Have you ever had a place you wanted to visit so badly? I have had plenty. One of them is the National Ranching Heritage Center in Lubbock, Texas. But finally two weeks ago a friend and I visited there. I had wanted to go see it ever since I moved to this area over a year ago. I finally made it and I wasn’t disappointed.
For those of you who haven’t heard of this extraordinary museum, it began in 1970 after a group of people decided to try to preserve slices of history and depict the evolution of ranching life in the state at the same time. A multitude of historical structures were falling into disrepair and ruin and needed to be preserved. Members from the center traveled all over Texas to see which structures they could acquire and bring to the 30 acre site set aside by the Texas Tech University. The first of their acquisitions were a dugout, blacksmith shop, two windmills, and a carriage house.
Currently there are 35 authentic, furnished or outfitted structures depicting ranch life from the 1700’s when we were under Spanish rule all the way up to the 1900’s.
I’ve never seen a museum like this. It was simply amazing to be able to touch the structures built by tough, determined men and women and get a sense of what life was like in those early years. It was like strolling through history.
Especially of interest to note is that the landscaping around each display accurately shows the landscape in the place where each building came from. And when restoration is called for, materials are taken from the same area as the building.
The oldest building is called Los Corralitos and was originally built in 1780 by Don José Fernando Vidaurri. Evidence suggests that it may be the earliest standing ranch structure in the state of Texas. You’ll notice it has no windows and only one door with plenty of gunsights built in the thick walls. That was for protection against invaders. All of the cooking was done outside. This is the first dwelling you see as you start walking the path through the outdoor museum.
The next building we came to was called the El Capote Cabin (c. 1838.) The cabin existed under the governance of three flags: the Republic of Texas, The U.S. of America, and the Confederate States of America. Square-headed, hand-made nails held the cabin together. Leather patches hinged the doors and rope was used for a door handle. The first owner was a French captain in the American Revolution. It was also owned by Theodore Roosevelt and his wife at one time, although they probably never lived in it. The last people to occupy it were probably cowboys who used it as a bunkhouse.
The Matador half-dugout, built in 1888, is situated into an embankment with the only door facing southeast to catch breezes in summer and protect the cowboy from cold weather in the winter. Families didn’t live long in dugouts. They moved out soon as more conventional homes could be built. But even then, the dugouts served as bunkhouses or outposts for cowboys and they could prove to be a lonely place. Few men looked forward to months of solitude stuck in the middle of nowhere.
This next building is the Waggoner Ranch commissary (c. 1870’s.) I found it really interesting that ranches of any size, especially if they were a quite a ways from town, had their own commissary, blacksmith, and windmill man. This building is constructed of rock and wood. It held supplies needed by the ranch cowboys. Very convenient and saved long trips into town.
One of the most amazing pieces of information at the Heritage Center is learning about the different materials used to construct the different buildings. It demonstrates just how adaptable the frontiersmen and settlers were. They had to be ingenious an use whatever they could find when they decided to fashion a dwelling. Where he could find trees he built a log cabin. In hill country, he used river rock and stones. On the flat plains, he simply dug a hole in the ground and put a roof over it. But sometimes he had to really use his wits. In far West Texas there are no trees, no rocks, and the land is sandy so that left only one thing to make a home out of-the yucca-like sotol plant. That’s what this next house is fashioned from.
It’s called the Picket and Sotol House. It was built in 1904 by sheep and goat raisers along the Texas-Mexico border. The thatched roof is made from grasses and had to be continually replaced due to the harsh desert climate.
The last house I’ll tell you about proves a stark contrast to the simple bare dwellings that were so common on the frontier. This is called the Barton House and it was very fancy and luxurious for its day. It was built in 1909 by Joseph Barton. He owned the TL Ranch. He tried to start a town called Bartonsite but when the railroad bypassed him it killed the fledgling town. Everyone up and moved away. His dream died. Standing and looking at the house, I could just feel his deep overwhelming sadness. The house is so beautiful and stands as a testament to the kind of hopes and dreams these settlers had.
I wish I had room to tell you about all of the other buildings but maybe I’ll do some more another time. Each of the structures have so many interesting stories. There was Leanna Jowell who almost lost her life while her husband was away on a cattle drive. She trusted her nagging uneasy feeling, grabbed up her baby and rode hard to a neighbor’s house, barely escaping with her life. When she returned, she found her home burned to the ground. When her husband returned he built a house of solid stone with no windows. It only had a door.
And then there’s John Bunyan Slaughter, owner of the U Lazy S Ranch, who weathered numerous adversities, including prolonged droughts and severe blizzards that killed thousands of his cattle. He died in 1928 after spending the entire day riding in a roundup. He died the following morning. They had his funeral at the big ranch house and folks descended in droves to pay their last respects.
Anyway, this is but a scratching of the surface of all that comprises the National Ranching Heritage Center. If you ever get a chance to come to Lubbock, make plans to tour the facility.
Maybe you have something similar in your area. Do you like to visit places like this and stroll through history?