The way sisters Catherine Daro Palermo and Margaret Daro Bilotta see it, the era of agriculture has officially ended in north Galveston County.
The two stood Monday outside Palermo’s house off state Highway 3, not far from Ralph Parr Elementary and near a large field, which, just months ago, was one of the county’s last vegetable farms, the sisters said.
“It’s the end of the farming era in League City,” Palermo, 85, said. “It’s been here since the beginning.”
Palermo and Bilotta, 83, recently sold the family farm to Clear Creek Independent School District. Had they held out until 2020, the farm would have been in operation for 100 years, the sisters said.
“The mind was willing to get to that milestone, but the body just couldn’t make it happen,” Bilotta said.
The Daro family arrived in the League City area in 1906 and the sisters’ father, Pete Daro, eventually purchased the vegetable farm along what is now state Highway 3 in 1920, she said.
They were among about 35 Italian families from a town in northern Italy called Cercenasco who migrated to Galveston County and began farms, Palermo said.
“The reason they came to this area is that the Italian consulate was in Dickinson at the time,” Bilotta said.
That, and opportunity for farmers was greater in America than it was in Italy, they said.
League City of the 1920s was far different from the one today, said Catharin Lewis, the museum director and curator for the League City Historical Society.
“In the 1920s, there were about 300 people living in here,” she said. “Now, it’s over 100,000 — that’s a big difference. And it wasn’t just the population.”
The area that is now League City was originally mostly grassland and prairie before a few houses and businesses popped up, Lewis said. Then residents started several cattle ranches and, by the 1920s, the region was home to several Italian and Japanese farms, she said.
THE DARO FARM
For the first years of its existence, Daro family members working on the farm sold a wide variety of fruits and vegetables — from strawberries and collard greens to beets, carrots, eggplants and cantaloupes, among others — and were dependent on mules to transport the produce to market in Galveston, Palermo said.
The family by 1922 had also started taking the farm’s bounty into Houston as well and, shortly after the end of World War II, purchased a tractor, Palermo said.
“We thought that was some piece of technology,” Palermo said.
Eventually, the sisters’ brother, Johnnie Pete Daro, took on a larger role in running the farm’s operations and would continue the family business until his death in 2015, they said.
Over the years, Johnnie Daro introduced herbs into the farm’s offerings and, as he aged, began specializing in cantaloupe and watermelon in the summer and mustard greens and collard greens in the fall, Palermo said.
The cantaloupe in particular was a local favorite because Johnnie Daro grew it using a special seed and so he eventually became known as the “Cantaloupe Man,” Palermo said.
TODAY’S LEAGUE CITY
While some longtime residents lament that League City has become a city, in fact as well as name, the Daro sisters are more optimistic about the direction it’s going.
“Some people wish it would have stayed the same, but no,” Palermo said. “It’s wonderful to see the progress.”
League City is now Galveston County’s biggest city and officials anticipate it will continue to grow. The city’s population in January was just shy of 105,000, up from about 102,634 at the same time in 2017, officials said.
But, only about 52 percent of League City is developed and projections show the population could rise above 200,000, officials said.
Over the years, the Daro family has personally witnessed tremendous change — watching the highway their farm straddles evolve from U.S. Route 75 to its current state Highway 3 designation, Palermo said.
“When we started school, there was just one school with all 12 grades,” Bilotta said.
As Johnnie Daro aged and had trouble maintaining all of the farm’s 36 acres, he sold 14 acres to Clear Creek Independent School District in the mid-2000s, Palermo said.
“My brother never had any children, so it made him happy knowing that it was going toward education,” Palermo said.
The district eventually used that land to build Ralph Parr Elementary, which opened in 2009.
END OF AN ERA
After Johnnie Daro died in 2015, the two sisters and Bilotta’s son tried to keep the farm in business, but time eventually caught up with them, they said.
“We cried when we sold the farm equipment, especially,” Palermo said. “For my brother, it was his toy. But that was just the legacy we had — farming. We had wanted to farm until January of 2020 to make it to 100 years, but we didn’t make it.”
The two sisters in September reached an agreement with the school district to sell the remaining 22 acres, Palermo said.
District officials will use the land to improve parking at Ralph Parr Elementary and move the playgrounds there, said Paul Miller, the district’s director of facilities.
“A lot of people just don’t want to do this kind of work anymore,” Bilotta said of farming.
While the sale of the Daro family farm is, in some ways, the end of an era, it was time to take a step back, Palermo said.
And, in some ways, the legacy of Johnnie Daro and the family farm will continue.
Educators at Ralph Parr Elementary recently named a student garden on campus after their brother, the sisters said.