Eileen Mattei is on a history hunt in McAllen. Successful in her quest, she is uncovering vignettes of lives — things like finding stories of a woman who delivered thousands of babies, the shaggy boy and who rode that last passenger train. She’s also finding out tidbits such as how McAllenites are willing to “pay” to improve their city by paying to help build Casa de Palmas Hotel, to start the housing authority and the Foreign Trade Zone.
“I guess you could call the citizens ‘paying’ an act of philanthropy or contributing to the public good. I hadn’t come across that type of aid to a city at that level and that many times any place else I’ve studied and read about,” said Mattei about her third book. Her previous books are Valley Places/Valley Faces: A Portrait of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and At the Crossroads: Harlingen’s First 100 Years. Mattei is once again doing one of her favorite things — writing about people and their lives.
An anthropology major at the University of Connecticut, she found herself interested in people and how they are so different from place to place.
“My major ties in perfectly with what I do — writing histories,” she said.
Today, also a travel and business writer, she listens intently at her interviews which have shown her the wonder of being in the billboard business or how someone could get so excited about running a cardboard box company.
In her research for her latest book, she has found pictures which tell stories even when she can’t find a person to talk to her.
“I find photos and photos tell the story,” Eileen said. “I’m a writer and I love words but photos tell the story.”
There was the picture showing a horse hitched to a post outside of a very early building — pre-1910, all wood frame. Other pictures of McAllen show the horse drawn carriage period.
Laughing, she tells of discovering when the banks considered anything north of Pecan in the country and wouldn’t make a loan that “far out” in the country!
Mattei has certainly seen all manner of history in her travels, living in Connecticut, Japan, Hawaii, California and in Cameroon with the Peace Corps after college. Working with fish farmers while in the Peace Corps, she and her husband continued in the industry they loved for over 20 years before deciding to try something different.
Moving to Harlingen 17 years ago, he became a blacksmith artist and Eileen decided to take up writing, which she has done with a flourish.
“I write for Texas Highways Magazine, Texas Parks and Wildlife and Texas Co-op Power,” she said. “I write for different organizations such as Chambers (of Commerce) and EDCs (economic development corporations) here in the Valley and am also writing for Valley Business Report as well as becoming their new editor.”
Adding newsletters and annual reports to her resume, Eileen has made the switch to writer with gusto!
“I’ve had a very, very good time,” she said. “Whatever I start doing, I have a good time doing it or I don’t do it anymore.”
So she keeps digging into McAllen and finding more and more interesting facts about this 100-year-old city.
“During the bandit era, over 12,000 military were here who received a monthly paycheck, even if it was only $30 a month,” Eileen said. “It started people thinking and before you know it there were tent stores which went up to handle the crowd. We have a photo of the early years from 1916 when the whole west side of McAllen was covered with the military camp, tents to the horizon.”
Calling on local historians, such as Spud Brown (he used to get free ice chips at the ice plant next door to his father’s hardware store, Brownies, in the 1930s), Frank Birkhead, and Geoff Alger, museum curator for the McAllen Heritage Center, she will have her compilation put together to go to press this fall.
“I am picking the things which show how different McAllen is,” she said. “I’ve chosen the theme — McAllen: Leading the Way — because it has always been an aggressive, dynamic town.”
Dropping these hints as to the content of the book will hopefully raise the level of anticipation.
“History is really about people and that’s what I have to go and find — people’s stories and how they fit into the big picture,” said Eileen. “That’s what it’s all about.”
The book will be available next February on the anniversary of McAllen’s incorporation.