Making the Magic Valley: Water, Wealth, and Health in the Rio Grande Valley

In this mini-blog, Amy Hay presents her poster from the ESEH conference in Zagreb. We think posters never get the exposure they deserve!

The late-nineteenth century saw a dramatic alteration in the landscape of the Rio Grande Valley, located in the southmost tip of Texas. For much of the preceding centuries the region had been a migratory corridor. The development of military forts and the port of Brownsville came about as the new Republic of Texas sought to create a buffer zone between itself and Mexico. In the post-Civil War years, local boosters began altering the landscape, changes that would lead to settlement, crops, and eventually a health industry.

John Closner, the son of Swiss immigrants, came to the Rio Grande Valley in 1883. He held a variety of positions in nearby Hildalgo County, including sheriff at a time of intense border conflicts. Closner became a key player in making the “Magic Valley” – the name boosters called the region – when he built a canal system to irrigate his produce, tobacco, and cotton crops in 1895. Harnessing the might of the Rio Grande River, Closner and other land entrepreneurs irrigated thousands of acres, making the Magic Valley a major producer of cotton, produce, and citrus crops like the Ruby Red grapefruit. The agricultural success of the area led to the development of urban financial centers and the emergence of a new industry: catering to health-seeking seniors desiring a temperate climate and access to recreational activities and Mexican entertainments and health care.

Using historical accounts, hydraulic statistics, and demographic information, this poster examines the long 20th-century and the making of the Magic Valley in the Southwest borderlands and the importance of the built environment in transforming an under settled, mostly empty buffer zone into a vibrant destination for medical migrants. It argues that making the water resources of the Rio Grande available changed the economic opportunities and concepts of health the Magic Valley offered.

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