We are proud of our historic community of Peñitas that was formally established back in 1749 and founded in the 1520s according to our ancestors’ oral history.
All of us should be excited and proud that our ancestors established the Peñitas Common School and today celebrate the unveiling of a historic marker.
Several generations of us as children attended the school that once stood at this location. Not only us from Peñitas but the surrounding area. We also give credit to those known and unknown individuals that took the initial steps to establish a school system for the betterment of all our children. The school provided a much needed opportunity to educate the children that had not been offered before.
Not much had been done in South Texas prior to 1896 for the exception of the wealthy businessmen and landowners that established private schools, parochial schools or ranch schools for their own children and some of their workers’ children to learn the new American system, language and culture. Educational opportunities for the less fortunate children were not available and that included most of the surrounding area in and around South Texas. We have to remember that things were very different socially and economically back then.
The first known school in the Peñitas area was created around 1896 with 15 students and one teacher, followed by the Sisters of Mercy in 1907 according to the Texas State Historical Association ‘Online Handbook.’ The school eventually became known as Common School District #5. Peñitas was the biggest populated rancho of the area at the time. The majority of the students living in the area were descendants of the original Spanish settlers that established Peñitas, Abram, and Tabasco and some of these settlers had received land grants (porciones) in 1767 on the north side of the river when Villa de Reynosa was founded a few years earlier by Jose De Escandon in 1749. The parents, students or children were mostly descendants of U.S. citizens since 1845 when Peñitas became part of the United States. No schools or educational opportunities in the area had been established since becoming part of Texas. The Peñitas Common School provided that opportunity and was known to have had grades up to the high school level when it closed its doors in 1925 to join the newly formed Tabasco ISD in 1926.
Some of the teachers that taught until 1925 at the Peñitas Common School were the Clover sisters named Elzada Clover (1896-1980), Vida Clover (1895-1962) and Edna Clover (1901-1994). Other earlier teachers were Nellie Schunior, and M.C. Treviño. Elzada Clover was hired to become the first Superintendent of Schools at Tabaco ISD in 1926 and the other two sisters went on to teach at Tabasco ISD as well. The first four graduates at Tabasco ISD at Nellie Schunior High School Class of 1926 were students that had previously attended Peñitas High School the year before. The student names were: brothers Rodolfo De La Garza and Adolfo De La Garza, Mauro Reyna, and Angelita Cavazos. Most of the graduates became educators and probably were among the first Hispanic teachers in Hidalgo County. Rodolfo and Adolfo De La Garza later came back to be teachers and Principal at Peñitas Elementary School with the new Tabasco ISD, according to Rodolfo’s daughter, Dolores De La Garza Cantu and Adolfo’s son, Adolfo De La Garza, Jr., respectively.
The Peñitas Common School building continued to be used as the Peñitas Elementary School up to the fourth grade under the Tabasco and La Joya ISD until 1975 when it closed down for good. The school was not in use for several years until it was gifted by LJISD to the Peñitas Development Conservation Club in the early 80s. PDCC used it for meetings, a baseball park for Little League games, social events such as New Year’s Dances, raffles, BBQs, fundraising purposes, a Head Start Center, and the first and several Whitewing Festivals. The land was later leased by PDCC to the City of Peñitas for 99 years for one dollar. The school building was eventually torn down to build the present City Hall and Library. The school building and grounds has left many memories for many of us that grew up in Peñitas and the surrounding area.
The exact location of the first wooden school building of the Peñitas Common School of 1896 or 1907 is not known as the building had supposedly been destroyed by a tornado. The first brick school building was built in 1913 at this present location (City Hall and Library) and later expanded with cinder block classrooms in 1943 due to growth, was used up until it closed in 1975. The first account of the first wooden school building being destroyed by a tornado was before 1913 and it was located past the Peñitas Cemetery according to Gertrudis Cavazos, born in 1903, whom knew and had heard of the tornado damage, and daughter of Narciso Cavazos, a businessman that was instrumental in the building of the 1913 brick school along with others.
Another account was Rodolfo De La Garza’s interview by his grandson in 1980, where Rodolfo stated that a tornado struck the school in May 1919 and destroyed the school. He also mentions that the school was about a mile from town. In addition to this information, I was sent a text by Dolores, daughter of Rodolfo De La Garza, that her mom (Tia Lolita) was in the 3rd grade at the Peñitas school when a tornado struck the school and destroyed it. She had to go stay in McAllen with an uncle to keep going to school as she didn’t want to miss school. It would also have been around 1919 because she later was the only graduate in 1929 at Nellie Schunior High School and a few years later taught at Peñitas Elementary School until 1951. In 1928, another Peñitas student, Leopoldo Zamora, graduated from Nellie Schunior High School and so did others to follow. Even though there are some discrepancies as to the timeline of the tornados, there probably was a tornado that struck before 1913 and another one that struck in May 1919. This is very valuable firsthand information from the families of students that attended the first schools in Peñitas to include some of the photos on display.
I reached out to others that had family members that attended the school and didn’t get a response but am sure there are many other stories, pictures, etc., out there about the first schools in our historic community.
Editor’s Note: The above commentary was penned by Eloy Zamora, president of Peñitas Historical Society. It first appeared in a program produced to celebrate the unveiling of a state historical marker for Peñitas Common School, outside Peñitas City Hall and Public Library. The unveiling took place on Saturday, March 25, 2023.
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