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The Historian
BY: Jesus Gomez

 

Spurgeon “Spud” Brown, 93, works once a week at The McAllen Heritage Center, trying to preserve history as fast as he can. 

The nonagenarian wants to protect city directories so that families are not forgotten. He has finished about two-thirds of the work from a 1949 directory, the first of four directories he is preserving.

“I’m putting them on computer so that they can be digitized, and you could look up anybody that you want during that year, rather than going through a book to try to find it,” Brown said. He noted that the books were frail and coming apart.

Museum Director Elva Cerda said she is working to hire help to digitize multiple projects for ease of access, including Brown’s project.

Brown, born and raised in McAllen, enshrined himself as a pillar of the city, working as a service station attendee and serving in the Korean War. He also assisted with founding the center and currently gives tours to museum guests.

For four hours a week between the tours, Brown goes down the list, entering family names, addresses, and home ownership status from a decades-old directory. Then, using a folded piece of paper, he follows the information across the page and reaches the “P” on one book. It took him six months to get here. Pecking at each key, he creates a consistent sound of strokes that imitate a swinging pendulum. 

“Then I come back over here, and I type, and I’m not a typist,” he said. “So, I have to hunt for everything that I got. So, it takes me a long time to do this.”

The museum’s lighting is dim, and not much sunlight makes its way through the windows because of the soft white mesh curtains with leaf patterns. The motion-sensor bell rings as another curious person walks through the door. They check in with student intern David Martinez at the front desk and request a tour. Martinez describes Brown as an incredible individual who has lived through the history of McAllen and fought in the Korean War.

Brown will happily step away from his project to give a tour showcasing the town’s history. 

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He is passionate enough about the accuracy of his town’s history to halt a tour and obsess over the year labeled on a panoramic photo of the city.

“That’s why I think this is not 1919, because the soldiers were gone in 1917,” he said. “They went to war (WWI). They came in ’16. So this picture should be ’16. I got to go tell them to change that. 

“Because the camp, you see that the military is still camped out here in tents in the background.”

The military tents are a small detail on the horizon of the town’s photo that only a knowledgeable eagle-eyed viewer could spot.

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The U.S. aided South Korea in a North Korean invasion in 1950 by sending troops to help defend borders. Brown piloted the M4 Sherman, a manual transmission tank left over from WWII. 

“Our tank was better than the new tank because [the new tank] had automatic transmission,” Brown said. “And when it wanted to go up the hill, it couldn’t go. It was too heavy. It weighs about 34,000 pounds here, and it won’t go up.”

General Motors in Detroit manufactured a variety of automatic transmissions from their Buick plant and intended to place an experimental automatic transmission in the Sherman. Still, WWII was coming to an end in 1945. The advantage was consistent speed during gear shifts, while the older tanks slowed and became easier targets.

Before the war, Brown entered the gasoline business with his dad after high school in 1948, operating 11 stations in the valley.

After the war, Brown returned to work with his father at the service stations. The two opened the first self-service stations in the Rio Grande Valley, allowing customers to save four cents at the gas pump.

“My dad told me we will always need gasoline, and then I hear they want to stop the petroleum and go to electric and wind by solar,” he said. “I don’t know whether that will last or not. I’m not buying an electric car.”

Brown happily owns two trucks, his favorite being a white diesel Ford F-350.

The petroleum business helped Brown permanently settle in McAllen with his wife, Janice Brown, for most of his adult life. They bought a home on the same road where he operated one of his stations and raised two daughters there.

However, for years Brown fended off a salesman working for a client to acquire the home he and his wife had in McAllen. He declined the offers year after year, stating he would live in the house until he died. Finally, after a couple of years, the man had successfully closed requests with the entire neighborhood, except the Browns’ home.

In 2008 the man approached Brown for the final time.

‘Don’t interrupt me; I want to tell you something,’ Brown said. “He said, ‘I have a client; they will pay you whatever you ask for your house. They will pay all the taxes and all of the permits.’”

He turned him down because he was committed to living out his days at that home. Then he went inside to tell Janice about the offer he had just turned down.

“Go get him; sell the house!” she said.

That home has become the corner of a neighborhood Walmart parking lot, and the Browns have settled in a new home in McAllen that features a comedic sign on the front lawn that reads “Casa de Café,” which translates to coffee house, or house of Brown. The home features a hallway with pictures of family, ceremonies and trinkets; an office with photos of the family gas stations and more documents about McAllen.

“You boys all stick together with your offices and paperwork,” said Janice laughing and joking about the room being filled with documents.

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