By Matt Gorges
The appropriate way to start any discussion about the history of Palm Valley is that you cannot talk about the history of Palm Valley without talking about the history of the Harlingen Country Club because the whole project had the purpose to provide a country club facility for the city of Harlingen. That is important especially regarding the intentions of the original planners. I was on the original Board of Directors and part of the original development. I probably shouldn’t have been, my whole career was in the food industry. At the time I was 34 years old, and the group that spearheaded the development wanted someone young involved and I was a member of the country club. I knew all the people involved who at the time were close to the age I am now which is seventy-nine. They are all deceased.
We should cover the history of the 1960’s in this area within the City of Harlingen to understand how Palm Valley got to its location and subsequently became the city of Palm Valley. If we go back to 1960, at that time there was a Harlingen Country Club on the grounds of what is now called the Muni Course or the Harlingen Municipal Golf course. The original club house had been built in 1950, and had a restaurant, a bar, a swimming pool, and men’s and ladies’ locker rooms. If you wanted to play golf you just went over to the municipal course and teed off. Also, in 1960 Harlingen had a military air force base, which is the present location of the Valley International Airport. It was a navigator school. It was closed in 1962 because navigators were not needed since radar became the way to guide airplanes. At that time, the much smaller city airport which was called Harvey Richards Field was located on what is now the city of Palm Valley, the exact same amount of acreage. It was called Harvey Richard Harlingen Municipal Airport. There was one building that still exists. It is the tennis building at the country club. If you go in the building you will see in the center of the floor a logo that dates back to when the city constructed the building to serve as the terminal. So those were the basic facts going into the 60’s.
In 1967, in the early part of the year probably February or March, the country club located in the Municipal Golf Course burned down. The club received approximately $300,000 in insurance proceeds from the fire. The fire turned out to be very lucky. At the time it was felt to be a catastrophe. In September of that year Hurricane Beulah came through the city which was much more devastating than Dolly. It was a terrible storm. Much of south Harlingen flooded including the location of the country club that the fire destroyed. The club did not have flood insurance. The Arroyo crested at 46 feet. It flooded because a weir broke upriver near Mercedes. The water was supposed to be directed to the Rio Grande River which never did flood. Harlingen flooded. My mother and father had the lowest house on the bank of the Arroyo, and the height of the flood there was only about 3 inches of the top of their house sticking out. I will always remember driving a boat around that neighborhood. At the time the country club had about 500 members. The Board of Directors lowered the dues to $15.00 a month and hoped the members would stay with the agreement that whatever was collected in the interim would be used to partially finance the building of a new country club. The club was collecting about $7,000 to $7,500 a month and over a period of about three years it amounted to around a quarter of a million dollars. That together with the insurance money was a big deal. I was also on the Board of Directors of the country club. It was kind of an interlocked group. Hill Cocke Sr., who owned Valley Ready Mix at the time, was the driving force. It was his idea that we approach the city and attempt to buy the property from the city which had been abandoned because by 1967 the city had moved to Valley International Airport with much better runways. There was no comparison concerning which location would be a preferred Municipal Airport for the future. Harvey Richards had one or two short runways whereas the current airport has an outstanding runway facility. So the city moved the airport. I can still remember meeting with the City Commission. I had been on the City Commission in the early 60’s, but I was no longer at the time. At least I knew the ropes of what was going on at city hall. That it in itself was a challenge because the Mayor at the time was a person named George Young who owned Sun Valley Motel on the other side of town. He really didn’t want to sell the property to be used for a country club, but the Commission voted to sell it.
The project was conceived, and put together by a group of people led by Mr. Cocke. Others that were involved were Van Snell, Newton Liddel, Karl Gibbon, James Alexander and several others. Mr. Cocke, because of his involvement in the concrete industry knew a developer he had confidence in who lived in Corpus Christi. His name was Art Housman. Mr. Housman became an investor and guided the group through the development. Newton Lidell who owned a company called Security Homes was a key investor. I was a tag along and received a good education about land developing. Another investor was our attorney Karl Gibbon, whose son Max Gibbon is still around. That basically was the core of the Board although there were other shareholders. Shares were sold to whoever wanted to invest and a corporation was formed called the Harlingen Development Corporation. The purpose was to build a country club and develop the land around it with the intention of making money, but the element of being a civic project was definitely part of the plan, to provide the city with a country club. Similar types of developments were beginning to come in vogue throughout the country. I don’t recall how much the development corporation paid for the property. The entire area is 389.2 acres. The Development Cooperation bought it. The purchase occurred sometime during the year of ‘68. Under the direction of Art Housman, a land architect was hired. I don’t remember the name. He laid out the city as it is presently in conjunction with the golf course architect. The work was professionally done. There was nothing amateurish about the project at any time. It was a well-conceived project by intelligent leaders in the community. An additional part of the plan which is unique was that the Development Corporation agreed to build a golf course and give it to the country club with the agreement that the country club would build the clubhouse. The Development Corporation would own all the land which now is the residential area. There were interlocking people on both boards. Newton Lidell, for example was President of the country club and I was Vice-President. We were on both boards. The expense of the Country Club was to build a clubhouse. Three sources of funds were applied to build the club house, which were the insurance money, the dues money that accumulated, plus a loan of about $300,000 from what was then the First National Bank of Harlingen. It is now Bank of America. I happened to be on that board too, as did one or two of those gentlemen. That is how it was put together and we moved forward. Under Mr. Housman’s advice and direction, the area developed in sections. The section which was developed first was the southwest quadrant, now Palm Valley southwest. The second section developed was the southeast. In other words all the property from Bougainvillea south. Mr. Houseman’s idea was that in building by sections you always had “your best lots to sell”. It is very visible now that the older homes are on the south side especially the southwest side, because they were built first. The golf course and the streets were developed contiguously at the same time as the building of the clubhouse. The golf course opened before the clubhouse. Life Begins at 40 Tournament was a bigger deal then than it is now. The original people that started the country club in 1950 created the tournament. It was almost a way of life for them. It was important to them to have the golf course open as soon as possible. That generation was much more dedicated to the tournament than at this time. We rushed to finish the golf course in time for that year’s tournament.
The Harlingen Development Corporation continued to own the project for 7 or 8 years. The land architect’s layout designated certain areas for hacienda type homes sometimes referred to as “swinger homes” by the board. The Hacienda floor plans are basically identical, two bedrooms, and large living area in the middle, a kitchen and carport. The architectural layout also designated the current location of town homes and apartments. Approximately half of the haciendas were built and sold by the Development Corporation. The Corporation hired a builder/contractor named Ed Kelly who supervised the construction. Mr. Kelly also was the contractor for a number of homes in Palm Valley. We sold the corporation to a person named Max Jones, probably in the late 70’s. He bought all the remaining lots from the Development Corporation. When Jones bought the remaining lots, the Development Corporation shareholders cashed out with a profit, but it was no big deal. Everyone was happy because we accomplished our objective. The city of Harlingen had a first class golf course and a first class clubhouse, a bona fide country club. From the outset this group of people stayed fully involved. Karl Gibbon was very active in establishing a water board. We bought water from the city of Harlingen and Palm Valley still does. The area was not a town it was just a development. Fire protection and police protection were provided by the City of Harlingen although the area was not in the city limits. Ed Kelly continued to work for Max Jones after the sale building the remainder of the haciendas.
After the initial two phases of the project were completed, the area south of Bougainvillea, in order to jump start the sale of lots the Development Corporation had a drawing. You put your name in a jar and when your name was drawn, you could buy as many lots as you wanted for $5000 per lot. I guess it’s the only time in my life that I came in first, but my name was the first name drawn out of the jar. It appeared at that time that the best area was a middle road named Caro Circle that intersects at Bougainvillea. There is a lake that wraps around the cul-de-sac. I bought two lots on the lake. A third lot on the lake was bought by Danny Mann. At that time, we lived on Parkwood in Harlingen near the Arroyo. Our children were growing up. This was probably late 1969. It was always Patty’s and my plan to build near the country club but we wanted to get our children out of school first. So a lady named Virgina Grey, lovely lady, thought she wanted to build at the new area. She owned three lots where our house is now. I traded the two lots for those three lots. She subsequently sold them. The first homes built were along the southwest section of the city and Caro Circle. There are some nice homes on Caro Circle. Dr. John Ferris, who had ten children, built a large home. He is trying to sell it now, but who wants a house with ten bedrooms? At that time the issue of Palm Valley as a City was not a factor. At the outset, it had been the desire of the Development Corporation to be annexed into the City of Harlingen. We approached the city about annexation. The city turned us down claiming it was too much expense to provide all the required services. Probably some of that had to do with the Mayor’s negative attitude about the area. Incorporating the City of Palm Valley, believe it or not, was second choice. It was kind of something you had to do. The area needed some form of municipal order and municipal government. I believe a man named Robert Forrester was the first mayor of the City of Palm Valley once it was incorporated. By the end of 1970, the golf course had opened and the country club was built. There were a few homes and people were building and buying lots. In other words, it was starting. That led to somewhat of an evolution, looking back, it greatly influenced the shape the city and what Palm Valley is today.
It was the plan of the developers that retirees would migrate from the Midwest, buy lots and build homes because of the warm climate. At that time, in the United States the trend was very popular, whether you were moving to Florida, Arizona, or Texas. Most of the retirees, driven by the increase in life expectancy, moved to Palm Valley from the middle part of the U.S. That is where our retirees came from, including Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, and some from Canada. We attracted more from the middle part of the country. Sure enough, they did migrate and buy lots and the city government was established. Aside from being a member of the country club and property owner, at that point in time I was not involved because we didn’t live in Palm Valley. It was a very busy time of my life. We developed a processed meat company which we subsequently sold to Tyson in 1994. We lived in town and played golf and used the club. We did all the things that you do just being an active country club member. I did observe who was buying lots and who was moving in. By 1985, the City of Palm Valley and the country club changed from being a facility primarily for the citizens of Harlingen and became a town for retirees. Change had to happen because the people who bought property and built homes did it for a purpose. They wanted to live in Palm Valley in their senior years and they wanted a country club facility where they could play golf. That was their main objective. The fact that it was adjacent to the City of Harlingen was important as the place to shop and attend church. It was in a sunny area and was a growing little town and their neighbors were people like them. They became the officers of the country club. They became the City Council and Mayors of Palm Valley. By and large the area became a retirement community through interest, if nothing else, because it was their life. I remember being somewhat startled when we went to the country club by the late ‘80’s. I didn’t know very many people. They were the people that ran the city and club, but I didn’t know them because they were not natives. I have lived in Harlingen all my life. It was just a whole different environment. That evolution probably peaked around 1995 as lots began to run out. The area north of Bougainvillea opened by 1975 so the other half of the Palm Valley was developed and most lots sold. The residents ran the city and club and did a good job. We moved to Palm Valley in 1982. One of our close friends Lee and Laurie Richards who were our neighbors in Harlingen moved to Palm Valley five years before we did. Lee and I have played over a thousand rounds of golf together. We grew up together and went to school together so it is just a grand old relationship. There were a group of natives like us that liked golf and liked the country club and mixed in with the retirement community. As that was happening, the average age of the members of the country club and citizens of the town increased.
A defined change in the makeup of residents of Palm Valley began around the turn of the current century (year 2000). Since year 2000 a number of the first generation retirees have either died or in some cases chose to relocate back to where they came from or move to another area and their Palm Valley homes have been sold. By and large the original homes that have been sold have been purchased by a much younger generation including Harlingen residents relocating to Palm Valley. The result has been that the average age is declining. On Papaya Circle where we live there are several families with two or more children. The average age of members of the country club has dropped from the seventies to the mid-fifties. I like the trend and enjoy seeing children around. But it is different. There are still a large number of retirees in Palm Valley and some new retirees are
buying resale homes but there is a definite trend to younger home owners. The fact is if you’re a retiree selling your house you really don’t care who buys it as long as you get your price. I sense an ongoing reversal of the original evolution. If we look ahead twenty years from now I do not believe Palm Valley will be near the retirement area it was ten or fifteen years ago. It is less now than it was ten years ago.
During the last five to ten years one of the positive changes that has occurred is an increase of Hispanics moving to Palm Valley. During the initial development of the city, say the first twenty-five years there were very few Hispanic members of the country club and very few Hispanic residents. About ten years ago I was discussing the situation with one of my Hispanic friends about how I hoped both Palm Valley and membership of the country club would become more integrated. He gave this example which I thought had some accuracy; “when the country club and the development around it were first built it was kind of like the old Wild West when the white man going in a caravan was attacked by Indians. Initially the development was perceived by many to be a modern day circle the wagons that resulted in kind of de facto segregation.” I don’t sense that anymore. It never meant anything to me anyway. I have lived in the Harlingen area all of my life and have as many Hispanic friends as I do Anglos. I think it is healthy. So many of our leaders not only in politics but also on civic boards and involved in churches are wonderful well educated Hispanic people and among our most intelligent citizens. I see that process happening and I believe by the next generation discrimination of most any kind is not going to be a factor. Many things have changed in our country in that regard and it is changing in Palm Valley as well. Politically, Palm Valley today is still largely influenced by retirees for two reasons. They are interested in the city from their standpoint and they have plenty of time.
There is no reason they should not run for office or serve on committees. They have time and are interested. That may never change.
Those are my thoughts on the history of Palm Valley. Obviously some of it is my opinion. The chronological order of the development from 1950 to 1980 is accurate in how it happened. I hope the leaders today and in the future in addition to maintaining the city will devote resources to improving it and the citizens will support the improvements. My objective when involved in any undertaking is to leave it better than I found it which is my hope for Palm Valley.