McAllen has a history full of Indians, cowboys, desperadoes, border disputes, military service, cultural exchanges, ageless architecture, and people – lots and lots of people. Once upon a time that history might have been lost. Today, thanks to the McAllen Heritage Center, (MHC), the city’s and much of the Valley’s history is safe. Elva Cerda, Managing Director and a passionate McAllenite, is one of the founders of the center. First opened in June of 2008 in a third of La Placita building at 301 S. Main Street, the Center now fills the entire first floor and is busting at its seams.
Where History Lives on
Memories come in all shapes and sizes, and there’s a wide variety of memorabilia in the cases and on the walls of the building. Touring the museum allows one to time travel. It’s a grand adventure. Close to many hearts are seats from the recently demolished Civic Center. Now that the City of McAllen has donated them to the MHC, the museum is making good use of them. Preparing a display to honor the old Civic Center, which brought so much happiness to so many, all extra chairs are being sold in sets of two or four, with proceeds going towards the Civic Center display fund.
Hanging inside another case is a photograph of a time when the military troops were here to keep the border safe in 1917. “It was sent to us by the Eastern Arizona Museum and Historical Society, in Pima, Arizona,” Elva said. “People know about us in other parts of the country and they call here.” It’s truly thanks to the donations of photos, books, and artifacts by people such as the family of Lucille Hendrichs, the Cameron family, the Vargas family, the Spud Brown family, and Shelly Bryant, that many items are at the Center.
Recently a call came in from Mr. Carlos Cantu of McAllen, a friend of MHC who wanted to donate a book about a world famous pianist – Wladimir Jan Kochanski. Elva, her curiosity aroused, simply asked, “Why?” Kochanski’s original name was Robert Harvey, and he was from McAllen. Mr. Kochanski had become intensely interested in Polish pianists and changed his name to the Polish version, which actually took him to a new level of acclaim.
Elva smiled as she recounted the story, and her glance roamed across the many artifacts waiting patiently to be curated into the Center. She’s grateful for the many hours volunteers such as Bob Norton (RIP), Maynard and Fern Kreidler, and Virginia Hall have given to MHC. “A special thanks goes out to Spud Brown, the Center’s historian, tour guide and jack-of-all-trades for MHC, for helping her curate items until someone can be hired,” Cerda said.
An Everlasting Love
Though it’s been a labor of love for Elva, it’s no wonder she has such an affinity for her home town.
“My family moved here in 1916 from Falfurrias,” she said. “They came here in a covered wagon. It took them three days to get here. My dad worked for the city for 43 years and retired in 1986. I grew up with the City of McAllen in my head. I used to help him write payroll cards when I was a little kid. There was a City of McAllen truck with the logo in our yard. I truly love McAllen. I’m a born native of the city.”
It was while she worked on the Centennial committee in 2004, 100 years after the first stakes for the track to bring the first railroads were installed, that she, Rick de Julio, Nedra Kinerk, and a few others realized the city needed, and deserved, a history museum. “People love the history,” she said. “Isn’t it awesome? From the goals we set and the people volunteering, we got things done. It took quite a bit to bring the project to fruition, but it was a labor of love for Spud, me, and our wonderful board of directors. That’s why I got involved, because I love my city so much.”
Gratitude goes out also to Helen Snider, a member of the McAllen Old-timer’s Club, who was a driving force behind the MHC and who acquired and preserved historical items that allowed the MHC to develop its foundation of exhibit materials. From the base of material Helen began, all manner of exhibits have grown. In one corner is the Veterans Corner, a work in progress. Uniforms from all wars and lists of those who served, and died, from the Valley adorn display cases. There’s even a movie area with many war movies and documentaries to watch.
“I’ll come around the corner on a Saturday and there’ll be somebody sitting in those chairs in front of the TV,” Cerda said. “It’ll be a veteran, just sitting there watching a movie.”
Popular areas like the La Estrella Panaderia, dedicated with its own special pan de polvo cookies, and the Called to Higher Service area, celebrating those whose lives made an impact on McAllen and the Valley, are regularly visited. Revolving displays include Roland Garcia, the father of Tejano Country Music sound in the Valley.
The Artist’s Corner, celebrating local artists, ongoing children’s workshops and the Kid’s Book Nook are part of the center, which receives over 4,500 visitors a year from across the states and from countries such as Australia, Ireland, Japan, China, Peru, and France. After deciding a folk festival was necessary to celebrate area history, in 2005 the MHC held the first PalmFest International Folklife Celebration, now a City of McAllen festival. Showcasing the MHC each year brings more attention to this city’s valuable museum.