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Alice and Edinburg, county seats about 100 miles apart on U.S. Highway 281, contrast the changes that can reshape South Texas towns over the span of 100 years. The almost arrow-straight highway between the cities takes you south from Alice and the slightly rolling terrain of Jim Wells County in brush country, to Hidalgo County and the flat-as-a-tortilla semitropics of the Rio Grande Valley, lush with citrus and palms.
In 1888, Alice became known as the world’s busiest cattle shipping point, thanks to its position astride a major railroad junction. For almost a decade, lines of cattle stretched into the distance waiting to be loaded onto rail cars in the town named after cattleman Richard King’s daughter, according to Joyce Dunn of the South Texas Museum. The museum, a handsome limestone building that once served as headquarters for a ranch, displays prized saddles and the longhorns of lead steers on cattle drives, as well as wonderful oddities such as antique hair curling irons and horse collars woven of corn shucks. Nearby, the oil strikes that revitalized Alice in the 1930s are commemorated with a 1926 oil derrick relocated to the middle of town.
A block from the museum sits the former Texas State Bank building where the notorious stuffed ballot box from Precinct 13 was discovered in 1948, giving Lyndon B. Johnson his U.S. Senate seat by a narrow margin. You won’t find a marker, but older residents readily gossip about the incident. Next, check out the recently expanded Third Coast Squadron Museum. All the museum’s aircraft and equipment displays relate to Coastal Bend veterans. The museum offers great maps, photos, flying gear and a flight trainer in which visitors may sit.
Alice Chamber of Commerce, (361) 664-3454, www.alicetx.org
From Alice, head south on U.S. Highway 281 about 36 miles to reach Falfurrias, the Brooks County seat once famous for its dairy herds and butter. Just north of town, turn east on FM 1418. Here, a simple shrine to Don Pedrito Jaramillo, a noted faith healer, or curandero, who died in 1907, still draws supplicants.
Also just north of town is The Christmas House, where the three Minten sisters keep the spirit of Christmas ringing out in their decked-out home that’s open for tours from late September through the end of March by reservation only. The adjoining Santa’s Texas Workshop stocks some of the fabulous decorations. It is open year-round by appointment for shopping.
Cruise on south past old ranches. At Linn/San Manuel, about 47 miles south of Falfurrias, turn southeast off U.S. Highway 281 and go four miles on Texas Highway 186 to the amazing La Sal de Rey tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. From the kiosk, an easy one-mile walk brings you to the glittering white salt lake, La Sal de Rey. Long a salt source for Native Americans and ranchers, this shallow lake attracts javelina, deer and a wide variety of birds.
Falfurrias Chamber of Commerce, (361) 325-3333
The Christmas House, 1-800-276-4339
About 18 miles south of Falfurrias is Edinburg, home of the University of Texas-Pan American. The city bustles with cafés, exhibitions of art, dance and theater and 17,000 college students. Nearby McAllen’s population has overflowed into Edinburg, making it a boomtown. The Museum of South Texas History, which features Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, immerses visitors in the borderlands heritage, including from the Mexican colonial and riverboat eras. Exhibits cover the prehistoric through the 20th century. The addition of old cowboy ballads to the Cattle Kingdom exhibit emphasizes ranch life’s solitude and makes one feel a bit lonesome.
Forget about being lonesome across town at the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands and World Birding Center. Waterside trees are dotted with migrating and semitropical birds, including herons, while many species of ducks paddle the two ponds and dragonflies zip through the wetlands. The native plant gardens are covered by a froth of hundreds of butterflies. Two miles of walking trails yield lots of watchable wildlife.
On Saturday nights, there’s barrel racing and horse speed events, such as pole bending, at the Sheriff’s Posse Arena, a free facility.
Edinburg Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-800-7214, www.edinburg.com
Eileen Mattei wrote about the Brownsville Gladys Porter Zoo in the July 2009 issue of Texas Co-op Power.