of Brownsville, Frank Robertson and C. M. Cash, M. D., of San Benito, J. T. Foster, S. G. Stringer, C. S. Wroten, and N. A. Davidson, M. D., of Harlingen, R. E. Utley, M. D., Fred E. Bennett of Mercedes, E. C. Couch of Weslaco, L.M. Davis,, M. D., of Donna, and G. T. Balch of McAllen, conceived the VBH in a spirit of community service.
The still-familiar stucco building on "F" Street which housed the Hospital for three decades was originally designed to care for 35 patients.
Its capacity was twice increased, in 1943 and 1946, until by 1956 it was equipped to admit 100 more. During the years 1925-1956, the old building served admirably and grew with the area until it could grow no more.
To keep up with the progress and expansion, new facilities had to be built. Baptists and friends from every part of the country gave their time, money, and efforts to raise the 2 ¼-million dollars necessary for a new building. Local generosity went so far that Harlingen and San Benito property owners donated the 18 ½ acre tract where the new Hospital stands. The Hospital serves not only Harlingen but all South Texas and Northern Mexico. It serves the area better than ever before, bringing together medical services that no one dreamed possible 35 years ago. A salute goes out to the Valley Baptist Hospital and its ability to keep abreast of social progress and medical developments.17
Harlingen Radio and Television
KGBT Radio, owned by the Harbenito Broadcasting Company, opened in 1941 as KGBS, an independent station of 250 watts and a staff of eleven people. McHenry Tichenor is president of the corporation; J. C. Looney of Edinburg who became a stock holder in 1953 in vice president; and Troy McDaniel, who joined the organization in 1942, is Secretary-Treasurer and General Manager of the Station. KGBT became an affiliate of the Columbia Broadcasting System in January of 1944. Expansion came in 1953 with the purchase of Radio Station KSOX then in Harlingen. KGBT-TV was affiliated with the CBS as their primary affiliate and ABC as a secondary affiliation.18
HARLINGEN'S first brick school building, located on East Jackson street. It was occupied in 1912 for the first time and later became known as Central Ward and Sam Houston school.
The building was remodeled several years ago and is now an office building.19
The Harlingen Independent School District Board of Trustees held its organization meeting October 5, 1909 in the office of the Morrow Brothers Lumber Company. Membership of the first board consisted of John E. Snavely, who was elected chairman, and C. F. Perry, H. N. Morrow, J. A. Cards, R. S. Chambers, W. E. Hollingsworth, and W. H. Kilgore. Board members who served the District prior to 1920, who still reside in Harlingen, are E. W. Anglin and R. B. Hamilton.
The first school site purchased by the new district was the Alamo School site. Lon C. Hill gave half the site and the District purchased the other half, according to Warren W. Ballard, Business Manager of the schools.
On April 15, 1911, contract was let to A. Goldammer for erection of the old Sam Houston School in the 500 Block of East Jackson Street at a cost of $22,800. On the same date, contract was let to R. H. Tadlock for $5,966 to build the two-story section of the Alamo School. The second story was removed in 1949.
In 1922 the Board authorized the construction of a Senior High School building on what is now the playground of the Travis school. Cost of the building was $45,452.50. This building was destroyed in the 1933 hurricane. The Travis main building was constructed in 1926 and was used as a Junior High school until 1949 when Gay Junior High was built. The first portions of Austin, Bowie, and Dishman schools were built in 1928, and the Washington school in 1934.
When the new $350,000 High School was dedicated September 4, 1930, it was call "the show place of the Valley." Paul E. Phipps was superintendent, and Mrs. J. I. Coursey, O. N. Joyner, Ira E. Eells, S. D. Grant, A. E. McClendon and Dr. John Crockett composed the Board of Trustees.
When the new $1,500,000 High School was occupied in January 1958, it was described as having the maximum facilities for the teaching of practical and theoretical science; its conduit systems to provide for closed circuit television and a language department having cubicles for recording instruments.20
Harlingen Fire Department
The Harlingen Volunteer Fire Department was organized early in 1912, a few months after the installation of hydrants and a water system.
In 1922 the department was reorganized with sixteen members, and Bert Gamble was the first fire chief. The first pumper was delivered in 1922. E. C. Bennett, City Utilities Manager, was the driver and operator in charge of equipment. O. N. Joyner was assistant fire chief and fire marshal.
The year 1926 was a significant one; the paid fire department was established, a second pumper was purchased, and the new City Hall and fire station was completed. The department was host to the State Firemen and Fire Marshal's Convention, as it was again in 1939 when Jake Childress was chief.
E. C. Bennett who followed Gamble as chief in 1927, served until 1934. J. J. Dawson succeeded Childress in April 1943, and served four years. Henry D. Smith, 1947-49, was followed by R. C. Berna, Chief, 1950-51, who was followed by W. T. Hamilton, present chief.
In 1929, a sub-station was opened at 210 South "F" Street; in 1930 a Ladies Auxiliary was organized and re-organized in 1939 and again in 1948. Other sub-stations were the W. C. Anderson, opened in March 1956, the J. L. Head Station at 1657 South Sam Houston, in October 1956, and the A. B. Chapa Station at 1201 West Van Buren in 1957.
The new $90,000 Central Fire Station was opened in October 1950 and later was named the E. C. Bennett Station.21
The Pride of Harlingen:
Harlingen Air Force Base
As early as 1938, air minded city officials launched a program designed to stimulate interest in making Harlingen a commercial airport center. On several occasions, they extended invitations to the Civil Aeronautical Authority to consider the city a possible port site. 1940 awakened popular enthusiasm for the defense of the United States. Mayor Hugh Ramsey made a definite proposal to the War Department. City officials along with Senators Tom Connally and Morris Sheppard pointed to a number of factors which made Harlingen attractive for military training.
In addition to the climate, the flat unbroken terrain, which proved a stumbling block to the location of various Army organizations - Infantry, Cavalry and Anti-Aircraft - later was one of the principal assets for flying and gunnery training. Also considered were the natural qualities of the location, the nearness of roads, railroads and the availability to great plots for a ground range. In order to make Harlingen more acceptable, Mayor Ramsey staked out some maneuvery grounds, consisting of several thousand acres a few miles east of the city and north of the Arroyo.
It wasn't until 1941 that the first news about the Harlingen site being accepted by the military was made known. In March, Air Corps officials in Washington announced approval of the project, and on May 6, Sen. 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 with an overall approximately $3,800.00
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 rent960 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.
Col. Morgan arrived here from Central Flying Training Command headquarters at Randolph AFB on Aug. 1, 1941, and assumed command of Harlingen Army Air Field on General Order No. 1. That same day, he appointed Major E.M. Day adjutant of his new command. Two weeks later, Capt. William Calloway, Medical Corps, was named post surgeon. The first enlisted men to arrive were TSgt. Mike W. Ward, SSgt. Jerome W. McCarthy, Sgt. Robert L. Stirckland, PFC Ernest S. Hoessly and PFC Vinert G. Clark. The first Headquarters office at the new installation was located in a contractor's shack which was later torn down. In this tiny office, eight officers carried on the job of creating a new post, gathered around three tables and using boxes for chairs.
Col. Morgan, as commanding officer, had the honor of the one chair available, which was borrowed from the City of Harlingen. The first Civil Service employee was Miss Angela Murray of Harlingen, who became Col. Morgan's private secretary. The first large sized cadre was assigned in August, 1941, and the October of that year, Col. Morgan made one of his most important appointments, naming Major W. L. Kennedy as director of training. Major Kennedy who is now Major Gen. Kennedy, had recently returned from an extensive survey of aerial gunnery schools of the Royal Air Force in England.
On Nov. 28, Col. Morgan landed the first base aircraft, a BT-13, on the new southeast runway at 4:20 p.m. In March of that year, the Army Air Force Naming Board officially designated the air field as the Harlingen Army Gunnery School. This title was changed in June to Harlingen Army Air Field.
The history of the school can almost be said to have started at the same time as the beginning of our active participation in World War II. By December of 1941, the construction on the field was completed and actual training of aerial gunners was getting underway. The primary mission, that of training gunnery students and the operation of the airdrome, was assigned to the base on Aug. 4, 1941. It was indicated that the station complement would consist of 114 Air Corps officers, 37 arms and services officers, 1660 Air Corps enlisted men and 495 arms and services enlisted men. The student load was set at 600.
On Jan. 14, 1942, Harlingen AFB experienced its first fatality. Lt. Woodrow W. Christian, flying a P-39 from Dale Mabry Field in Florida to a California Port of Embarkation, was killed when he crashed one half mile north of the field. Natives of the tropical Rio Grande Valley knew the gunnery school was open for business, when on Christmas Eve, 1941, they were warned in bold-face newspaper stories to stay clear of the coastal flats along the Gulf of Mexico. The same week, enlisted men slept for the first time in new barracks and ate in large, 1,000-man dining halls. Even after classes started, the expansion continued. In May of 1942, another $1,000,000 was authorized for new barracks and technical installations. At the same time, construction was being pushed at the ground range along coastal flats.
By 1943, the course had been extended from five to six weeks. The students were introduced to aerial gunnery on the BB and Skeet ranges. In learning the art of "leading a target", a fundamental of sky sharp-shooting, they were also instructed in the maintenance and repair of machine guns and how to identify enemy aircraft. After three weeks of such training, the students moved to the coastal ground range to fire hand-held caliber-30 machine guns and the powerful caliber-50 weapons in turrets. Both day and night, they fired at stationary and moving targets. With this experience behind them, they were ready for the final week of instruction which stressed air-to-air firing-first from the rear cockpit of a Texan advanced trainer, and then from one of the turrets in a Ventura or Hudson bomber. Their targets were rayon sheets towed behind other planes, with their bullets dipped in various colored paints to make score-tallying easier.
However, the magnitude of importance placed upon Harlingen while thousands of aerial gunners were being trained, the end of World War II, brought about the close of the base in 1945. It wasn't until April 1, 1952, that it again was called upon to serve the Air Force. The need for navigators by the rapidly advancing Air Force in 1952, was considered as great as that of gunners by the Air Corps in 1942. With Col. James F. Olive as its first commander after the reactivation, Harlingen AFB began training navigators in June of 1952. The first class of 35 navigators was graduated on Jan. 22, 1953.
Last month, on March 19, the 10,000th navigator was graduated from the Harlingen AFB navigator training program, when thousands from throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley and winter tourists across the nation attended an all day Open House there. Harlingen graduates are trained to navigate aircraft anyplace in the world whether across oceans or at the North Pole where every direction is south. First trained in C-45 and C-47 type aircraft, the students now receive their in-flight instruction in Air Training Command's famous T-29 "flying classrooms", which certainly holds an honored place in the nation's global Aerospace Force.
"The course of instruction", says Col. Daniel J. Sweeney, 3610th Navigator Training Group commander, "is continually undergoing changes in order to meet the ever-changing requirements of the Air Force commands which utilize navigator". Using the stars at night and the sun during the day, plus technical tools of his trade, the Harlingen graduate is fully qualified to fill his position in the Ai
1. Photo (page 8), Lon C. Hill, Harlingen Golden Anniversary, 1960, excerpt from Six Shooter Junction by Gus T. Jones Pioneer Peace Officer and Retired Special Agent of the FBI quoted from: Sheriff's Association of Texas Magazine, Inc. June, 1946.
2. Ibid, Photo (Page 9), Construction of the First Irrigation Canal.
3. Harlingen Golden Anniversary, 1960, (page 8), excerpt from Six Shooter Junction by Gus T. Jones Pioneer Peace Officer and Retired Special Agent of the FBI quoted from: Sheriff's Association of Texas Magazine, Inc. June, 1946.
4. Harlingen Golden Anniversary, 1960, (pages 11 & 13), excerpt from Harlingen In 1910, by Verna Jackson McKenna.
5. Harlingen Golden Anniversary. 1960, (page 13), excerpt from Harlingen In 1910, On School Lands, by Verna Jackson McKenna.
6. Photo (page 13), Early Day Land Clearing, Harlingen Golden Anniversary, 1960, excerpt from Harlingen In 1910, by Verna Jackson McKenna.
7. Harlingen Golden Anniversary. 1960, (pages 13 & 15), excerpt from Harlingen In 1910, Land Company Chartered, by Verna Jackson McKenna.
8. Photo (page 17), Back In Those Days, Harlingen Golden Anniversary, 1960, excerpt from Harlingen In 1910, by Verna Jackson McKenna.
9. Harlingen Golden Anniversary. 1960, (page 19), excerpt from Harlingen In 1910, Rattlesnake Junction, by Verna Jackson McKenna.
10. Photo (page 19), Mr. and Mrs. Santos Lozano, Harlingen Golden Anniversary, 1960, excerpt from Harlingen In 1910, by Verna Jackson McKenna.
11. Harlingen Golden Anniversary. 1960, (page 21), excerpt from Harlingen In 1910, Other Early Arrivals, by Verna Jackson McKenna.
12. Harlingen Golden Anniversary. 1960, (page 27), excerpt from Harlingen In 1910, Chanes Voted, by Verna Jackson McKenna.
13. Photo (page 27), Lon C. Hill Family, Harlingen Golden Anniversary, 1960, excerpt from Harlingen In 1910, by Verna Jackson McKenna.
14. Photo (page 29), Harlingen's First Football Team, Harlingen Golden Anniversary, 1960, excerpt from Harlingen In 1910, by Verna Jackson McKenna.
15. Photo (page 46), Harlingen's First Brick Building, Harlingen Golden Anniversary, 1960, excerpt from Long, Long Ago--, by Verna Jackson McKenna.
16. Photo (page 69), Aerial View of Valley Baptist Hospital, Harlingen Golden Anniversary, 1960, excerpt from A Salute To Service, by Verna Jackson McKenna.
17. Harlingen Golden Anniversary. 1960, (page 69), excerpt from A Salute To Service, by Verna Jackson McKenna.
18. Harlingen Golden Anniversary. 1960, (page 69), excerpt from A Salute To Service, Harlingen Radio and Television, by Verna Jackson McKenna.
19. Photo (page 29), Harlingen First School Building, Harlingen Golden Anniversary, 1960, excerpt from Harlingen in 1910, by Verna Jackson McKenna.
20. Harlingen Golden Anniversary. 1960, (page 81), excerpt from Harlingen School, by Verna Jackson McKenna.
21. Harlingen Golden Anniversary. 1960, (page 81), excerpt from Harlingen Fire Department, by Verna Jackson McKenna.