Stepping Into the Past

My wife and I recently took advantage of having a little time off, to visit the National Ranching Heritage Center, on the campus of Texas Tech in Lubbock. The trip took us 140 miles from Haskell, and about that many years into the past.

The NRHC began about 55 years ago, as a way of preserving and celebrating Texas’ ranching history. Along the way, they have collected over 40 historic buildings and other artifacts, gathered together from the 6666, the Spur, the Pitchfork, XIT, King, and many other famous ranches and communities. Ranch homes, log cabins, bunkhouses, dugouts, barns, cattle pens, windmills – if it was found on an old ranch in the 19th and early 20th centuries – you name it, and the Heritage Center probably has at least one example of it. The collection also includes a ranch commissary, a blacksmith shop, a one-room schoolhouse, a church building, and much, much more.

Our toured started at the beautiful, spacious headquarters building which contains several galleries, including a walk-through exhibition on the history of ranching and beef cattle; also on display is a collection of “Guns that Won the West,” beautiful Western sculptures, an authentic reproduction of a Wells Fargo stagecoach, “Burk” Burnett’s personal horse-drawn buggy, and more. From there, you step outside and onto the self-guided walking tour of ranching history.

The first building you come to is Los Corralitos, a replica of what may be the oldest standing structure in the state of Texas, dating from about 1780. Unlike just about everything else on the museum grounds, this building is a reproduction, because when historians were researching the old ranch fort, they discovered that the remains of five members of the land grant family may be buried beneath the original structure. It’s a fascinating building to examine, with its 33-inch thick walls of sandstone and mortar, no windows, and six gun ports for defending one’s family.

There are several dugout cabins, as well as log cabins, constructed before the railroads made lumber available. The interpretive signs along the way give you information about what you’re seeing. For example, you’ll learn about the Jowell House from Palo Pinto County (actually two buildings), two stories tall and made of cut stone – a replacement Mr. Jowell built to take the place of his original log cabin, which was burned in an Indian raid. And just in case you need a reminder of how hard life on the frontier was, also exhibited are the original headstones of five of the Jowell children, all of whom died between the ages of three and nine. (The original markers were replaced a few years ago.) Influenza, measles, snake bite, marauders, and accidents – it was not an easy place to grow up.

Of all the buildings that we saw, the one nearest Haskell County was an old mail cabin, made entirely of small, cut stones, dry-stacked to make a one-room structure, and originally from Knox County. Apparently, government riders from the postal system or the Army would use it as a stopover, to sort and drop off mail to and from various area ranches.

This cut-stone cabin, now at the NRHC, was originally located in Knox County. It was built about 1875 and was used to sort mail and messages for area ranches. (Photo courtesy, NRHC.)

It takes the average visitor about 60-90 minutes to see everything, but as the museum brochures explain, that depends on your level of interest. There is no admission charge, but donations are welcome.

So much of the center reminds you of how hard life was on the frontier; every gain was at the expense of a great deal of hard work, and every improvement took considerable creativity and problem-solving skills. For the most part, there were no outside resources or help available – if you needed something, you made it yourself or did without. If it broke, you fixed it. Weaknesses in one’s character simply were not tolerated.

As an example – before they could build above-ground cabins, many settlers would construct partially-buried dugouts in which to live. Of course, since they had dirt floors and walls, the people who lived there had to constantly be on the lookout for tarantulas and scorpions. And in the fall, when the first cold wind came and mama built a fire in fireplace, the rattlesnakes would come crawling, driven out by the heat.

It was a hard life, and the NRHC helps you appreciate a little more those who came before us. May we always be worthy of that heritage.

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