Southwest Showcase…National Ranching Heritage Center breathes new life into Old West

by STACY JOHNSON//Editorial Assistant

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A tumbleweed blows across the sun-drenched hills past the legendary Four Sixes Ranch barn. Scenes reminiscent of the Old West transport visitors back in time.

Located in Lubbock, Texas on the northern corner of the Texas Tech University campus, the National Ranching Heritage Center is a free museum comprised of three sections: Proctor Historical Park, DeVitt-Mallet Museum and J.J. Gibson Memorial Park.

The center serves to preserve the rich cultural history of the American ranching industry, and to educate the public about the way of life of early ranchers and settlers on the frontier.

Proctor Historical Park leads guests on a chronological trip through the robust history of ranching. The sprawling 1.5-mile outdoor exhibit is currently home to 49 structures dating from the 1780s to the 1950s.

Perhaps the most distinguishing and impressive aspect of the park is the fact that johnson,stacy_spotlight_nrhc_10 (32)the structures are not reproductions. All except for one are authentic structures, transported from their original sites to the Ranching Heritage Center.

The simpler structures were moved in their entirety, while those that were more complicated or challenging were dismantled at their original locations, transported in pieces, and then reassembled on the park grounds.

The stone structures, for example, were impossible to transport without disassembly. Dr. Robert Tidwell, curator of historical collections, offers some insight into the painstaking methods used to recreate the historic architectural structures.

“The disassembly process actually took days and days and days, because we were carefully cataloging and recording the position and location of each stone,” Tidwell explains.

Detailed drawings are made of the original structure before the project begins. Individual pieces must each be carefully photographed, assigned a code number, and documented according to their relative location to the other pieces.

A disassembly plan is created for the process and then followed in reverse order to reassemble the structure accurately.

“In some ways, they’re kind of like our own Lego,” says Tidwell.

In order to ensure the historical accuracy of the park, the structures have been placed meticulously, with attention to even the smallest details. Architectural elements are aligned to the same cardinal directions that they faced at their original sites.

“We have one structure, Las Escarbadas, which is a large, two-story stone structure,” Tidwell says. “And in its original building site, it was built partway into the side of a low hill. So we did the same thing here. It’s built partway into the side of a low hill.”

The landscaping in the immediate surrounding area is recreated to the fullest extent that the local climate will allow.

The interiors of the buildings reflect what life was like for settlers in the early days of ranching. As if frozen in time, cast iron cooking pots sit on stone hearths. Oil lamps hang from doorways and sit atop bedside tables. Pieces accurate to the period have been lovingly selected from local antique shops by volunteers and carefully arranged to create an authentic atmosphere.

Despite the fact that most of the attractions are not native to the city, the park has Lubbock literally at its core. The hills along the grounds are composed of debris from the devastating tornado that tore through downtown Lubbock in 1970.

“All of the berms that you see outside, we had to make those,” says Tidwell. “The brick streets and then other pieces of concrete and brick rubble were transported here and used to form the core … then we just filled over them with overfill to create those.”

johnson,stacy_spotlight_nrhc_10 (79)The ingenious repurposing does not stop there. The train tracks near the Baldwin Locomotive feature originally ran parallel to the Brownfield Highway in Lubbock before the construction of the Marsha Sharp Freeway.

While examples of some of the earliest technology are housed within the structures, the Ranching Heritage Center is not behind the times. In addition to the educational signs that tell the stories behind the park’s attractions, the center offers guests a smartphone app to guide them through the park, along with multimedia details and descriptions of what they can find there.

During the warm months, guided trolley tours begin each Thursday at 10 a.m., allowing visitors to sit back and enjoy the park in the shade without the need to walk.

The DeVitt-Mallet Museum consists of seven indoor galleries. The current featured exhibit, “Buckskins and Beads,” contains Native American artifacts and artwork, including items that were owned by Quanah Parker, a Comanche chief. Featured exhibits at the museum change frequently.

“As we do our exhibit planning, we like to stagger exhibits so that there’s something new every three to six months or so,” Tidwell says. “We want to keep something fresh, and interesting, and new on a fairly regular basis.”

Upcoming exhibits include the topics of handguns and cattle rustling.

A ranching museum would not be complete without cattle. J.J. Gibson Memorial Park, located at the center’s entrance, is home to 19 bronze sculptures of longhorn steers representing the Texas trail drive era. Each expressive, life-size steer is branded and bears the mark of its donor.

Guests from all over the world come to tour the Ranching Heritage Center. Tidwell says the center sees international visitors from nearly every locale.

“You go through our visitor logs over the decades, and you will see people from every continent on earth except for Antarctica,” he says.

According to Tidwell, the center serves an important purpose.

“We think it’s a special place,” he says. “There really aren’t that many museums like ours out there. We also preserve a very important part of the state’s history, and also this region’s history. What would the Southwest be without ranching?”

[Photos by STACY JOHNSON/PLAINSMAN PRESS]

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