City in the Spotlight

City in the Spotlight – Abilene: Steeped in western lore

ABILENE, Texas — Centuries ago, great herds of buffalo lived a few miles south of present day Abilene, and it soon became a favored camping place for Native Americans. Hunters and cattlemen arrived in the 1870s and formed the town of Buffalo Gap. During the 1880s the wild frontier was tamed by access to railroad lines and permanent settlements. Cattle ranchers replaced Indians and buffalo hunters. Today this town of 100,000 residents is known as the “Buckle of the Bible Belt” because it has several Christian colleges that add 8,000 students to the community. Located 150 miles west of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, it has a surprising number of historical attractions.

Buffalo Gap Historic Village is a living-history museum that preserves the Texas frontier during its last 50 years from 1875 to 1925. The village began in 1956 when prominent lawyer and rancher Ernie Wilson established a small historical museum of Indian and Western artifacts. Following Wilson’s death in 1970, the site was purchased by local physician Dr. R. Lee Rode and his wife, Ann. The Rodes continued to expand the site by acquiring more historical structures from the area. When they retired and offered the village for sale in 1999, it was acquired by the Grady McWhiney Research Foundation to be operated as a non-profit educational facility.

Visitors today can explore a dozen historic buildings that have been moved to this site. The first Taylor County Courthouse was built in Buffalo Gap in 1880. Today it houses Indian artifacts and a gun collection. Built in 1881, the Marshall Tom Hill House was home to Abilene’s first marshall. It contains period furnishings, including a Western Cottage organ. In 1873, former buffalo hunter J.M. Knight built a cedar cabin, now known as the Knight/Sayles Cabin. It is an excellent example of a “single-pen” cabin typical across the American south. Century-old artifacts are displayed in the doctor’s office, barbershop, blacksmith shop, bank, service station, print shop and wagon barn.

The Grace Museum is located in a four-story mission revival-style building that was once a hotel. It consists of an art museum, an interactive children’s museum and a history museum. The third-floor history museum contains an authentic replica of a 1940s boot shop, Texas and Pacific Railroad memorabilia, and period rooms representing life in Abilene from 1910 to 1948. On the Road Again, a special exhibit of vintage race cars, will be on display until Sept. 2.

Opened in 2001, the 12th Armored Division Memorial Museum is dedicated to honoring the “Hellcats” who trained in Camp Barkeley, near Abilene, and served during World War II. They fought in the European Theatre before occupying Japan. When the war ended, the division was deactivated and many of the men settled in Abilene.

Built in 1930, the Paramount Theatre was restored to its elegant original appearance in 1987. Today the facility is a state-of-the-art performance space for live theater, concerts, opera and dance performances. Afternoon tours are available.

Founded in 1997, the National Center for Children’s Literature (NCCIL) is located in a restored 1920s building. Its purpose is to recognize artistic achievements in children’s books and offer programming designed to promote literacy, stimulate creativity and increase appreciation for the arts. Its permanent collection includes “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Salvadore Dali.

Frontier Texas! is where 19th-century history meets 21st-century technology. This 14,000-square-foot attraction offers audio-visual interactive experiences that put visitors in the middle of Indian attacks, stampeding buffalo, card game shootouts, prairie thunderstorms and quiet spring evenings.

Antique shops abound in Abilene. One must-see is the Antique Station Antique Mall which offers oak, pine and walnut furniture in styles ranging from primitive to Victorian. This is also a great place to look for glassware, pottery, china and advertising pieces. A complete list of area shops is available at the Abilene Convention & Visitors Bureau Web site.

Abilene is an excellent value for travelers. This summer, a Round Up Pass, which includes admission to the Grace Museum, Frontier Texas!, the 12th Armored Division Museum, The National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, and the Abilene Zoo, costs $15 for each adult and $7 per child.