Harlingen's 100-Year History

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Harlingen is hardly a household word to most Americans, but this 100-year-old community is proud of its history, including the full size Iwo Jima Monument from which the monument in Arlington was cast.

“Harlingen,” says Sonny Martinez, Jr., the Marketing Director for the city’s Convention & Visitors Bureau, “is as far south as you can get without going into Mexico.”

Harlingen is hardly a household word to most Americans, maybe even to some Texans (because places in Texas can be so far-flung even those living in our second largest state don’t know where every town lies). Harlingen started a hundred years ago as a farming community whose members’ most important challenge was the competition to harvest the first bale of cotton. In fact (somewhat like the more elaborate and colorful Mexican quiñcera when girls turn 15 years old) the biggest event of the year for the farmers was the father-daughter debutant dance where the daughters always wore a white cotton dress.

The first settlers came here by wagon, stagecoach and finally train. They joined Hispanic and other pioneers in a “landscape thick with mesquite, coyotes and cactus.” The trains found it a remote, rugged stop. Rail workers called it “Rattlesnake Junction,” then later, when newcomers came to find the town divided by the Arroyo Colorado river, they gave it the name “Six Shooter Junction.”

Downtown is proud of its history and now publishes a free and useful brochure “The Harlingen Heritage Trail.” It takes the visitor to the Arts & Heritage Museum to where several historic buildings have been located in the rear including the city’s first hospital, built in 1923.

A local business woman, Ida Gilbert, with the help of Marie Yeager, a nurse from Chicago ran the seven-bed (rooms $5 a day) hospital for four years until the Valley Baptist Hospital opened. There was a room for surgery that apparently drew many spectators watching from the windows on Saturdays!

Included in the hospital complex are a physician’s office, a dentist’s and an Old Time pharmacy displaying an Official Historical Medallion issued by the Texas Historical Commission.

The dental equipment once belonged to Lorenzo L. Skaggs, DDS (1892-1979), who practiced dentistry for over 50 years. It was donated by his family in 1981. Some of the physician’s furniture was owned by Arthur McLamore, MD, who died in 1928. His widow gave it to his replacement George Gallaher, MD, who died, himself, in 1971. The entire office was donated to the Harlingen Arts & Heritage Museum by Julie Ulhorn, Gallaher’s daughter.

Thanks to the pride families had for their parents, artifacts were obtained for both the old hospital offices and for the pharmacy that might otherwise have been thrown out.

The donated furniture was made of U.S. Steel and had to be restored because of rust. Museum volunteers stripped, sanded and repainted the furniture in 2008.

How simple were the ways of registering color blindness then. And whereas treatments change (salve, for example, are not considered as useful today other than particularly steroids, antibiotics or counter-irritants), anatomical drawings of the spine really haven’t changed in a 100 years.

The museum complex includes the home of city founder Lon Hill and also the Paso Real Stagecoach Inn with its exhibits.

The inn was brought here to the museum complex when part of it collapsed into the Arroyo Colorado during a hurricane. The stagecoach contrasts with a vintage Chevrolet at Cooleys’ Classic Car Showroom where our guide Courtney Junkin, the Events Coordinator at the Harlingen Convention & Visitors Bureau, is coerced into posing as our model — our argument being if she didn’t want to do that she shouldn’t have worn red!

An old mud wagon, a stagecoach with canvas sides and top that reduced the wagon’s weight, stands inside the Paso Real Stagecoach Inn. The three-bedroom inn was in service from 1860 to 1904 at the ferry crossing on the trail that ran from Beeville to Brownsville, Texas. General Zachary Taylor crossed there during the Mexican War. Rooms were 35 to 50 cents a night.

There’s a story to the poster behind the red 1961 Impala, the Chevrolet model that Gary Lee Cooley and Gretchen (the showroom owners) had actually driven on their honeymoon. Cooley saw an advertisement on eBay for a huge poster showing the Impala. The cost was one problem: $3,000. But the car was blue, his had been red; the background was forest and he’d honeymooned by a beach; and most important, the original poster had cartoon characters driving the car. He mentioned this to one of his sons.

The young man got busy. He found a digital replica of the poster, changed the color, added surf and, incredibly, took the wedding photos of his parents and transferred them to the car’s seats! He didn’t do anything about the bullet hole in the neon OK sign (the tiny hole just above and to the right of the O in OK) because this is Texas and signs get shot at.

Cooley opened his business in 2009.

“Is this a car showroom or a museum?” we ask Cooley as he stands beside one of his favorites while we study an image of Elvis, who was surely an American car lover.

“Everything’s for sale,” our guide murmurs.

But Harlingen has one thing that is not for sale: the original full size Iwo Jima Monument made of gypsum from which the monument in Arlington, Va., was cast. This is part of Harlingen’s heritage, all the more so because of the story of Marine Corporal Harlon Henry Block, who had lived in nearby Weslaco. He joined the Marines at the age of 18 and was in the forefront when his squad was famously photographed by Joe Rosenthal raising the flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima.

The initial raising of the flag had not given an impressive photograph; the fighting had been horrendous and Marine casualties high. The American public — and the Marines still fighting in the killing fields below the Japanese guns on the island’s only mountaintop — needed a more encouraging image so a second squad was sent up with a bigger flag that gave the front page photograph in the nation’s newspapers in February of 1945.

Block is the figure on the left pushing the base of the flagpole into the volcanic rock. Sculptor Felix de Weldon was inspired by the photograph to make a small model, then, once it was accepted by Congress, a full sized original that was no longer needed when the Arlington National Cemetery monument was cast. The sculptor donated it to the city where it now stands beside the Marine Military Academy.

The flag was raised on the fifth day of the battle, but six days later Corporal Block was killed by mortar fire as the battle still raged. He was buried in the 5th Marine division Cemetery there, but his remains later were brought back to Texas and enshrined beside the statue in Harlingen on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Initially, Cpl. Block was identified as Sgt. Hank Hansen of Boston, but two days after the iconic photograph was taken his mother told everyone, “That’s Harlon!” Sgt. Hansen had been in the first flag raising ceremony.

When challenged she simply said, “I know my boy!” It took a Congressional investigation 18 months to prove she was right.

We muse about mothers as we stand before this young man’s grave. He was only 20 years old. And we think sadly of A. E. Housman’s line:

“Life, to be sure,

Is nothing much to lose,

But young men think it is,

And we were young.”

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.