National Geographic : 1939 Jan
THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE laneous products from northern Mexico. Brownsville's most unusual industry is the animal farm of "Snake King" at the edge of town. "King" has probably the greatest hoard of crystallized rattlesnake venom in existence-nearly twenty pounds of it, packed in glass jars. Saucers of the fresh venom look like honey. It is allowed to dry in the air of a screened room, and after a day or so it thickens and "checks," finally appearing like grains of hardened glue or fragments of resin. Small quantities of the crystallized venom are sent to laboratories in various parts of the world where research work in the production of antivenins is carried on. Brownsville has a virtual monopoly of the few historic structures in the Delta, in cluding two churches built in 1854, and the house in which Porfirio Diaz lived in 1876 and in which he made plans for the cross ing into Mexico which led to his long rule as president. At Point Isabel is a light house built in 1853. "HIGHWAY CITY". IN THE MAKING In contrast, the dozen or more little cities that have sprung up along the railroad and the highway that split the American por tion of .the Delta are almost glaringly new. Not a house or store building existed in any of these towns before the laying of rails in 1904; now each of them shelters from 5,000 to 15,000 people. Flying up the Delta over the large and small clumps of buildings that make up these towns, I was struck by their close ness. My plane would barely leave the out skirts of one before it was over another. Steadily these communities have been grow ing toward one another in recent years, and they seem destined to form virtually one "highway city" more than fifty miles long. The Delta's new towns-San Benito, Harlingen, Weslaco, McAllen, Mission, and a dozen others-testify eloquently that the country's economics is based chiefly on agri culture and horticulture. In each, grouped near the railway tracks, are fruit and vege table packing plants, canning factories, cot ton gins, and in some cases cottonseed-oil mills. And running through or near each town is a main-line canal carrying the re gion's lifeblood: muddy, silt-laden irriga tion water from the Rio Grande. If you linger in the Rio Grande Delta, you will begin to wonder about the Indians who were the original human inhabitants of the area. Little is known about them. for there are no caves, convenient catchalls for the anthropologist, in the fine silt. But remnants of objects used many cen turies ago, which throw some light on the region's "first families," have been found in a few graves and along the wind- and tide-washed mud flats of the coast. Those who try to piece together a picture of conditions here before the coming of Europeans believe that the fruit of the prickly pear, in its season, was almost the only vegetable food available to the local Indians. Shell arrowheads show that small game, such as the rabbit, was hunted. But the Indians could not have been well fed and they could not have found the Delta a satisfactory place for permanent homes, be cause the surface of the ground, away from the Rio Grande, is without running streams and springs of fresh water. This picture of a jungle, often arid, and all but unpeopled, is sure to set you musing on the revolutionary changes and amazing contrasts that a few years and a few of man's devices have brought to this patch of the earth's surface. Such thoughts came as I flew over the Delta country shortly before the end of my visit. I looked down upon hundreds of thousands of glossy green citrus trees ex tending in ordered rows to the horizon, and upon green rectangles where the earth is yielding countless tons of food, month in and month out. And here, three and four-perhaps ten centuries ago men eked out a miserable existence because of the scarcity of food! None of the fundamentals have changed in this region since those days. There is the same soil, built by the annual floods of millenniums; there is the same warm, semi tropic sun. What has brought the astounding trans formation? Dollars, saved elsewhere, and men with vision to spend them for the things that Nature did not furnish: parallel tracks of shiny steel that lead to other lands; pump ing plants set on the river's brink; and channels through which the greatest lack of all, water, flows to thirsty plants. Paradoxically, the bone-dry Delta in which a handful of primitive men thirsted and hungered, watered now, supports its population of 200,000, and ships out be sides an important fraction of a nation's food.