Val Verde County Historical Commission
Southwest Texas Junior College, 207 Wildcat, Del Rio, Texas 78840
Del Rio, Texas was founded as an agricultural community in 1868 on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert and, at three miles from the Rio Grande, on the edge of the United States. While schools were occasionally established in Del Rio in the nineteenth century, little information is extant about them. An adobe structure was used in the 1870s, but “teachers just came and went.” School seems to have been more consistently offered in the 1880s when school was moved to a two-room, wood-frame building on a corner at Pecan and Greenwood Streets. Even so, funding seems to have been limited: “It was customary to allow all children to attend as long as the tax money lasted and then charge tuition for those who attended after the free school was finished.” A Del Rio common school district was organized in 1884 while the town was part of Kinney County. Del Rio became part of and the county seat of Val Verde County in 1885.1
assumed the responsibility for schools in Del Rio in the summer of 1885. Taxes were levied each year, so schooling continued. But the history of Old Del Rio High School really begins with the creation of the (first version) of the independent school district.2
It is difficult to image a Texas school bus without those magic letters “I.S.D.” Before ISD’s, Texas operated “common school districts” under county supervision. State law in 1881 was changed to allow this new type of government, one that was not managed by city or county government.3 The creation of an ISD meant that an elected school board would oversee the district independently of the city and county government. The school board would also have the power to levy taxes for the maintenance of the district.
It was summer 1890 when the voters decided to take action. “Whereas an application was filed with me as County Judge [W.K. Jones] of Val Verde County Texas, on the 19th day of June, 1890, signed by the requisite number of qualified voters, asking that an election be held within the boundaries hereinafter set forth for the purpose of submitting to a vote of the people the question of incorporating the territory embraced in said boundaries for free school purposes only.”4 The last part was important, because no other governmental regulation was involved, and the “incorporation” was not a municipal incorporation.
The election was held July 1, and the vote was overwhelmingly positive. Sixty-five voters chose “Corporation”; only sixteen voted “No Corporation.” (One lone vote was labeled “Scattering.”) Del Rio’s first school district was about to be in business.5
For the record, the district boundaries did not include Del Rio’s San Felipe neighborhood. The declaration of boundaries described the line as “Beginning at the crossing of the San Felipe Creek where the North East line of survey No. 183, crosses the same; thence down the San Felipe Creek along its meanders to the West line of the William Lockhart survey No. 157; then along said line to the Rio Grande; thence up said river to the mouth of the Cienegas Creek; thence up the Cienegas Creek along its meanders to the S.P.R.R. track; thence East with said track to the West line of Francisco Canales survey; thence [along several survey lines north of town]; and along survey No. 183, to the place of beginning.”6 The creation of schools for San Felipe, therefore, became a separate story.
The first high school, or secondary school as they were often known, was built in 1893. The building site was the southwest corner of Griner Street (known as Houston Street until the twentieth century) and Martin Street. The high school was housed at this site until the 1970s even though the building itself was radically altered and replaced at different times.
The 1893 school building actually housed all grades of Del Rio students though it was known as “a high school even in 1884.”7 A history of the school district included an image of this building, shown at right. The history identifies it as “Old High School on present site. Brick building-completed in 1893.”8 Warren Studio found a negative in a forgotten file from which we have this much clearer image of the building. This squareish building (with central bell tower) with six classrooms and an auditorium conforms with Sanborn maps from 1900 and 1905.9 The 1909 map shows a slightly less square shape, but otherwise appears to be the same structure.
By 1906, the student body had grown enough to occupy three buildings: the high school, Hill School (Northside Elementary), and the Colored School. Some of the grade levels were noted as being “uncomfortably crowded.” Even so, an eleventh grade was added to the high school for the 1910-1911 school year. The district rented property around town including the “building to be known as Gildea Hall.”10
During 1908 the school board contracted to “add eight rooms to the brick building on Griner…. During this remodeling high school was held in various buildings about town, Gildea Hall, the old skating rink at 300 South Main and the second story of the building at 536 South Main.”11 The building that appears on the 1909 Sanborn map is clearly a portion of the building that appears on the 1917 map. The addition of eight classrooms and an auditorium changed the size and shape of the building and was completed by 1911.12 Another source plainly identifies this building as the one remodeled from the original 1893 structure despite the radical change in the exterior façades, windows, and doorways.13
The 1893 Del Rio High School was often called a college. The reason for this is unclear, but school board minutes are reported to refer to the “new brick building” as “the ‘College.’”14 This postcard image of the school does so as well. (Note the caption in the upper left corner.)
The expansion of the high school managed the student population for a decade. The growth of the town and the enactment of a state compulsory education law put more students than ever into the school system. Another increase in the student body came from a small number of high school students graduating from the Common School District #2 (San Felipe neighborhood) elementary schools and then “crossing the Creek” to Del Rio High, the only high school in the county.15
“By 1920 the board became aware of the necessity of a new high school building.”16 A site was purchased facing Garfield Avenue, but the 1924 Sanborn map shows that the new building shared groundspace with the old structure and auxiliary buildings and the ball park. This new high school building appears to have been completed in 1922, and the old building was renamed Central Public School for elementary grades. Electric lights were installed in both elementary schools in 1924; presumably, electrical work was built into the new high school.17
The 1930 Sanborn map shows a small addition to the old high school building as well as other additions to the large school property along Garfield Avenue. As early as 1923, the school board was discussing “the enlargement of the school district” that happened in 1928-1929 and resulted in the judicial reversal of the enlargement and the creation of the San Felipe Independent School District and San Felipe High School.18
During 1930 a new high school building was constructed, the building that still stands on the Griner and Martin corner of the school property and the building that bears the Del Rio High School name over the main entrance.19 The 1930 Sanborn map does not show the new structure, but it does appear on the modified 1930 Sanborn map (showing changes through the 1940s). This picture, shown at right, is an excerpt from an aerial photo of the downtown area.
The front section of the old high school building (shown on page four) stood facing eastward to Griner Street. Most of that old structure is gone. Behind that structure is some new construction which does fit the footprint of the building that Del Rio now calls Old Del Rio High School. The simultaneous demolition and construction apparently did not leave room for Sanborn to make corrections to the 1930 map. This new building faces Griner and the rising sun and was pretty as a postcard—as evidenced by this postcard image.
This building was constructed in 1930 by Phil Garoni, son-in-law of Del Rio building John Taini, and remains intact today in the heart of the city of Del Rio.20
During the 1930s the twelfth grade was added, completing the now normal 1st through 12th grade curriculum. New facilities and room additions were made to all of the school buildings during this same decade. President Franklin Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration, enacted during the Great Depression, built some of the facilities from that time. Other buildings were brought from Laughlin Army Air Field when it closed following the end of the Second World War.21
Activities at and around the (Old) Del Rio High School were standard high school activities. The school colors and mascot were in use during the early 1920s. The maroon and gold and the wildcat are still remembered by high school alumni. In what would surely be an SPCA violation, an actual wildcat was the mascot. Graduate Roger Thurmond and friends found a baby wildcat outside of town, and the feline was brought to football games on a chain. When the animal died, it was buried under the football field.22
Del Rio High offered “Debating Societies,” vocational guidance and training, musical programs and military training and drill in a “Uniformed Cadet Corps.” During the Great War (First World War), the schools (and presumably the schoolchildren) became Junior Red Cross members. “Patriotic public exercises [were] rendered by all the school rooms. The high school also hosted a Chautauqua lecture series.23 The school building also became home to a student wireless radio station. After the Second World War, some of the space in the barracks buildings from Laughlin was used for veterans programs.24 Del Rio had many of the standard sports programs. Football was very popular (this is, of course, Texas). But baseball was popular as well as a variety of grade athletics.25
Scholastic work in the early twentieth century included two or three programs that ran concurrently, allowing students to specialize in different fields. Each program included four or five subjects per year. One program, called the “Latin Course,” included four years of Latin. A second program was entitled “Spanish-Science,” and a third was the “History Course.” All the programs included Civics, English, and various courses of math.26
The institution of Del Rio High School was transferred out of the Griner Street building to a new site on the northern edge of Del Rio in 1968 as a result of the growth of the city and student body.27 The new high school facility was built on the far north edge of town (although the city has since grown around it). The old high school building was put into use as an eighth-grade campus, called Del Rio Middle School, and remained so until 2004. In January 2004 the eighth-grade students were moved to the new Del Rio Middle School on the east side of town on Highway 90. In February 2004 school administration announced that the district’s alternative school students would be relocated from an the old Houston Elementary. The Alternative School will not occupy the entire campus, and as yet no other plans have been made.28
The Old Del Rio High School marker will be placed in front of the building at Griner and Martin Streets. The year 2005 represents the 75th anniversary of the construction of the building that is well remembered by many years of graduates and alumni.
Ruby L. Barnett and Rachel L. Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” Sul Ross State College [University], History Paper, May 1953.
John Anthony Garoni to DB, personal interview and email communications.
George O. Perkins, “The Early History of Val Verde County,” Sul Ross State College [now University], Master’s Thesis, January 1954.
Val Verde County Commissioners Court, Minutes.
Val Verde County Historical Commission & Texas Historical Commission, historical marker applications for “San Felipe High School” and “Old Elks Hall.”
Val Verde County Record of Election Returns.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps: 1900, 1905, 1909, 1917, 1924, 1930, 1930+.
Four pages (two with captions describing two with images) from Perkins, showing the early Del Rio High School.
1 Ruby L. Barnett and Rachel L. Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” Sul Ross State College [University], History Paper, May 1953, pages 41-46, 49.
2 Barnett and Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” pages 46-47.
3 Barnett and. Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” page 50.
4 Val Verde County Commissioners Court, Minutes, Vol. 1, page 407.
5 Val Verde County Record of Election Returns, Vol. 1, page 10.
6 Val Verde County Commissioners Court, Minutes, Vol. 1, pages 407-408.
7 Barnett and. Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” page 58.
8 Barnett and. Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” page 51a.
9 Barnett and. Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” page 62.
10 Barnett and. Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” pages 65-66, 72, 74. Gildea Hall is the name of a building across the street from the county courthouse and on the site now occupied by the Old Elks Hall, for which a THC RTHL was dedicated in 2003.
11 Barnett and. Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” pages74-75.
12 Barnett and. Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” page 76.
13 George O. Perkins, “The Early History of Val Verde County,” Sul Ross State College [now University], Master’s Thesis, January 1954, unnumbered pages of photos and captions.
14 Barnett and. Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” pages 58-59.
15 Barnett and. Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” pages 80, 98.
16 Barnett and. Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” page 109.
17 Barnett and. Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” page 140.
18 The story of San Felipe High and the SFISD can be found in the THC/VVCHC historical marker application.
19 Barnett and. Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” page 140.
20 John Anthony Garoni to DB, personal interview and email communication. JAG’s father Phil came to Del Rio when his San Antonio employer suggested Phil accompany him to Del Rio to work with Taini, a man with two good-looking, Italian, single daughters. Phil (1889-1946) came to Del Rio, married, and stayed—and continued the family tradition of building. (See also the "John Taini" historical marker application.) It may not be fair to say Garoni built the whole school. Modern building codes require plumbers and electricians to work on specific aspects of construction, so no one builds entire buildings from scratch, as did Taini in the 1800s and early 1900s. Garoni is responsible for the brickwork and therefore responsible for this school’s façade and the appearance that made the school worthy of the postcard image on this page.
21 Barnett and. Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” pages 132, 141-143, 146.
22 Barnett and. Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” pages 101, 104, 137.
23 The Chautauqua Movement started as an adult education program at Lake Chautauqua, New York. Among the programs was a collection of “traveling chautauquas” that gave lectures and presentations around the country. The were very common during the years between the two world wars.
24 Barnett and. Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” pages 85, 88-89, 95, 108, 147.
25 Barnett and. Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” pages 100-101.
26 Barnett and. Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” page 94.
27 Dedicatory plaque in the courtyard in front of the new high school main entrance.
28 Diana Gonzales, “Former eighth grade campus to serve Alternate School students,” Del Rio Live! (online newspaper), February 2, 2004.