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Rockets Over The Rio

or
Waiting For Goddard

by Phil Ately
Rocket mail over Rio Grande
Illustration by John Troesser

The mix of gunpowder and the US Postal Service always guarantees a good story. Not always a story with a happy ending, but a good story.

The time was 1936 and Texas was celebrating its Centennial. Ft. Worth had hired Billy Rose and Sally Rand to entertain their folks, but the rest of Texas was depressed. With a capital D.

Things were tough on the border too. Times were so bad that Texas Rangers, who traditionally passed the time making their badges from Mexican silver pesos, started making their buttons from five-centavo pieces.

Those Depression-era desperadoes Bonita y Clyde didn't include the Rio Grande Valley in their area of operations, so locals bout to be foreclosed upon had to take matters into their own hands and shoot their own bankers.

We all know that desperate times call for desperate schemes. How else could one explain a suitable-for-the-Marx Brothers script that suggested launching letters to Mexico and back (and even hoped to turn a profit).

The story begins with an American Legion Post in McAllen, Texas that wanted their mortgage paid off in time for dedication ceremonies that were scheduled for July 2nd 1936. Money was tight, and ideas were in short supply. But the Post Commander's son had one.

The boy had two hobbies: rocketry and stamp collecting. Combining the one unusual hobby with the more popular one, he came up with the idea of Rocket Mail.

Rocket mail had previously been tried in Europe, but with mixed results. You can understand France's reluctance to have anything remotely explosive come across its border with Germany.

Having a foreign country just across the river would allow the use of the word INTERNATIONAL to the already impressive name ROCKET MAIL.

The son convinced his father that First Day of Issue commemorative covers of the event could be sold to stamp collectors around the world. At that time, stamp collecting was the most popular hobby in the United States. Even President Roosevelt collected stamps.

16 cents stamp

The enterprising boy didn't miss a trick. He even designed his own triangular Rocket Mail stamps that he sold for .50 each. In addition to that stamp, each cover had to have a 16 cent US stamp and for those making the return from Mexico, a 40 centavo Aero Correo stamp. Add a few postmarks and there was hardly any room left for an address.


Even today, a letter from Reynosa, Mexico
can take three days to reach McAllen, although the distance between the two post offices is a mere 10 miles. The Rocket Mail could claim that (at least some of) your letter would arrive on “el otro lado” in about 10 seconds.

Official postal authorities on both sides were reluctant to participate at first, but it was the Depression and everyone decided they could use a good laugh. The seven-foot laminated cardboard rocket tubes were built and (it is said) schoolchildren emptied out 600,000 Black Cat firecrackers to fuel the fiasco (Spanish for Fiesta).

On the chosen day, dignitaries were on both sides of the International Bridge in Hidalgo praying that Mexico City and Washington hadn't heard about what was about to happen. The trajectory (rocket language) was set for 1000 feet.

Rio Grande, Hidalgo Reynosa  Bridge, Hidalgo Texas
Aerial view of Hidalgo, Rio Grande, Reynosa Bridge crossing into Mexico.
Photo courtesy Museum of South Texas History

The Mayor of McAllen lit the fuse and the First International Rocket Mail (in the Western Hemisphere) roared up the launching skid and exploded 10 feet into the air, turning covers and stamps into so much scorched confetti (Spanish for burned mail). Much of this first batch was rescued by Mexican school children who mistook the event to be some sort of postal piñata.

After everyone calmed down and most of the letters were recovered, a second rocket was launched that spiraled into downtown Reynosa, sideswiped a Model T and slid up against the curb at the American Bar where it's smoldering remains were doused with (the cheaper brands) of Tequila.

American Bar in Mexico
The American Bar in Mexico
Photo courtesy Museum of South Texas History

Mexican authorities that were miffed because they couldn't attend the ceremonies on the bridge, confiscated the 150 covers in that rocket's payload. This was turning into more entertainment than anyone had imagined and it looked like an international incident or a Second Mexican War was only a rocket launch away.

Mexico Stamps on scorched envelopes
TE Photo
Another Launch and then Lunch:

Now it was Mexico's turn. Since a Mayor is a terrible thing to waste, a much longer fuse was lit by a more expendable Reynosan. This rocket surpassed all expectations and traveled about a mile into Texas. Most everyone broke for lunch while others searched for the rocket. A total of six rockets were launched that day in varying degrees of inaccuracy. Smart bombs these weren't.

Approximately eleven hundred covers were sent into Mexico that day and approximately nine hundred returned. All but the confiscated ones were sold and Loyal Service Post 37 was solvent in time for their buildings dedication.

The confiscated covers were returned a few years later and placed in a safe deposit box in McAllen. Time passed and finally an alert clerk noticed that the rent on the box hadn't been paid for twenty years. The remaining covers were put on the market for the price of five dollars each. This time there was more interest and even the Smithsonian Institution and the US Postal Museum bought samples. A display including photographs of the launches can be seen at the Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg.
Rockets Over the Rio Reenactment 2002
Rockets Over the Rio Reenactment, 2002
Photo courtesy Museum of South Texas History
The next time someone tells you "You don't need to be a rocket scientist to mail a letter" you can entertain them with this strange and amusing tale from South Texas.

As for the boy from McAllen who combined his two hobbies in 1936 to save an American Legion Post, he did go on to college and enjoyed a long career with the government – as a genuine “rocket scientist” (not a mailman).


© John Troesser
Related Topics: Texas Post Offices | South Texas Town List |
The Thirties in Texas | Texas

Forum

"The article by Phil Ately is great!! I would like permission to use in advertising some books we have on the rocket mail project. Although I wasn't even born when this took place, we have a American Legion Post 37 member who was..." D Lipscomb, American Legion Auxiliary Unit 37 President and Post 37 Community Relations, June 22, 1999

Texas Escapes, in its purpose to preserve historic, endangered and vanishing Texas, asks that anyone wishing to share their local history, stories, and vintage/historic photos, please contact us.

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