Edinburg has never been a sleepy little town. In 1908, when it was a tent city called Chapin, where cattle trails used to run, a wagon caravan arrived in the dark of night. After long hours moving legal records from their flood-prone Rio Grande location to the newly-voted-in county seat, Hidalgo County citizens felt the air was full of promise.
New development equaled new opportunity, and investors stood ready to improve the new town, named for County Judge Dennis Bangs Chapin, who had put the relocation deal together. But Chapin would find himself deprived of a place in history: After he disgraced the community—he was tried, but not convicted, for killing a man in a San Antonio bar fight—the town’s name was changed to Edinburg.
While a concrete-and-glass courthouse and the University of Texas–Pan American dominate Edinburg’s skyline now, the new Museum of South Texas History (a.k.a. MOST-History) looks back, to the centuries when this region was the colorful frontier of a new world.
When you pull open the museum’s tall mesquite doors, you step into what feels like a grand hacienda, complete with Mexican tile, grillework, and a sweeping staircase that rises to the exhibit floor. The triumphs and the tough times of the Borderland, on both sides of the Rio Grande, take center stage here, with interpretive panels in English and Spanish to guide you through the past.
“The museum gives people a sense of how this area evolved, how deep our roots are. We are descendants of many cultures,” says museum director Shan Rankin. The exhibits begin with a replica mosasaur, a marine reptile from 80 million years ago, immersed in shimmery, underwater lighting. “Children always want to know where the dinosaurs are, but this area was under the ocean then,” says Shan. Petrified palm tree trunks, an oystershell reef fragment, and mammoth bones lead to a full-size mammoth skeleton (which might look familiar, since this reproduction was used in the film X-Men 2).
Nomadic Coahuiltecans left no written record, but the museum, using multimedia, dioramas, and artifacts, offers a glimpse of the earliest South Texans as they camp on a bluff over the Rio Grande.
As you walk into the next gallery and spy three Spanish caravels under sail, the room suddenly darkens, leaving you gazing at stars twinkling on the domed ceiling and listening to the creak of wooden ships. Once the light returns, the compass rose that covers the floor and the artfully displayed war-dog collar, chests, swords, and coins—the latter debris from shipwrecks off South Padre Island—link visitors to the age of Spanish exploration.
Farther on, take a peek inside a jacal (hah-CALL), or stick house. “It’s this area’s version of the log cabin,” Shan explains, sticks being the simplest building material in a land with few trees or rocks. She has seen the fragile-looking house prompt the telling of family stories about growing up in a jacal, drawing a new generation to take an interest in its heritage.
At the Colonial Ranching Compound, you can stand outside a kitchen and imagine a mother-daughter conversation in Spanish. Shan recalls a young woman who was thrilled to see the outdoor brick oven, or horno, so similar to her grandmother’s. Ranch tools, practical if not beautiful, contrast with the workmanship devoted to saddles, stirrups, bridles, and spurs from the 1700s.
The Rio Grande runs wide through the Valley’s history, especially during the Mexican American War (catch each nation’s perspective of the conflict in both English and Spanish), the Civil War, when wholesale smuggling flourished here, and the riverboat era, when the region began to shed its isolation like a winter coat under the semitropical sun.
At the riverboat exhibit, casks stacked high next to burlap-wrapped cotton bales evoke the period. Riverboat songs in the background (sung by the Gillette Brothers of Crockett) and the mini-theater’s brief video about the shallow-draft paddlewheelers convey the excitement and bustle of the era.
You enter Cattle Kingdom through a leña (wood) fence: curving mesquite limbs stacked between sturdy posts. At the chuck wagon on the grasslands, you hear cattle bawl in the distance and a rattlesnake shake a warning, but it’s the sound of English and Mexican ranch songs that make you feel lonesome. In an adjoining building, part of the old Hidalgo County jail and its second-floor Hanging Room (used only once) share space with the museum’s extensive archives.
As a catalyst for discovering the region’s heritage, MOST-History presents programs like Tamalada, a tamale-making and storytelling weekend January 15-16, and Pioneer and Ranching Crafts Day on February 12.
Back in real time and just a block away, La Jaiba dishes up hot shrimp broth almost as soon as you claim a table. A cilantro sauce enhances the seafood restaurant’s dishes, but save room for the superb flan. Or try the Legal Eagle, a cafe near the courthouse with a sense of humor: The Grand Jury sandwich is roast turkey, and the Law Clerk is a hot dog.
As a town of 54,000, Edinburg has plenty more for visitors to see and do. UT–Pan American (which in 2000 was second in the nation in the number of bachelor degrees awarded to Hispanics) boasts three art galleries, plus active theater and dance programs. The first of the Valley’s World Birding Centers shows off the habitat of Edinburg Scenic Wetlands. You can observe wood storks, moorhens, and great blue herons from shaded observation decks, or walk through the abundant butterfly gardens. Indoors, the center offers fascinating bird-identification software.
Edinburg’s 1927 Southern Pacific depot is still in use as the home of the Chamber of Commerce, but thanks in part to first-rate exhibits and caretakers, the building where Borderland memories live on is the Museum of South Texas History.