John Closner, Hidalgo County developer, the son of Swiss parents John and Elizabeth (Blumer) Closner, was born on March 24, 1853, in New Glaris, Wisconsin. The family moved to Minnesota and Iowa before moving to Texas in 1870 and settling in Bosque County. Closner began hauling freight to Fort Griffin in 1871, worked for railroad construction and streetcar companies in Oklahoma and Galveston, and spent 1876 to 1882 working on the extension of Jay Gould's International-Great Northern Railroad in Mexico, where he contracted erysipelas, an infectious skin disease that continued to affect him for many years.
Left in financial distress when the railroad failed, Closner moved to Rio Grande City in 1883 with only fifteen dollars and became a stage driver to Peña Station. He later obtained the mail contract between Brownsville and Rio Grande City. In 1884 he moved to Hidalgo, then the Hidalgo county seat, bought a tract of land, and was appointed deputy sheriff by James L. Dougherty. Closner served as sheriff until 1889 and became tax collector; he became deputy United States marshall for a time and remained in these positions until his retirement as Hidalgo County Treasurer in 1919, when an audit of the county record office revealed that many records were missing. Some sources suggest that Closner may have been implicated. He and stock-raiser W. F. Sprague were involved in bankruptcy hearings from 1917 until July 4, 1919, facing creditors' claims of nearly $2 million.
At a time when banditry and cattle rustling were rife, Closner's tenure was marked by waves of border violence growing out of the Garza War and the 1910 revolution by Francisco I. Madero against the Mexican government of Porfirio Díaz. Closner survived several attempts on his life, including an 1899 assassination attempt by Pancho Garza, plotted by the Dougherty brothers, whom he had helped indict for stealing horses and, according to some accounts, for an effort to kill local officials and burn the town.
As one of the Rio Grande valley's largest landowners, Closner contributed most by promoting irrigation and diversified farming. He bought land at twenty-five cents to one dollar an acre and managed to acquire 45,000 acres by 1904. He constructed a canal system in 1895 to carry water from the Rio Grande to his alfalfa, banana, cotton, tobacco, and other crops and experimented successfully with growing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. His sugarcane won a gold medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904.
Through his influence and a gift of 2,000 acres in 1904, Closner, with the help of Leonidas C. Hill, Sr., Tom Hicks, and others, obtained the extension of the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway from Harlingen to Samfordyce. In 1906, with William Sprague, he built a branch line of the railroad from San Juan Plantation, named for him by his wife, to the site of Chapin, which in 1908 he developed with Sprague and Judge Dennis Bangs Chapin. Closner and Sprague donated 1,400 acres to the development, which was renamed Edinburg in 1911, and arranged for an election on October 8, 1908, to make the town the county seat. To prevent resistance by those who objected, tents were set up to receive the county records, and men with wagons and mule teams made the move overnight. In 1907 Closner, William Briggs, and O. E. M. Jones were instrumental in founding East McAllen, today known as McAllen.
Closner gave Edinburg its first public school, served for years as president of the Edinburg State Bank and director of other Valley banks, and encouraged development of Edinburg's irrigation system. In 1902 he started a private telephone system, which later developed into the Hidalgo Telephone Company.
He married Ida Louise Cook at Galveston on August 19, 1876. In 1888 Closner was married for a second time, this time to Ann Sheridan Dougherty of Brownsville, with whom he had three children. After this wife died in 1903, he married Alice Dougherty, sister of his second wife, in 1904. In 1923 the family moved to Brownsville, where Closner lived in retirement until his death, on June 3, 1932.