A Del Rio visitor’s first stop has to definitely be the Whitehead Memorial Museum, where they will find concentrated all the tidbits of regional history necessary to understand the character of its people and even meet some of them, like the Diaz, father and son, whose son/grandson Michael is in charge of greeting newcomers alongside Paul Mancha, the museum’s groundskeeper.
The building now housing the museum, Del Rio’s oldest commercial structure by all accounts, came into existence due to an attack of tuberculosis, a common malady in the 1870s, then treated by moving the patient to a dryer climate in the West. Thus, John Perry came here and established what became the largest store between San Antonio and El Paso, with a keen understanding of the kind of products the community needed.
Upon his passing, the family held on to the property and only parted with it with the condition that it would be dedicated to a cultural endeavour. Luckily, the descendants of George Washington Whitehead loved the idea and bought the property to donate to the city for a museum, established in 1962.
GW Whitehead, his sons Walter E. and Will F., had bought 150 thousand acres in the three counties of Edwards, Sutton and Val Verde to establish their ranch. Now somehow divided, it still stands with a great history of achievements and tradition in the able hands of Rosie Whitehead Jones and her family. The family introduced Boer goats to the region, brought from New Zealand; founded the Texas Sheep and Goat Raisers Association, and in 1952, started the Miss Wool of America competition that was televised for many years, as this clip from the Texas archive of the moving image shows.
The second floor of the main stone building at the museum is preserved as it was the residence of the Perry family. It is a great opportunity to see what life was like for them. The visit is quite detailed, with many objects and their uses readily available for an inquiring mind. They have an 1875 Beckwith organ, which the player had to pump using both feet while striking the keys. They also have, in a stroke of poetic justice, a 1910 Story & Clark travelling piano once owned by Miss Lillie Langtry and donated to the museum by Mr. Carroll B. Fish of Kentucky.
Why would having this piano be poetic justice?
Well, that is another piece of the history we learn at the Whitehead Museum...
Lillie Langtry was a world renowned English actress, born in the island of Jersey in 1853 as Emilie Charlotte Le Breton. Her name, after married, coincides with the name of a nearby community of the Val Verde county made famous by the antics of Judge Roy Bean, or by a famous UFO crash in 1955 — take your pick.
To say that the town was baptized to honor Miss Langtry would be a disservice to George Langtry, a Southern Pacific railroad engineer whose name was adopted by Camp Eagle Nest.
Roy Bean (c1823-1905), owner of a bar that operated from a moving tent for the crews laying down the rails, was named Justice of the Peace by the authorities of Val Verde county. He settled here, building a more permanent wooden shack that served the dual purpose of being a saloon and a courthouse. There Judge Roy Bean tried his cases and invited all to have a drink at the intermission.
His was a peculiar style of justice. He called himself, “The law West of the Pecos.” Known by others as “The Hanging Judge,” but there is little evidence to support that moniker.
Whitehead Museum has a replica of his courtroom and saloon, which he named “Jersey Lilly,” Miss Langtry’s stage name, of whom he read something that made him fall in love. He often wrote to her and legend has it she even responded. He cherished a pair of pistols the judge assured were a gift from her, and swore he had baptized the town in her honor.
Lillie Langtry came to the US and visited Langtry, perhaps moved by the judge’s insistence or maybe simply because of the namesake, but in any case, this was a few years after Judge Roy Bean had passed away after a night of drinking in Del Rio.
Both these characters have a multicolored story and are subjects of many legends we will explore later in this book.
The next shed in the Whitehead museum is dedicated to the Black Seminole Scouts, a group gathered by the US Army back from Mexico —where they had been living to escape enslavement— to help in the vigilance of the border and help control hostile Indians. They were promised protection and land in exchange for their services. The scouts were not supposed to engage in combat, but when they had to, proved to be great warriors. The museum relates an incident in April 25th, 1875, when their US military commander, Lt. John Lapham Bullis, was thrown off his horse while under attack by a group of 25 hostile Lipan Apache Indians. His scouts, John Ward, Isaac Payne and Pompey Factor, came back to rescue him from a sure death. The three of them were later awarded the Medal of Honor. A fourth scout, Adam Payne, was also awarded the U.S. Army Medal of Honor for a separate incident, the Red River War on September 26 and 27th, 1874.
Pompey deserted and went back to Mexico some time later, after Adam Payne was shot, but he would later return and be allowed to rejoin the army.
The scouts were disbanded by the army in 1912. The promised rewards, by their saying, were never fulfilled.
The structure designated by the museum to tell the story of these courageous men and women, who served as scouts, was originally built as a business office by Hal Patton. Whitehead Museum was among the first institutions to recognize and study their contribution to this land.
Next to it is a Border Blaster, a memento of a radio station, XERA, which was really in Acuña, across the Rio Grande, but was owned and operated by one of Del Rio’s most famous residents, Dr. John R. Brinkley.
Do we dare to still call him a doctor? Well, he had a diploma — which he bought for $500 — and was thus licensed to practice medicine. He even had a degree from a school in Italy —that was awarded to him for honorary reasons and even after the Kansas Board on Medical Registration revoked his license, he continued practicing as an MD, dispensing advise from his radio program, “The Medical Question Box,” to which thousands of people wrote, enclosing $2 dollars to get a number, which would be the prescription they had to fill from one of the 500 members of the Brinkley’s Pharmaceutical association he created for selling what basically was just colored water.
Although his fame and fortune came from his breakthrough procedure of implanting goat testicles into men, and sometimes even ovaries in women, to restore full sexual powers and cure both mental and physical ills, including an overgrown prostate, he was also a radio pioneer first in Kansas and then, after head butts with the Federal Radio Comission, across from Del Rio in Acuña, México, where he built and operated what once was the world’s most powerful station, one million watts, that could be listened to even in gold dental implants, and all over the United States and Canada, often to the expense of other stations.
Besides potency, radio potency, we are talking about now, Dr. Brinkley’s radio station began to broadcast musical groups and talents, popularizing their styles, making them household names all over the country and attracting hundreds of visitors to see their idols in person, like Lonesome Cowboy Roy Faulkner, who started his musical career in Milford, at KFKB, the first station owned by Brinkley, at the tender age of 17. He was to become a popular icon, sustaining for weeks an influx of 3,500 daily letters from his fans.
Dr. Brinkley also invented radio politics and political marketing, tools that he himself used to almost be the Governor or Kansas, only this time, he was the one cheated on by the democratic forces to be. Was he for real, or was he a quack? We shall see.
Not all the doctors... let me rephrase that; almost no other doctors in Del Rio gave the general public the right to call them “quacks,” as Dr. Brinkley did after suing, for a fourth time, his nemesis, Dr. Morris Fishbein, for defamation upon calling him just that, not in the American Medical Association Journal, of which he was the editor, but in the Journal Hygeia.
“In John R. Brinkley,” he had written, “quackery reaches its apotheosis.”
The negative of a Federal Jury in Del Rio to award him damages brought on the final onslaught against Brinkley, who would lose almost everything afterwards.
Not everything, it seems. Even then he had a plan to come out ahead, and we shall see how only death would stop him, but not really kill him for he was immortal.
The flip side of the coin in Del Rio comes next door at the museum, where it stands the office of beloved Lt. Dr. Simón Rodríguez, the city’s first hispanic doctor and also Ciudad Acuña’s first doctor. Born in San Pedro de las Colonias, Coahuila, Simón went to study medicine in Mexico City, but his scolarship funds were suspended when the Mexican revolution broke out, so he switched to the Escuela Médico Militar, from which he graduated in 1914.
He stayed in the Mexican military service just long enough to be captured by the Zapatistas. With nothing to prove he was a physician, Dr. Rodríguez was forced to operate on a wounded woman under the threat he would die if his patient died. His only tools were a knife and a bottle of tequila, but he prevailed and was spared.
He was the only man allowed to cross into Mexico and back 24 hours a day (the international bridge closed at night then), and kept offices in both cities, having taken the Medical Board examination in San Antonio, he was licensed to practice in the United States as well. During his time in Del Rio, from 1925 to his death in 1968, he delivered over 3,000 babies, four of them his own. He also had two other children by a previous marriage, all six of them distinguished Del Rioans.
Polio myelitis was a common crippling disease in the beginning of the 20th century. In 1952 there was an epidemic with 58,000 new cases in the US. Most patients suffered several degrees of paralysis from it, 3,000 died that year.
On March 26th, 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk made a national radio announcement saying he had developed a vaccine, which he tested first on animals, then on himself and his family.
In 1954 the authorities launched clinical tests involving the vaccine and a placebo, and in April 1955 they declared it effective and safe. Dr. Rodríguez is shown in the previous page administering it on April 19th, 1955 at the Guadalupe Gymnasium in Del Rio.
New cases in the US fell to 6,000 in 1957. Today the disease has been practically eradicated.
Before coming to Del Rio, Dr. Simón Rodríguez was mayor of San Pedro. Here, he became a lifetime member of the Rotary Club and the Lion’s Club. He was president of the Cámara de Comercio de Acuña and Medical Examiner in Del Rio, for which he received letters of appreciation from both Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. He was a member of the American Medical Association and the Colegio Médico de Acuña.
Old folks will think that next room in the Whitehead Museum is just full of things grandma had and used, but most kids have really never seen them or thought they existed. There is a butter churner, a washing board, an ice box, glass milk bottles, iron irons, which is how they got their name, a rope churner you could hang to your wagon — a Harley Davidson motorcycle would have had the same effect years later — and a wooden stove. There is a crib used by John Wayne in directing the movie “The Alamo,” which was filmed in nearby Brackettville, where the Duke built a replica of the San Antonio of those days and has been often used as a filming location for other projects. It was open in the past as a tourist attraction and as a set for other movies.
Communities always sprout around the water and Del Rio is no exception. It was at the edge of the Rio Grande but the real incentive of the founders was the rio pequeño, the San Felipe Creek. Although there were people, both native and foreigners, who settled in the area at different times in history, we could say the departure line for this city’s foundation was the formation of the San Felipe Agricultural, Manufacturing and Irrigation Company, somewhere around 1869. According to the historical marker inside the Whitehead Museum, right by the bank of the stretch of one of the original irrigation channels that crosses its grounds.
Under the law, securing irrigation was a means to securing the land, and in 1871 they reported having irrigated 1,500 acres. The State inspector reported they had irrigated 3,000 acres in 1876, and by law they received a grant of 5,000 acres of State land to cover the extent of their channels.
The Whitehead Memorial Museum is the proud owner of a wooden outhouse, too, which sports two holes on its seat.
The guide made emphasis in that this was not with some awkward socializing goal in mind, but to check for snakes, spiders and wasps when using it.
A second hole, he said, would facilitate an easier escape than a bite or a sting to any critter trapped inside when someone came in to sit on the other.
Two things are missing from it: a Sears Roebuck catalog and a wall pin to store the squares of old newsprint used for hygiene in those days. Toilet paper in rolls was introduced by Scott Paper Company in 1890, although a roll dispenser patent dates from 1883.
Do you remember the admonition of the White Witch in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia?
That it was always winter and never Christmas? Well, at the Whitehead Museum we have just the opposite. They have a Nativity room in which it is always Christmas! And you do not even have to enter through an old wardrobe, but inside you will surely feel like a child again, with over one thousand figurines marching in to adore the newborn baby in Betlehem, two thousand years ago. The display is the lifelong work of Mrs. Beatríz Rodríguez Cadena she started in 1940. Each year, she and her family would open their house to visitors, specially schoolchildren, whom Mrs. Beatríz personally greeted and gifted with a bag of candy and an apple.
There are 10 campfires in the display and a running stream with people fishing and drinking in it. Definitely a labor of love.
Being as it is a room for love, the museum remembers another great lady that loved the city of Del Rio.
Ima Jo Fleetwood started to work at the Del Rio Evening News in 1932, fresh out of the University of Texas. Ten years later she was the editor, and from then until 1989 she dedicated herself to the preservation of the history of Del Rio and its great people. She bought and intended to live on the land that is now preserved beautifully as the Ima Jo Fleetwood Park.
What holds the museum’s collection together is the solid research done all over the State of Texas and other national and international sources, but they have their own research facility here and are actively working to catalog and extract interesting facts and tidbits of history to strengthen their exhibits and the proud life of the community.
And here we thought our visit to the Whitehead Memorial Museum would be short!
We go outside and realize it’s getting late and we still have some rooms to visit.
We are yet to hear the story of another healer and perhaps, the first one to visit Del Rio: Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who in 1542 published a book, La Relación, in which he tells the grandiose story of how he travelled from the Isle of Galveston on the East coast to Sinaloa, in Mexico’s Western coast, spending some time with the Indians around what is believed to be the Pecos river.
After great sea adventures in which his ships capsized and sank and most of the people on them died in a few months time, Alvar found himself half enslaved by the Indians, until he was forced to try and cure a sick girl. Cholera was rampant among the tribes, and perhaps the Spaniards had a little better hygiene and thus were proportionally better off than the locals.
Alvar Núñez succeeded, gained fame as a doctor, and also gained little by little more freedom and range of action, until he finally separated from the Indians and travelled West. Some say he was the first Spaniard coming to Coahuila. Others place his route further North.
What we know is that he made it all the way to Sinaloa, so it would seem safe to say that he came through what now is Del Rio. In his book, which he asked the King for permission to commercialize, he tells the story of an Indian he had to operate on with nothing more than a knife, and extract a big arrowhead lodged near his heart.
This scene is illustrated by life size figures in the museum. We see Cabeza de Vaca holding the bloody arrowhead and his knife, the convalescent Indian with a somehow thankful look in his eyes, and Estevanico or Estebanico, an African American companion who traveled with him all the way.
We know nothing of the young woman holding a pelt as an offering, but we included her picture because we have heard multiple accounts about how she’s the best looking exhibit at the museum.
There are many nice sights and hidden corners in the facilities. The Whitehead is considered a live museum, for they have constant indoor and outdoor activities for all ages. Its patio is quite pleasant and there is a chapel in which they host weddings and celebrations on a more formal note. There are two other rooms and they are really worth the visit. One holds a display of the Whitehead family history, plus some of the fanciest order of The Alamo fiesta dresses, some more pet birds and another exhibit dedicated to the role of the military in the history of Del Rio, punctuated by the roles of Del Rioans in the different conflicts since the Civil War and then on to the 20th century, the Great Wars and modern interventions.
In all, the Whitehead Memorial Museum is a great place. It is THE place to come and dive into the community’s past and present character, its makers and the tools they used to build the beautiful city of Del Rio. It should be a required visit for all, and one that would make for a wonderful afternoon.
Judge Roy Bean writing a letter to Miss Langtry.
A crash course in the
history of Del Rio
Among the residents of Whitehead Museum are a couple of cats, CC (Chamber of Commerce, (above) and Gwenevere.
Judge Roy Bean and his courtroom - saloon in Langtry, the “Jersey Lilly,” at the Whitehead museum. Gwenevere the black cat can be seen walking by.
Lillie Langtry as Cleopatra in the 1890 play at the Princess Theater, London.
Lilly Langtry hace el papel de Cleopatra en una representación de 1890 en el teatro Princess, de Londres.
At the height of his life, Judge Roy Bean organized a world championship boxing match. As the sport was then illegal in the US, he built a bridge and a ring across the Rio Grande, in Mexico.
A group of Black Seminole Scouts at Fort Clark, circa 1870
A Black Seminole
2nd. Lt. John L. Bullis of the 24th Infantry at Fort Clark, in Brackettville, Tx.
Factor, recipient of the
US Army Medal of Honor.
Ima Jo Fleetwood was a journalist, beloved editor of the Del Rio Evening News, who donated a beautiful lot of land adjacent to the Whitehead Museum now known as Ima Jo Fleetwood Park. / Ima Jo Fleetwood donó los terrenos adjacentes al museo Whitehead.
Cabeza de Vaca had a knack for public relations with the Indian tribes he found along the way on his travels. Otherwise he would have ended scalped and dead. / cabeza de Vaca tenía talento para las relaciones públicas con los indios que encontraba en sus viajes. De otra manera hubiera terminado muerto y sin cabellera.