CATARINA, Texas – Like many South Texas towns, Catarina has withered with time.
But, the wide-open brush land that surrounds the community was once seen as an opportunity.
With a winding history of development and ranching, one of the early landowners in the area was Charles Taft, the half-brother of the 27th U.S. President, William Howard Taft. He would build the famous Taft Summer House, and as legend goes, complete with an over-sized bath tub for his portly half-brother.
Others would follow, as the attraction of land drew in people from around the country.
“They wanted to build a small railroad that linked Asherton to Artesia Wells,” said Alvin Burns, a long-time resident of Catarina.
The railroad combined with a planned development (a common occurrence in the early 1900s in southwest Texas) gave Catarina Farms, or just Catarina, a promising start. Sidewalks, new homes and palm trees lined the community’s streets.
There was also a promise of water, which was a large draw. It even boasted a club house and large pool. The pool can still be found in Catarina, although it currently sits in disrepair. According to Burns, it was one of the largest pools in South Texas during that period.
“At the time, the pressure of the aquifer would shoot water up about 15 feet," Burns said.
The town became an attractive place to plant new roots for people across the country.
“When you come in as a buyer, you generally came in from out of state, you came in on the railroad,” Burns said. “They had built the Catarina Hotel as part of the project."
The hotel would become a staple of Catarina and eventually a state historical site. Sadly, the hotel was heavily damaged in a fire early in 2020.
Also of note: Catarina sat on the famed Camino Real. A stone marker sits in the middle of town recognizing the spot where it passed through. In it’s past, the Camino Real brought many through the area. As far as how the town got its name, Burns said there are several theories, but believed it did have a namesake.
“It had to do with a Mexican girl that either lived on the Catarina ranch or was killed by Indians," Burns said.
Water availability would dry up and many that called Catarina home moved away. The town was never incorporated and the famous Taft house was left in tatters.
“It was a very much rundown kind of fallen-apart house," said Dolph Briscoe IV, grandson of Dolph Briscoe Jr, former governor of Texas.
The home sat neglected until another well-known family decided to call the house their own and moved it to their nearby ranch.
“In the 80s, they moved it there, I guess, from Catalina, the town where it was, to the ranch headquarters," Briscoe said.
Former Gov. Briscoe and his wife, Janey, saw the historical significance.
“In the 1990s, my grandfather and grandmother started renovating it and really fixing it up," Briscoe said.
The house remains in the Briscoe’s possession.