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Small But Great Museums

Explore the museums of the Rio Grande Valley

The Rio Grande Valley is blessed with several small but wonderful museums. Their focus ranges from motorcycles and military history to clothing and local history. Admission is free or modest, although the remarkable exhibits will have you saying: “Wow! Look at that!” Run by knowledgeable volunteers, these four pocket museums demonstrate great things can come in small packages.

The Costumes of the Americas Museum delights visitors with eye-catching colors, textiles and designs from its collection of more than 600 ethnic costumes. The museum, located next to Brownsville Children’s Museum, opened its current exhibit, “The Pan American Union: A History Through Textiles and Treasures,” to showcase traditional costumes from the 21 founding nations of the Pan American Union.

A mannequin clad in an Argentinian gaucho’s tooled leather chaps holding bolos contrasts with a nearby Brazilian samba school dance outfit and elaborate beaded headdress. The handmade black and red lace of a Paraguayan dress represents one region while a tin Bolivian devil mask introduces another. The attractiveness and variety of costumes here is incredible: an Apache girl’s ceremonial yellow buckskin tunic, shirts with Mayan petroglyphs, and sequined and beribboned fiesta blouses.

The magnificent displays are accompanied by clear, fact-filled panels explaining the costumes: who wore them on what occasions, what they were made from, and the symbolism of elements. The costumes might include animal skins, feathers and bones, elaborate embroidery and beadwork, native plant dyes or softened bark.

Pan American Roundtable-I, Brownsville, collected the costumes and donated them to the museum, along with accessories like gourds, fans, toys and household objects. The displays honor the past and color our future.

Guided tours are available for clubs. Open Tuesday–Saturday from 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. and Sundays from 12:00 p.m.–4:00 p.m. Their phone number is 956-547-6890. The museum is located at 501 E Ringgold St., Brownsville, TX 78520.

courtesy of the Harlingen Military Academy

Focused on the World War II battle of Iwo Jima island, the Iwo Jima Museum at Marine Military Academy in Harlingen tells the powerful, poignant story about “the most savage and costly battle in the history of the Marine Corps.” First, walk around the monument that is the original mold of the iconic Iwo Jima statue of six men raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi. Admiral Chester Nimitz said that on Iwo Jima, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.” The Medal of Honor was awarded to 22 Marines who fought there.

The museum’s excellent 32-minute video explains why taking the island fortress from the Japanese was so critical to ending the war. The cost was horrendous: 6,000 dead Marines, with total casualties over 30,000. Yet, hundreds of damaged American bombers returning from missions to Japan landed on Iwo Jima, saving their crews.

The museum displays portraits of very young Marines and photos of men pinned down by enemy fire next to captured samurai swords and American weapons and equipment. Rosenthal’s photo of the Marines and Navy corpsman raising the flag became a symbol of hope and strength. Harlon Block, 1943 Weslaco High School graduate and one of the men depicted raising the flag, is buried next to the monument. “This is an awesome sight,” says Marvin Faulcon, visiting from Austin.

Centuries of Marine history are covered here as well, from 1775 and the shores of Tripoli through to World War I, Vietnam and an Iraqi surrender flag from the Middle East. A gift store offers Marine and Iwo Jima souvenirs. 

Open Monday–Saturday from 10:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m. and Sunday from 1:00 p.m.–4:00 p.m.; their phone number is 956-421-9234 and they are located at 320 Iwo Jima Blvd, Harlingen, TX 78550.

John Faulk

South Texas Motorcycle Museum in Edinburg showcases 80 antique motorcycles, machines that look like works of art because of their flowing lines and harmonious color schemes. Retired doctor Mike Sweeney built the museum to share his collection with the public.

The highly polished motorcycles sparkle under the spotlights these beauties deserve. The museum celebrates the culture and engineering of American motorcycles by going back more than 100 years, starting with a 1903 Harley and progressing through decades of sturdy Harleys and Indians.

Dave Garcia, who owns the adjacent motorcycle shop, has all the bikes in running condition and used to put his children in sidecars for a ride. Now, as well-groomed senior citizens, the bikes pose with discreet drip pans under their sparkling engines. Extra wide leather seats seem standard although the fringe drapes are less so. Foot pegs resembling bicycle pedals double as kick starters.

Look for the leather sidecar, the 1913 racing bike that had no brakes, and the Captain America Chopper replica used in the cult movie Easy Rider. A smattering of European bikes—BMWs, Moto Guzzis, five Ducattis, and an Italian Aprilla which resembles a red bullet—round out the collection. 

Open Saturday from 12:00 p.m.–5:00 p.m. Sunday from 12:00 p.m.–3:00 p.m. or by appointment for groups; their phone number is 956-292-0770. The museum is located at 4403 E Richardson Rd, Edinburg, TX 78542.

John Faulk

In the McAllen Heritage Center, segments of forgotten history bring the past alive. The former post office building has displays of early home life—coal-filled irons and washboards—as well as broom corn and an old crank phone.

Starting way back, with the fossilized mammoth tooth found in Mission, the center presents memorabilia and memories of the early 20th century. Here you’ll find out about the Valley’s 18 minor league baseball teams and see scale models of McAllen’s first, second and third train depots with photos of the stations.

By decade, history marches past as seen in the beautiful, colored fruit and vegetable labels used by packers and canners that flourished from the 1920-70s. Old postcards, photos and clippings recall the 1936 rocket mail flight across the Rio Grande, the Bubblegum King, and the influx of thousands of soldiers before World War I.

You can compare photos of McAllen buildings then and now as well as changes in automobiles over 100 years. Exhibits on long time businesses will bring back memories. The Kriedler family’s funeral home once had hearses that doubled as ambulances. La Estrella Panaderia had a wood-fired brick oven that baked countless panes dulces and empanadas.

A trip back in time won’t take long, and it’s a pleasant journey. 

Open Wednesday–Friday from 1:00 p.m.–5:00 p.m. and Saturdays from 11:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m.; their phone number is (956) 687-1904. The McAllen Heritage Center is located at 301 S Main St, McAllen, TX 78501.