The Whitehead Memorial Museum captures the spirit of Del Rio in a compound of buildings that preserves the essence of this colorful border town and tells the story of early Texas.
The centerpiece of the 2.5-acre historical museum is the Perry Store; a two-story rock building that was once the largest mercantile business between San Antonio and El Paso. Founded in 1870, the business served residents on both sides of the Rio Grande and a steady stream of travelers.
The museum began in 1962 when the Whiteheads, a local ranching family, purchased the property and donated it to the city and county. Over the years the complex has grown to include 20 buildings documenting the border badlands and the people who tamed it.
Once you enter the museum the first exhibit is a small chapel built to resemble the underground shelters that early settlers and travelers used as protection from the harsh environment. Called the La Zappa Chapel, it honors the Spanish missionaries who arrived at San Felipe Springs, the third largest natural springs in Texas, on St. Phillip's Day in 1635 and the Mexican settlers who called the early village Las Zapas (a reference to the underground shelters).
Las Zapas formed the core of the settlement that began to flourish after the Civil War. A year after the Perry family built their store, residents formed an irrigation company to build acequias (irrigation canals) so that the area could be divided into small farms. The town was later called San Felipe del Rio, but the post office shortened the name in 1883.
Exhibits in the Perry Store tell the story of the mercantile business and the military presence along the border that eventually brought prosperity to the region. After the border patrols of World War I came the training bases for World War II. On the eastern edge of town, Laughlin Air Force Base is still a major pilot training station and economic factor in the region.
One of the area's most famous residents was a wily old curmudgeon who took the law in his own hands. Judge Roy Bean built his pool hall and saloon west of the Pecos River 60 miles upstream from Del Rio. The subject of legends, novels, and movies, Bean was buried in Del Rio's Westlawn Cemetery after he died in 1903.
"The tourists were doing so much damage at the cemetery that the city had to move his grave," says Blanca Fuentes, an employee at the museum. The judge and his son Sam now reside in a small plot behind a replica of Bean's Jersey Lily Saloon on the museum grounds.
Another of the local legends was never the subject of a movie, but she still left her mark on the folk art scene. Before she died in 1969, Beatriz Cadena collected 1,287 figurines and small structures. Enough pieces to build a model of the Holy Land centered around a Nativity Scene. Complete with running water and sparkling angels, the scene is an incredible diorama that includes 35 tiny dolls made by a Mexican sculptor. "She was quite a Christian," Fuentes says, "and the collection was a sign of her faith."
There is something that will interest just about everybody in the complex. There is an exhibit on the Black Seminole Indian scouts headquartered at nearby Fort Clark and a turn-of-the-century doctor's office. A replica of a railroad station with an old caboose, a livery stable, a log cabin, and blacksmith shop round out the collection. Antique farm equipment reside in the courtyard.
Farm animals reside in a pen next to the irrigation canal that once fed the small farms, but now is used to water the lawns of the well-kept neighborhood. Across the bridge over the canal is a pen with six cute prairie dogs.
One building not to miss is the barn filled with exhibits ranging from prehistoric Indian artifacts to early farming tools. Reminiscent of a community attic, the building houses an eclectic mix of materials. Some of the most interesting pieces are from the Spanish conquistadors' travels through Texas and American Indian arrowheads and pottery.
The Whitehead Memorial Museum is a treasure trove of memories. It is located a few blocks south of the downtown business district at 1308 S. Main. For information, call 830/774-7568 or go to their Web site at www.whitehead-museum.com.
Besides the museum, Del Rio has a lot to offer visitors. The town's Val Verde Winery is the oldest continuously operated winery in the state. Across the river, Ciudad Acuña is one of the more picturesque border towns. Seminole Canyon State Park, 45 miles west of town, has some of the best-preserved Indian rock paintings in the state. For information, call 800/889-8149 or go to www.drchamber.com.
573rd in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX-78704.