Land Company Founded Mercedes & Changed Face of The Valley
By the early 1900s, the Rio Grande Valley was ready for a makeover – and Mercedes would be right in the middle of it.
After over 100 years of living in a livestock economy with land too dry to grow crops and no feasible way to lift water over the banks of the Rio Grande, an ambitious group of railroad and land companies were determined to turn ranchland into irrigated farmland. Before that could happen, a railroad system would have to make its way to Brownsville and then west to a region that was becoming known as the Rio Grande Valley.
The St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway reached south from Houston, hugging the coast through the King Ranch and reaching its southernmost point on the 4th of July, 1904. The lack of transportation had long hindered deep South Texas as the only north-south route was a 150-mile dirt road that closely tracked the one taken in the 1840s by General Zachary Taylor and his troops at the beginning of the U.S-Mexico War.
The railroad to Brownsville would change the backward mode of transportation and lead to the agricultural development of the region. The same investors who made up the core of the railroad line south would form the American Rio Grande Land and Irrigation Company in 1905. They set out to headquarter their fledging company from the middle of the region, putting down a town site that would become Mercedes in 1907.
“The land companies were the developers of Mercedes,’’ said Jodie Oliver Martinez, who serves as chairman of the city’s historical preservation committee, and is renovating a home on Missouri Street that served as stately home to entertain and convince Midwesterners who had come down on the new railroad to stay and farm in the region.
The American Rio Grande company would move quickly to purchase land holdings that would total over 100,000 acres, making it the largest such company in the early 1900s history of the Valley. Mercedes would serve as its hub and the stately homes seen on Missouri Street today served as the residences for the land company’s first managers and administrators.
What came next was the transformation of a region with Mercedes in the midst of it all.
“The (land) companies built the railroads, founded the towns, dug the irrigation canals, bought existing acreage, and otherwise transformed the Rio Grande Valley into a commercialized agricultural producer of cotton, winter vegetable and a successful citrus industry,’’ said Dr. Beatrice Edwards, a Mercedes native and retired public schools administrator who is a foremost expert on local history.
It was the land companies and railroads who brought the engineers who would design the irrigation systems that would lift water over the Rio Grande and onto freshly cleared brush lands in what would form the first of the lush farm fields and rows of crops that would define the first half of the 20th Century in the Valley.
The American Rio Grande of Mercedes was among the first such companies to form and operate an irrigation company. Its first pump station began operating in 1908. By 1920, the system had grown to three large canals, miles of branching and five pumping plants. Operating out of its two story headquarters in downtown Mercedes, the land company oversaw the early days of the town, bustling and prospering with the reach of the new railroad and the planting and the harvesting the new crops grown on newly nourished farmlands.
The hard and back-breaking work of laborers who had cleared the brush, dug the canals and its branches, made the drawings of the engineers come to life and form the basis of what for over 50 years would define the economy of Mercedes and the Rio Grande Valley.
- Ricardo D. Cavazos