By DEBRA WINGER
Special to the PRESS
“History is my passion! When I was seven years old, my dad had been remodeling our house when he discovered a secret room under the staircase. The room had 100’s of old newspapers, dating back before the civil war along with empty whiskey bottles and a stack of silver dollars, which my dad divided between the six kids!” Steve Hathcock, founder of Padre Island Trading Company and the Beachcombers Museum, smiled, as his crystal blue eyes reflected his enthusiasm.
He was raised in Sparta, Wisconsin and worked as a nursing assistant in a PTSD VA hospital program for eight years. He also worked as a security guard, waiter and spent 23 years as a locksmith. He graduated from a technical college in printing and publications in 1973 and in 1984 bought a building on Pompano Street on the Island and started a print shop with his two partners, Frank Dombroski and Carl Phillips. He founded the Beach-Comber Travel and Entertainment magazine which was in publication for six years.
He came to the Island in 1980 on his way to California to pan gold in the Humbolt River, but he fell in love with the Island and decided to stay.
“When I was a kid, I read all the old papers from the secret room, my dad discovered for about three to four years and then started cleaning a local pool hall at the age of 12 in town. …I talked to retired Spanish-American, World War I and II War veterans and was accepted as a peer because I knew how to ask questions and I loved to hear their historical tales! …I was probably the most historically accurate kid in town,” Steve chuckled. Through the years, he accumulated old coins, stamps, books and artifacts. He displayed these items in a book exchange he opened where people could buy used books at half price or trade them. People wanted to buy his historical items and when he told them they were not for sale, they suggested he open a museum, which he did. The museum had ancient fossils, mammoth elephant teeth, fossilized crabs and marine life, civil war bullets and Indian artifacts. Many things he found on the Island by using a Garrett metal detector which was donated to him by the company. Items he found included a 1903 20 dollar gold coin on a chain at Isla Blanca park and a pre-Spanish 16th century jar made of clay about 30 miles north near the Mansfield ship channel, which probably came from a shipwreck.
He has self-published four books. The first one printed in 1995, was entitled “Real History,” followed by “Looking Back,” (Vol. II)) of historical and treasure-hunting tales. His third book in 2001 included, “Behind the Third Dune,” which included treasure-hunting and other historical events including the collapse of the causeway. His fourth book in 2010, entitled, “Old Indio,” was the story of the last of the Carancahua Indians of Padre Island. These last two books are available at Rio Bravo gallery in Port Isabel or at Paragraph’s Bookstore on the Island. Steve stated he has a research library of about 3,000 books in his home and added he subscribes to online research sites in order to expand his research capabilities.
“I’m an information junkie, am strict on accuracy and don’t mind people pointing out inaccuracies,” Steve replied in all sincerity.
The Museum operated from 1995 to 2008 and was visited by thousands yearly. Steve added, “It was closed in 2008, because it was time to take it to the next level! Dennis Franke, Rod Bates and myself formed the South Padre Island Historical Foundation, a nonprofit organization for the purpose of building and establishing a museum on the Island. Initially the three of us invested the seed money to start the organization and the South Padre Community Foundation and other private donors contributed a sizeable amount of money to build the first set of quality display cases in the South Padre Island Convention Center to house historical exhibits, which is free to the public for viewing M-F during normal convention center office hours. The story of Tarpon beach is on display. Tarpon Beach was started by Padre Island Development Company in Brownsville in 1907. The development included fishing houses, a commercial section with a bathhouse, beach, restaurants, a casino, nightclub, ice-cream parlor and a photo studio. Hurricanes destroyed part of the complex in 1909 and 1910 and damaged the area again with the hurricane of 1933. The old casino hotel was completely destroyed in the early 50’s by storms. Shortly afterwards storms were given names. The area only accessible by ferry was referred to as Port Isabel/Padre Island at that time. It was incorporated as South Padre Island in 1973. On April 10th this year, South Padre Island will be 40 years old. Historical photos from the 50s until the present are requested at this time from the public, to be utilized in a new display to be built at the Convention Center. “The great thing,” Steve added, “is that many pioneers including myself are still here to celebrate the history of the Island this year.”
“Don’t accept blindly facts given to you without researching history to determine if it’s true or not,” Steve remarked. “History helps us understand our roots, get a clearer perspective of why things are the way, they are today.”
All residents are invited to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with all their historical questions. The community is invited to access his website at southpadretv.tv.
Another exhibit, Island History from the 20s to the 40s will be displayed at the Convention Center over the next couple months.
If anyone would care to donate land or a building or monetary gifts to help build the Historical museum of South Padre Island or to help fund additional displays at the Convention Center, it is much appreciated. Half day beach tours including beach-combing, historical talks and some metal detecting are available for interested individuals and groups for a fee. Tours can be reserved by calling (956) 761-9900.
“If you know the sand is moving, that’s where you need to be when your treasure hunting with a metal detector,” Steve stated. He said he liked Garrett metal detectors online because they offer machines and accessories to fit any budget for beginners. He stated, his favorite one is the AT Pro, costing about $600.00 because it works underwater and above ground. He added Garrett has an 800 number for people to call to help people understand the proper procedures for using these machines. Due to the highly mineralized sand in the area, false readings are obtained at times and good instructions are necessary when using metal detectors.
Mr. Hathcock, has been the Chairman of the Cameron County Historical Commission in the past and currently serves as the Chairman of the South Padre Island Historical Preservation Committee. People can contact city hall to become members of this committee and members meet monthly. He currently serves as Vice-President of the South Padre Island Historical Foundation started in 2009 by himself, Rod Bates and Dennis Franke.
Steve Hathcock is a valuable resource for all history lovers and people in general who love Island living, who would appreciate a glimpse into the rich history of the region.
Read this story in the Jan. 6 edition of the Port Isabel-South Padre Press, or subscribe to our E-Edition by clicking here.