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New museum captures blended history of Northern Mexico and Southern Texas

Founders hope that the Museum of South Texas History will soon rival similar institutions in San Antonio, TX and Monterrey, Mexico
Image: Museum of South Texas History
Museum patrons view exhibits, including an iron bell which came from Monterrey, Mexico, sitting among South Texas historic displays from the Texas revolution with Mexico, at the Museum of South Texas HistoryJoel Martinez / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The doors of the Museum of South Texas History are carved of mesquite, the chandeliers graced by carvings of yucca plants and longhorn cattle, the wrought-iron door handles crafted by a specialist. From the Mexican ceramic floor tiles to the walls of caliche (a hardened native soil), a small county museum has been transformed into a showcase of history for a region that remains a melting pot of old Mexico and new Texas.

What was once known as the Hidalgo County Museum received a $5.5 million facelift this year that added a new building alongside the historic jail that housed the old museum. The trademark hanging tower at the jail and existing exhibits from the original museum will remain when the two buildings are joined through additional construction later this year.

Shan Rankin, executive director, says the expansion was designed to compete with large museums such as those in San Antonio and Monterrey, Mexico. But the upgrade also was needed because the history of the Rio Grande Valley merited more space, she said. "We are so often called and depicted as a very poor, backward region, and we have a wonderfully rich history," Rankin said. "That story needed to be told."

The new museum tour starts with a walk into a darkened room beneath a model of a 24-foot-long mosasaur, a giant prehistoric sea lizard from thousands of years ago, when the region was covered in water. Dappled lighting simulates the effect of being in water.

Exhibits include a 25,000-year-old mammoth tusk and leg bone found over the border in Mexico and donated by a man who remembered sitting on them as though they were stools. There’s also a mammoth leg bone found in Reynosa, Mexico, and a mammoth tooth found in Sinton, Texas.

From there, the rooms progress through history — an exhibit on the now-extinct Coahuiltean tribe ends at a 16th-century Spanish door that symbolizes a crossing into the New World. There’s a ship’s hold stocked with models of harnessed horses and a floor featuring a mosaic from a navigational chart. There is a case of weapons and other artifacts that washed up over the centuries on the Texas coast, including a swivel gun and cannonball from a 1554 galleon.

Then comes the period of Spanish colonial-era ranching, followed by the Mexican-American War, the days of homesteaders and gold rush travelers, and the era of the riverboat, when fortunes were made by shipping goods out of Matamoros, Mexico.

"We were the back door of the Confederacy," Rankin said, standing beside a facsimile of a Civil War-era hotel modeled after one that stood in Brownsville. "The cotton would be shipped out of the area to Europe and that’s how the Confederacy was able to survive."

The fact that the history of the region is still unfolding is evident in the tales behind the exhibits.

When staff struggled to perfect an exhibit of a mud-and-stick dwelling known as a jacal, a contractor who had grown up in one showed them how. Exhibits such as the horno, a beehive-shaped caliche oven used in Spanish colonial ranching compounds, were copied from the ones slowly crumbling away on the lonely grounds of nearby abandoned ranches. Jim McAllen, a rancher whose family is the namesake of the neighboring city, made the fence known as a lena in the cattle kingdom exhibit, threading his own antique staples and fence wire into the wood and insisting on the bent-log hinge.

When a company wanted $1,000 per burlap-covered cotton bale for the riverboat exhibit, a local building contractor came through for a fraction of the price. Trouble finding the right music for the pila, or cattle-watering hole, ended when the son of the late rancher John Armstrong donated a 1980s recording of his uncle singing old campfire songs, two in Spanish and one in English.

Rankin recalled how the artists who designed the exhibit were on hands and knees throwing the cement so it would appear as wind-blown cattle tracks.

"Every museum has a mission statement," Rankin said. "Ours is to preserve and protect the blended histories of South Texas and northern Mexico. The whole premise we want people to go away with is that this region is a mixture of the history of two nations that has formed its own region."

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