Guns, Medals of Honor … and Tiffany-Stained Glass

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Museums are found in surprising places in the United States, so it's no surprise, given the wealth of Texas, to find sophisticated history showcases in rural South Texas.

Museums are found in surprising places in the United States: A tribute to Queen Maria of Romania appears in an art museum along the Columbia Gorge — she brought 15 crates of artifacts to help open the museum. How about ancient Greek and Roman sculptures in a jewel of a museum in Providence, R.I. — it seems tiny but its 45 galleries house 80,000 works of art. And imagine the largest collection of Soviet space artifacts outside Russia in Hutchinson, a small town in Kansas — it even has the EKG of the first man in space, Cosmonaut Gagarin.

So it’s no surprise, given the wealth of Texas, to find sophisticated history showcases in rural South Texas.

McAllen, the largest city in this part of the Rio Grande Valley has for starters an art gallery of museum quality that is almost more fun than a museum because you get to poke around and touch stuff, all allowed because you might end up buying.

The Nuevo Santander Gallery is easily found in the Art District in this city of 135,000. It looks a bit like the Alamo.

It has great Western and Mexican folk art and artifacts from Indian arrow heads and guns.

Amongst the handguns distributed around the store is a collector’s favorite, the Remington Over and Under Derringer .41 caliber rim-fire model an interesting handgun that had a long life from 1866 to 1935. Its sales totaled 460,000 over those years even though the Remington company changed owners several times. A small, easily concealed weapon; it reputedly was carried by OAS agents who parachuted in civilian clothes into France to help the Maquis fight the Nazis in World War II.

The International Museum of Art and Sciences is huge, with more than 50,000 square feet, so visitors should allow for time.

McAllen’s International Museum of Art and Science is a Smithsonian Affiliate. Exhibits include orbital satellite images displayed on a huge three-dimensional revolving sphere one was demonstrating how Greenland is slowly melting (because science doesn’t play politics). Many local desert creatures live here prepared to crawl along a visitor’s arm or snake around a tourist’s neck.

For some visitors the art part is more interesting than the science. Mexican artist Sergio Nates was showing his “When Money is Transformed” exhibit in the fall of 2012. He uses bubble wrap and bank notes as the medium for his portraits. But more mesmerizing for most visitors was the magnificent collection of 20 stained glass windows (“Sacred Visions”) from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Studios.

The stained glass windows are on permanent loan from Dr Lawrence Gelman and Mrs. Esperanza Gelamn. Dr. Gelman, an anesthesiologist and hospital administrator, is a local philanthropist and host of a weekly radio program focusing on “a traditional and unrelenting conservative perspective.” He is also a “novice rancher.”

The Tiffany Collection is such a prize, the second largest in the United States, that the museum built a special space that creates the atmosphere of a church.

Lead, the frame that holds the pieces together is, of course, highly toxic. The glass is melted at 4,000 degrees to make the craft even more dangerous. Of particular interest to any physician who ever did house calls is the depiction of Matthew: 35-40. “I was sick, and ye visited me … And the King shall answer and say unto them, verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done unto me.”

The Hidalgo County Historical Museum in Edinburg, better known as the Museum of South Texas History, allows a change of pace: it doesn’t have stained glass with religious themes but rather more guns, and the great history of how Texas won its freedom from the yolk of Mexico.

As we walk the museum’s rooms docents take pains to let us understand this great state.

“Texas is like a whole other country,” one docent says modestly.

“We used to say we were Texans,” says his spouse; “but now since 9/11, we say we are Americans!”

The Museum of South Texas History has the Austrian Morion helmets that the Spanish soldiers armed themselves with and the Miquelet-lock pistols dating from about 1800 that were so effective in military hands against the insurgents. This was not a period when Samuel Colt was in command

It’s strange but in Southern California we recognize the effort for the Californians to beat back the missionaries and conquistadors and send them south down El Caminoa Real to claim their state for the United States. Yet outsiders are somehow startled to find the Texans did the same, but even more heroically to win their land from Mexico. What a story it is across the width of Texas — without those famous names from the past there would be no Texas history.

Southern Texas was Mexican for a long time. The elegantly mounted dapper horsemen of the day were not the Texans seen later in Western movies. The Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead, (based on Aztec rituals) where friends and relatives gather in November to remember family members who have died, has surely been celebrated longer here than, say, Sam Houston’s birthday.

Despite the protests from sophisticated urbane Texans we do tend to think of them as cowboys, and the Museum of South Texas History doesn’t help dispel that notion.

Yet the emphasis on Longhorn cattle drives all the way to, say, Abilene, Kansas came after the Civil War when discharged soldiers returning to Texas found the southern part of the state over-run with herds of cattle that had not been thinned for years.

The American West loves its heroes.

The sculpture at the entrance to the Museum of South Texas History suggests two heroes.

The centerpiece of the park, a sculpture commissioned from an award-winning Western artist, Deborah Copenhaver Fellows. Fellows was born on a cattle ranch, her father a world champion Bronc Rider. She won barrel races on horseback “before she was a teenager” and before studied fine arts in Italy. She became a head wrangler in a dude ranch before she started to create sculptures “that expressed her heart-felt feelings for the American West.”

The Edinburg sculpture in Looney Park “depicts Margaret Montgomery Looney (a petite woman hidden in the photograph by the horse’s head) handing her grandson, Will Looney, a rolled document symbolizing the passing of legacy from one generation to another.”

Inside the door is displayed another Texas hero, the United States Marine Corps dress uniform and the Medal of Honor given posthumously to Sgt. Alfredo C. Gonzalez for his valor in Vietnam.

The medal, donated by his mother, has been on show since 1981 as a lasting tribute to Gonzalez and “to all Americans who have served their country and given their lives in the cause of freedom.”

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.