Elon Musk’s space program grows in Texas on land once pitched to Chicago retirees

In south Texas, Elon Musk’s “Starbase” has risen where a Chicago radio announcer once planned a retirement community for Chicagoans, many of Polish descent.

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Billionaire Elon Musk’s ambitious plans for space travel are taking shape on a sandy patch of Texas not far from the U.S.-Mexico border town of Brownsville and South Padre Island, the spring break haven.

It’s an area that might not seem to have much in common with Chicago, with its warm, salty waters, occasional shark sightings and the up-righted rockets that protrude from the landscape.

But Chicagoans are central to the history of Musk’s Texas “Starbase” property — where spaceships are assembled and SpaceX workers, including Musk, stay in an adjacent neighborhood of ranch-style homes or campers along streets lined with palm trees and, reflecting another of Musk’s business interests, electric-powered Tesla cars in some of the driveways.

Elon Musk’s “Starbase” complex in Texas, which includes what initially was called Kennedy Shores when it was created as a retirement village in the 1960s by a Chicago developer.

Elon Musk’s “Starbase” complex includes what initially was called Kennedy Shores when it was created as a retirement village in the 1960s by a Chicago developer.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

Campers dot the landscape of Elon Musk’s rocket facility in south Texas adjacent to what was once a retirement community that drew Polish Americans from Chicago.

Campers dot the landscape of Elon Musk’s rocket facility in south Texas adjacent to what was once a retirement community that drew Polish Americans from Chicago.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

Over the past decade, Musk has bought or obtained options to buy land there — just down Texas State Highway 4 from a launch site where his spacecraft might one day take off for Mars or beyond.

The area previously was home to a retirement community that Chicago radio personality John A. Caputa helped create, pitching the site on Polish-language radio programs in the 1960s and 1970s as the next Fort Lauderdale.

Caputa — who was from Austria but spoke Polish — also promoted the development in a Polish language newspaper in Chicago.

Elon Musk speaks at SpaceX’s Starbase facility near Boca Chica Village in South Texas.

Elon Musk speaks at SpaceX’s Starbase facility near Boca Chica Village in South Texas.

Getty Images

Only a smattering of homes ended up being built for the retirement community. And no more than a few dozen people at any given time ever lived in the community — initially named Kennedy Shores after President John F. Kennedy, then called Kopernik Shores in homage of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus and now known as Boca Chica Village, a nod in Spanish to the “small mouth” of the nearby Rio Grande River.

The entrance to Boca Chica Village, with the rocket launch site visible in the distance.

The entrance to Boca Chica Village, with the rocket launch site visible in the distance.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

What seemed like an honest venture at the start turned into a “nightmare” for some by the time Caputa died at 65 in 1977 after a heart attack while driving on what was then called the Northwest Tollway. At the time of his death, he’d been staying, penniless or nearly so, at the Leaning Tower YMCA in Niles, noteworthy for its half-scale replica of the Pisa landmark.

In a story headlined, “He’s Dead, Their Savings Gone,” the Chicago Sun-Times reported: “Caputa was building a retirement village for Polish immigrants in south Texas ... and with the help of the Lord and the people of Chicago’s Polish community, the dream would come true. He asked his listeners to lend him money and promised a 12% return after a year.”

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But, according to the story, “Caputa had been falling behind on payments to his creditors, including his radio listeners, since the early 1970s.”

According to the Texas Almanac, after Caputa’s death, it was “discovered that many of the Kopernik Shore residents did not hold clear title to their land.”

Caputa had gotten into real estate in the 1960s, joining a venture with several others who bought a huge parcel along the Texas Gulf Coast. Their plan? To build “a Fort Lauderdale of the West,” using “Caputa’s salesmanship and ties with the Chicago ethnic community to market lots.”

Caputa brought “train and bus loads of people from Chicago to see the property,” but a series of tropical storms battered the area, and “sales slowed,” the Sun-Times reported.

Caputa broke with his partners, and legal and financial problems followed.

Two months after Caputa’s death, the old Dallas Times Herald chronicled the politics of the place, whose mayor at the time was 82-year-old Stanley Piotrowicz, who’d been a home builder in Evanston and run unsuccessfully for Illinois secretary of state in 1936 as a third-party candidate.

Piotrowicz got the community incorporated, but that was overturned by a judge as a political rival fumed over the inability to get fresh water piped to the area. The bitterness spilled into the April 2, 1977, election that a judge called “the most irregular in the history of Texas,” rife with accusations of “election fraud.”

Piotrowicz, who was born in Poland, “believed so strongly in the idea of a Polish megalopolis of senior citizens in southern Texas that he was one of the first to invest,” according to the Dallas newspaper.

“I was president of the Polish American Senior Citizens Council of Chicago, and we had 2,600 members sign up for land with Caputa,” he told the paper. “It’s the best climate in the U.S. for asthma and rheumatism. Here, you get cured without a doctor — just God and the sun.”

A grotto of the Virgin Mary, one of the few remaining signs that Boca Chica Village was once a retirement community of Polish Americans.

A grotto of the Virgin Mary, one of the few remaining signs that Boca Chica Village was once a retirement community of Polish Americans.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

One of the few unused structures in Boca Chica Village.

One of the few unused structures in Boca Chica Village.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

Decades later, Musk is using that land in his effort to some day travel to the heavens.

And Caputa and Piotrowicz’s dream for what’s now Boca Chica Village, which still includes a few retirees who hadn’t sold to Musk?

In the words of Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr., “It is definitely not a sleepy retirement village any longer.”

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