Many communities have reconstructed pioneer villages, but one of the best I’ve seen is in Lubbock, Texas. Of course, I’m partial to the National Ranching Heritage Center (NHRC) at Texas Tech University. Although I only lived in Lubbock for nine years, I consider the “Hub of the Plains” my hometown. Let me take you on a tour of the center.
Until 1999, the NHRC was a part of the Museum of Texas Tech University, to which is adjacently located. It was begun by the first director of the museum, the historian and archaeologist William Curry Holden. I’m no doubt dating myself, but I was fortunate enough to have Dr. Holden as a history professor my freshman year at Texas Tech. In addition to teaching history, he was curator of the museum, which was a magical place to visit. He was a man with great foresight. Dr. Holden authored many books, including one which was purchased by a Hollywood studio and made into a movie.
Currently, the NHRC features almost fifty authentic ranch buildings dating from the late 18th to the mid-20th century. These structures include a railroad depot, homesteads, barn, schoolhouse, windmills and other historic structures. One views the exhibits through a self-guided walking tour (unless you’re fortunate enough to be there on a celebratory day when there are docents). It is free to the public. Of course, I don’t have space to feature each of the structures, so I’ll hit what I consider the highlights.
Most important to our family is the above stone line shack from the Masterson Ranch. My husband’s uncle, Jimmie Pendleton, worked on this ranch and told of the first fire of the season bringing up rattlesnakes from under the floor to warm on the hearth. Apparently, the cowboys used the snakes for target practice—not something I’d want to experience with the chance of bullets ricocheting around the cabin. Or snakes—euwww! Cowboys are tough. My husband’s uncle worked for the ranch as head wrangler until a horse he was breaking threw him and kicked him in the head. (His injury triggered Parkinson’s and curtailed his ranching career.)
|80 John Wallace home|
Daniel Webster “80 John” Wallace was one of Texas’ most successful black ranchers. Born the son of slave parents in Victoria County in 1860, he went to work as a cowboy when he was 15, eventually working for C.C. Slaughter, Isaac Ellwood, John Nunn and Clay Mann, getting his nickname from the large “80” Mann ranch brand. He used his wages to buy cattle and land, setting up his own ranch on 1,280 acres southeast of Loraine, Texas, in Mitchell and Nolan counties and buying more land as he could. As D.W. grew more successful, he became a strong supporter of education for the surrounding communities. D.W. built this cross-shaped ranch-house facing west with a floor plan that allows a nice flow of air through the house. The building was designed to have four porches with the two on the east side used for sleeping porches when weather allowed. In West Texas, spring and summer breezes usually come from the southwest, so most people wanted their bedroom on that side of their home. This also protected them from winter’s cold north winds.
One-room schools were built to serve the families of cowboys, ranchers and homesteaders. Classroom furniture was homemade, and wooden boards were painted black for chalkboards. You think kids bring home a lot of sickness now? A bucket of water from a well or stream provided drinks for everyone, which caused illnesses to spread rampantly. School buildings were used for social gatherings, meetings, plays, and sometimes for church services. The Bairfield Schoolhouse operated until 1937. As late as the late 1970s, the children of friends attended a one-room school at Lucas, Texas which went through fourth or fifth grade.
Joseph James Barton came to the South Plains to join his uncles in their ranching operation. Barton built this house eight miles west of Abernathy as part of a vision that he and his uncles shared for a town that they planned to build on a section of their ranch land. The site was chosen on the basis of the proposed route for a railroad line from Amarillo to Lubbock. Barton chose to build a fine house for himself and his family in the growing town of Bartonsite. The design for this Queen Anne-style home came from a set plans Barton purchased from Modern Dwellings Magazine. Unfortunately, the Santa Fe Railroad changed the course of the rail line and bypassed Bartonsite. When the house was donated to the NRHC, it was all that remained of the town.
|Box and Strip House|
I had to laugh when I saw this house at the NRHC because it reminds me of one where my family used to stop by and visit relatives. This exact style was extremely common in Texas and Oklahoma, and probably many other states. Box and strip (or board and batten) construction became popular in West Texas when railroads began delivering lumber to areas where trees were scarce and wood was difficult to obtain. Construction allowed settlers to abandon their dugouts. Box and strip houses were economical, easy to build and above ground, unlike dugouts. Uprights were held in place by the floor and the shingle roof. There were no horizontal, stabilizing boards. Although a major step up from a dugout, this Martin County house had no insulation, and dirt, wind and snow blew through the walls. During strong storms, the walls actually moved.
Two of our relatives (brothers) told of being out and deciding the impending storm made it safer to stop for the night at a boarding house than to continue driving. The structure was built of box and strip construction. The landlady brought them a thick comforter and told them to be sure to cover with it before going to sleep. When they awakened the next morning, snow had blown through the wall cracks during the night and covered the comforter and pillows.
|El Capote Cabin|
This cabin was built during the Republic of Texas period, 1836-1845, and represents the simple architecture of early frontier days. Located in what is now Guadalupe County, Texas, it was constructed of winged elm logs chinked with mud from a nearby streambed. The roofing was hand-split pecan shakes; the floor was compacted earth. Multiple door openings were cut into the logs in later years, when the cabin may have served as slave quarters or a kitchen. El Capote, or “the cape,” was named for nearby hills that spread out like a cloak. It is very much like log cabins in other pioneer villages I've seen.
Harrell House began as a single stacked rock room in 1883. Next, two box and strip rooms were added to the east side of the stone house. Last, the other rooms and porches were added. Over the years, the building fell into disrepair until Fay and Myrtle Harrell of Scurry County, Texas, found it and made it their project to restore. In 1961-1962, the sisters provided most of the somewhat eclectic furnishings to represent early West Texas.
|Hedwig's Hill Dogtrot House|
In Mason County, Texas, near the Llano River, this house was built as two log cabins under a common roof separated by a breezeway called a dogtrot. Two limestone rooms in the back were added later. This style of architecture is characteristic of frontier houses throughout the Southern states. It was cooled in warm weather by air flowing through the dogtrot. In cold weather it was heated by fireplaces. A modified dwelling, it doubled as a post office, store, tavern, boarding house, church and polling place. It represents the arrival of German immigrants to Texas. Thanks to J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, I always want to pronounce the name as Hedgwig like Harry Potter's owl.
The front room of this structure from the JA Ranch (originally owned by John Adair and Charles Goodnight) in Palo Duro Canyon, Texas, is a meat storage/workroom. Hooks on the rafters suspended carcasses of meat. Slatted walls allowed air circulation yet repelled predators. In the stonewalled milk room was a water trough filled with cloth-covered crocks of dairy products, eggs and other perishables. Water from a spring or windmill flowed through the trough and cooled the food. Although smaller in scale, this method was also used on the Belding-Gibson Ranch in Palo Pinto County which I have mentioned in other blog posts. However, the Belding meat area was a smokehouse for curing meat..
|Jowell fortress home on Bluff Creek|
This fortress-style home was built in Palo Pinto County, Texas, to protect a pioneer family from dangers in the wilderness. After George Jowell’s wood cabin was burned by Indians, he designed a home of cut limestone and sandstone with rifle slits above the door. The family could find safety by climbing a ladder to the second floor and entering through a trap door, pulling the ladder in behind them. Exterior stairs were added after Indian attacks ceased. A well, cistern and springhouse nearby provided water and cool storage during the summer heat. Again, in another blog I’ve featured a similar building from the same county. This home was donated by the L. E. Seaman estate. In current times, the L. E. Seaman estate was reached via the original Bankhead Highway.
Los Corralitos, meaning “the little corrals,” was a fortified home in Zapata County, Texas. Made from cut sandstone, mud mortar, mesquite and Montezuma cypress, its walls are 33 inches thick. The single room has one door, no windows and six small gun ports for defense against enemies. Evidence dating from around 1783 suggests that Los Corralitos may be the earliest rancho with standing structures in the state of Texas!
Most first homes of ranchers and settlers on the plains were half-dugouts. They were cut into embankments with the door facing southeast to catch cool breezes in summer. Roofs were made of hides, sod, thatch or, in this case, wood shingles. The roof of this Dickens County, Texas, dugout was built from cottonwood trees that grew along a nearby creek. When materials became available, settlers moved to more conventional homes, glad to be rid of the snakes and critters that shared the dugouts. Cowboys continued to use these structures as bunkhouses or line camps.
The railroad was essential to the growth of ranching, transporting cattle, settlers (some establishing businesses in the towns), manufactured goods, supplies and lumber to the plains. The Spade Ranch near present-day Ropesville, seeing the need for rail service to the area, deeded 85 acres to the railway on the condition that a depot, agent’s house and stock pens were built. Over the years, the depot serviced ranchers from across the South Plains and as far away as New Mexico. In the end, it stood witness to the decline of ranching on the South Plains and the beginning of a farming lifestyle. In the late 1950s, a tornado destroyed much of Ropesville.
A commissary was used by large ranches to provide supplies for their cowboys and ranch hands. The great distance to town created a need for food and supplies to be bought in bulk. They were then distributed at headquarters and to distant line camps. Stone walls kept the structure cool in the summer and protected supplies from freezing in the winter. This commissary from Wichita County, Texas, was built so a block and tackle could be used to unload a freight wagon and items stored in the loft. Smaller items were stored in the lower room.
|Famous 6666 barn|
The 6666 barn stood near the home of rancher Samuel Burk Burnett in Guthrie until it was removed to the NRHC. The ranch is large and now raises horses as well as cattle. On one trip by the ranch many years ago, my family were fortunate enough to drive by while they were filming at this ranch. We weren't able to stop and probably would have been asked to leave if we had, but seeing the film crew and cowboys broke up a long trip from Lubbock to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
I hope you've enjoyed this brief tour of Texas pioneer structures. Is there a similar pioneer site where you live?