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Monday, Mar. 23, 1998

Duval County Museum reveals little-known tales through anecdotes

Visitors can explore rooms devoted to medical history, famed political boss

Staff Writer

   SAN DIEGO - An entire room of the Duval County Museum is dedicated to three dead doctors - their artifacts and life stories holding a special significance to a town that now has no doctor.
   In another room, a driver's license is displayed under glass - not just any driver's license, but one issued to George Parr, the legendary Duke of Duval.
   And there are empty soft drink bottles from a former local pharmacist whose recipe was rumored to be the original formula for Dr Pepper - a tale the Dr Pepper company denies.
   The museum building is itself historic - a two-story 19th-century house on the central plaza. Its hodgepodge of exhibits is neither chronological nor predictable.
   The room focusing on the town's medical history has sections dedicated to three of the most beloved doctors in San Diego's history, including the late E.E. Dunlap, whom museum director Maggie G. Rangel remembers fondly.
   ``This was his desk,'' she said during a tour. ``See, he had pictures of all of the children he delivered on his desk, under this glass.''
   An old X-ray machine and an examining table dominate the room.
   Rangel, a lifelong Duval County resident who has worked as a waitress, a cashier, a welfare caseworker and a clerk, now puts her spin on the county's history. There are exhibits throughout with a personal connection to her or her family.
   The museum's hours are flexible, open Tuesdays through Fridays, and on Saturdays - if she feels like it.
   The War Room tells the history of San Diego residents who fought in the wars of this century. Again, the history is more personal and anecdotal than organized or comprehensive.
   Buttons from a uniform, the star worn on a widow's sleeve during World War II and snapshots of local soldiers in Vietnam are part of the exhibit. So is her son's Marine Corps uniform from the Vietnam War.
   ``These pictures of the soldiers in Vietnam were donated by his friends,'' she said.
   Clippings tell the stories of area residents who served in during World War II, often not at the forefront of the news, but at the forefront of residents' hearts. ``Hebbronville Boy Also Saved,'' says one small headline, easily overlooked beneath a larger one, which tells of victory in battle.
   In the Parr Room, the life of political boss George Parr is chronicled.
   ``The centerpiece of this room was the guest bedroom suite of George Parr, but the commissioner's court had a fight, and it was taken away,'' Rangel said.
   Now the room has Parr's driver's license under glass, his final will and the felt cowboy hat he was said to be wearing when he killed himself after he had been sentenced to prison for income tax evasion. The display also shows a photograph of Parr's cronies standing in front of the now infamous ballot box that decided the 1948 U.S. Senate race in favor of Lyndon B. Johnson.
   Word was that Jim Wells County election officials were acting on Parr's orders when, with Johnson opponent Coke R. Stevenson the apparent winner, the officials reported an additional 202 votes for future-President Johnson. As accusations of fraud surfaced, the voting lists disappeared.
   Some of Parr's books are lined up on the floor against a wall in the museum, including a book on deer, several tomes on hunting and fishing, a manual on the how-tos of polo and novels of the West with titles such as ``Horses, Honor and Women.''
   In Duval County, though, history is more than dusty documents. It's living memory.
   ``I knew him,'' Rangel said of Parr. ``His men killed my uncle. They shot him to death in a fight over whether to remove the courthouse to Benavides.''
   After members of an opposition party were killed, Gov. Allan Shivers and federal authorities launched massive campaigns to dismantle the Parr machine, netting more than 650 indictments of Parr ring members in the 1950s. Parr managed to dodge the indictments and a mail fraud conviction with a series of dismissals and reversals on appeal.
   It was only after his own followers began to turn against him and he received a five-year conviction for federal income tax evasion that Parr killed himself on his ranch, Los Harcones, on April 1, 1975.
   Farther back into the past, old letters in Spanish tell of love and hardship on the frontier. One framed letter is neatly written, with the lines criss-crossing each other horizontally and vertically, to save paper. Printed Spanish death notices that were carried from house to house as the church bells tolled are kept under glass.
   An old map of the area describes the largely unsettled territory with its rolling prairie and mesquite timber and marks ranches no longer in existence.
   San Diego, which was originally part of a Spanish land grant in the 18th century, was first settled as Rancho San Diego in 1815.
   ``It was Corpus Christi, Laredo, and San Diego was the outpost,'' said San Diego Mayor and historian Alfredo Cardenas. ``These were the only towns in the area.''
   At the front of the museum is a large, colorful mural in the style of Diego Riviera showing Franklin D. Roosevelt being touched on the shoulder by a hand from the heavens, the hand cloaked in stars and stripes. Roosevelt is watching as people of all races pick up shovels and plows and go to work through WPA programs.
   Stepping outside the museum and into the streets also can give a historic perspective. Many of the buildings were built in the 19th century out of sillar, a type of rock commonly used for building in northern Mexico.
   The church bells can be heard throughout the town. Children play in the plaza. Many back yards have old water wells. The old courthouse, built across the street from a hanging tree, is commonly believed to be haunted.
   ``A lot of things have never changed here,'' Cardenas said. ``It's the kind of town where you don't leave history behind.''
   Duval County Museum
   208 E. St. Joseph St.
   Hours: Tuesday through Friday 1 to 5 p.m.

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