Waco, Texas IV: Texas Museum with International Acclaim

,

The Texas Ranger museum in Waco may seem like just a Texas icon, but around the world it's actually viewed as an American one with visitors including foreign guests at the Crawford Ranch from when George W. Bush was president.

The Texas Rangers are the oldest law enforcement organization in the nation. Founded in 1823 when Stephen Austin hired 10 capable men to range in front of advancing colonists as their screen against American Indian attacks, the Texas Ranger became a legendary figure romanticized by schoolchildren and revered by Texas historians — for good reason. Their stories are synonymous with Texas itself: independent, outspoken, steadfast, confident and brave.

The Texas Ranger Museum marks an earlier — and simpler — time when a Texas Ranger depended on his horse, his gun and the ironclad belief he was on the right side of the gods.

The tribute inside quotes Captain Bill McDonald’s conviction that “No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that’s in the right and keeps on a comin.” And the Rangers in a fight sure kept on a comin’.

The Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum sits on the south bank of the Brazos River conveniently just off Interstate 35 in Waco, in central Texas. It opened in 1968 with 4,000 square feet of galleries. It now has 50,000 square feet and once it gets another $25 million from appreciative donors it hopes to go up, literally, to a high rise of 80,000 square feet.

Inside are showcases — and more showcases — that explain Ranger history since its beginnings. Visitors find statues, paintings and weapons that cover a century — and family histories that span many generations. The Hall of Fame reveals the characteristics of those who ranged the vast stretches of Texas.

“We see a wide spectrum of visitors,” says Byron Johnson, director of the museum. “It used to be persons aged 40 to 70, an age group that is reflective. In former days males could imagine themselves as Rangers. But today’s young people are not in the habit of using their imagination. Not with the large TVs in their homes and the interactive games they play.”

Johnson believes to keep people under 40 engaged he will have to create interactive exhibits for them.

We wonder if interactive exhibits will trivialize the past. If a game is generated that allows a kid to pretend to be, say, Ranger John Barclay Armstrong, a “tough, hardcore Ranger with a Colt 45 and an awesome moustache” as he arrests John Wesley Hardin, the man who had supposedly killed 44 persons including two Texas Rangers, won’t that make light of the heroic exploits revealed in Texas Ranger histories? Especially when the facts are that Armstrong followed Hardin to Florida in 1877 and with a bullet hole in his hat, clubbed Hardin unconscious, killed one accomplice and disarmed three others!

And how can you make an interactive exhibit on Captain Frank Hamer? He fought in almost 100 gunfights and is believed to have killed 53 men. He was wounded 17 times and left for dead four times. A meticulous lawman, he is best known for his pursuit of Bonnie and Clyde. He studied their movements and formed a posse with five others that tracked Bonnie and Clyde for 102 days until they ambushed the duo in Gibsland, La.

“We’ve all seen the Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty movie,” we say to our guide Christine Rothenbush, the museum’s development & marketing assistant, “How much of it was accurate?”

“The last five minutes!” she replies.

We stand before a case showing the variety of weapons used by Bonnie and Clyde and a painting that shows the car’s ambush.

When President George W. Bush had his Texas White House in nearby Crawford Ranch many foreign visitors who were his guests would come to the museum.

“Texas people think of our museum as a Texas icon but outside the country it’s an American one,” Rothenbush says. “The number one comic book in Italy is called Tex, for example, and there have been countless movies that showcase the Texas Rangers.

The media’s interest in Westerns is cyclical. The Lone Ranger was popular on the radio in the 1930s and ran as a TV series in the 1950s. There have been Sunday cartoons. Chuck Norris had a good run as Walker, Texas Ranger from 1993 to 2001, but now the museum is finding a new generation that didn’t grow up watching those stories. Fast forward to May 31, 2013 when Johnny Depp will bring his quirky style to Tonto to tell the story from the Lone Ranger’s “sidekick’s” perspective.

The real Hollywood story of the Lone Ranger was really the fun of being the actor Clayton Moore, who was a circus acrobat at the age of 8 and an aerialist at the 1934 World’s Fair when he was 20. Moore worked in Manhattan as a model, then in Hollywood as a stuntman. He died in 1999 at the age of 85 perhaps not knowing how he had thrilled a 9-year-old girl in Colorado who could hardly wait in the 1950s for The Lone Ranger to appear on her small black and white TV screen.

Her name was Dolores Taylor — and when she graduated from the University of Colorado Medical School in Denver in 1971 then became a “Fellow in Surgical Pathology at Harvard and Stanford” she had collected more than 1,000 memorabilia dealing with The Lone Ranger.

“The story of Dr. Taylor is the story of a time when few women were in the ranks of the medical elite,” Shelly Crittendon, collections manager at the museum tells fellow writer Martha Deeringer. “Taylor was an avid outdoors-woman. In addition to skiing, mountain biking and hiking and back packing in the national forests in her home state of Montana she was as comfortable in hiking gear as high heels.”

After her death her estate generously donated her memorabilia collection to the museum in 2009.

The Clayton Moore exhibit shows some of Taylor’s collection of Moore’s screen props, including his gun belt and his two revolvers with their silver bullets.

What resonated with the children viewers of The Lone Ranger in the original 221 episodes on TV was that he represented all that was noble; he was incorruptible in a land of corruption. He never asked for thanks from those he had saved but just rode off in a cloud of dust with Tonto, who in earlier episodes had saved his life.

“The Lone Ranger mask is one of the two most popular exhibits in the museum,” Rothenbush says almost reluctantly. We suspect her reluctance is because she’s concerned it might detract from the great true stories of all those Rangers who have served Texas. But it doesn’t and we ask the obvious question, “You said two. What is the other?” The answer is the first Texas Ranger badge.

Texas Ranger badges appeared in the late 1870s. Initially each Ranger created his own unofficial badge often from a five Peso Mexican silver coin. Official badges were not issued to Rangers until the Texas Department of Public Safety was created in 1935.

“But the badge was just a symbol, it was not an authority in itself,” Rothenbush explains.

That was in the document, the affidavit the Ranger had been issued. It is illegal to own or sell a Ranger badge and any you see for sale, say, on eBay, are phonies.

The badge displayed, handmade in the 1880s, is the earliest known Texas Ranger badge. This badge, a gift of the Ragsdale family, is thought to have belonged to a member of Ira Aten’s Texas Ranger Company. Aten born in 1862 “came of age on a wilderness frontier and died in 1953, one of the last survivors of the days of the Wild West.”

Gun collectors, those who love art and those visitors with family who served in the Texas Rangers will not be able to pull themselves away from the exhibits. Women were involved in the service in the early days in administrative duties. They were called “Petticoat Rangers.”

The Battle of Plum Creek in August 1840 has been captured by artist Lee Herring who has devoted himself to producing epic illustrations of the American West that bring history alive. In San Antonio when 12 Comanche chiefs were massacred at a peace conference the Comanches, understandably, retaliated and attacked settlements. At Plum Creek 200 volunteers fought about 600 raiding Comanches and “emerged victorious.” Other paintings are more contemplative and show the camaraderie of Western life.

The Ranger was paid $1.25 a day but was responsible for his own horse, clothing and weapons. It was said that “a man was no better than his horse” and the terrain was surely vast.

Samuel Colt’s new ideas were welcomed on the frontier. Armed with a five-shot revolver in each hand, a ranger rode with the reins in his teeth and the firepower of 10 men.

It has been said that “The Texas ranger could ride like a Mexican, trail like an Indian, shoot like a Tennessean and fight like a devil.”

The exhibits contrast the old days when some families might have as many as four members serving in the Texas Rangers and today’s reality that crime never stops, that as law enforcement becomes more sophisticated so do the criminals.

It was said at those past times that you “could see a graveyard in the muzzle of a Ranger’s gun.” For example, in 1879 the special unit, the Frontier Battalion created five years previously, had been involved in seven Indian wars and seven outlaw confrontations. It had ridden 1001 scouting missions and followed 31 trails. Along the way it had wounded four outlaws, killed 12 and arrested 685.

The Ranger, often the only lawman in immeasurable wide stretches of terrain, found his reputation a strong ally. Once the mayor of a warring West Texas town was promised help by the governor and met the train anxiously. Only one Ranger stepped out, creating the classic comment, “one riot, one Ranger!”

Does this museum in Waco claim the Texas Rangers were perfect? No, they could become too pleased with themselves, sometimes even arrogant and townspeople would sometimes ask them to move on once the Rangers had purged the town of criminals.

Also during the Great War many Rangers were serving in Europe and to keep up the organization’s numbers in Texas some men became Rangers who would not have qualified previously.

“Yeah, the events here during World War I were not a shining time for the Texas Rangers,” says a burly Texan who overheard our guide while gazing into an exhibit case.

But they surely had their day. Conceived as surveyors and rangers and protectors of Texas settlements at a time when the Mexican government could not save Texan colonies from harm from Indian attack, they became a militia, then in 1874 a frontier law enforcement group, then in 1901 the state police.

Rangers fought the problems around the discovery of oil and the gangster bootleg era of Prohibition. In between they had battled Comanches, desperados and cattle rustlers and created a legend as big as Texas itself.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.