STAMFORD, Texas (AP) – How do they measure success?
The Abilene Reporter-News reports it is by the number of kids wanting to hang out in the museum.
“We had a time where we had to turn them away because they were just coming in here to hang out,” said Luci Wedeking, director of the Cowboy Country Museum, laughing.
“For high school students to come into another education institution and just hang out because it was cool, has been the true tell that we’ve been doing something right here.”
The museum is located on the east side of the square in Stamford, about 200 miles west of Dallas.
Wedeking and Jewellee Keunstler, who took over as museum curator from the retired Sandra Rhea, have been on something of a treasure hunt inside their own building.
“We were opened in 1977 to be a western fine art museum, so we’ve been trying to get on track with that,” Wedeking said. “We discovered a couple of years ago that we had an original Tom Ryan piece that had been hanging out on the floor.”
Like a lot of area museums, this one suffers from an overabundance of donations. It’s easy to get swamped by everything until someone comes in to sort and organize the collection.
The painting she referred to is called Sundown and it hangs near the front of a museum.
Ryan was best known for his paintings of the 6666 Ranch in Guthrie. He was one of the museum founders and died in 2011.
Another work is by Avery Johnson, not known as a Western artist but as a prolific watercolorist.
“His work hangs in the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.,” Wedeking said. “These were treasures we didn’t know we had until we started researching them.”
A centerpiece of the collection in the main gallery is the chuck wagon from the SMS Flat-Top Ranch. They know it’s authentic because they’ve also got pictures of it in use from about 100 years ago.
It was sitting in the back of the room, Keunstler and a volunteer decided to pull it up to the front.
“It was very hard, it was extremely heavy,” Keunstler said, with relief in her voice. “I felt sorry for the horses that pulled it.”
She clarified that it actually rolled very well. It was just the initial shove to get it moving that proved difficult. That and steering it.
“The Swenson Ranch was started in 1882 so it could have been original from that time,” Wedeking said.
“Eventually we’re going to tell the story of the Swensons, how they and Stamford came to be here,” Keunstler said. “We’re going to make this look like a cowboy camp, so when you come in here you actually feel like you’re out with a working chuck wagon.”
Swante M. Swenson came to Texas from Sweden in the 1830s, according to the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas. He introduced the Colt revolver to the Texas navy and the army. His family owned a handful of ranches across Texas, at one time owning nearly 500,000 acres before the Civil War.
After the war, the Swensons established three ranches in the northern Big Country and started the Texas Cowboy Reunion in 1930. The family had offices in New York City but Stamford and West Texas remained close to their hearts, as evidenced by their award-winning cattle and the old documents Keunstler showed me, on loan to the museum’s archive.
“As you go through them, you can see the Great Depression happening,” she said. “You can see the money problems they are having, the community is having.”
She described how the Swensons would parcel their land to attract farmers to the community. But as the 1930s progress, the correspondence clearly indicates how some farmers were struggling and couldn’t always make their payments.
“They would almost always reply that everybody is having a hard time, and to give them another two years,” Keunstler recalled. “They were afraid if they foreclosed on them, it would start a chain reaction and they didn’t want to do that to the town.”
The entire west wall of the new gallery is covered by memorabilia honoring the Stamford High School Bulldogs. During homecoming, Wedeking said it was their Instagram wall.
To the left is another kind of school history.
“We wanted to tell the history of all of Stamford,” Keunstler said, gesturing to the binders and photographs. “Those are rural schools, some of those closed when they consolidated with Stamford.”
This was before school integration when students of color attended their own schools. But in the years since, it’s been Stamford High School that has been remembered longer.
That has changed now, thanks to the University of North Texas, a grant from the Tocker Foundation and the sponsorship of the Stamford Carnegie Library. Their support enabled the museum to have their entire newspaper archive digitized.
“This is every article that appeared in Stamford newspapers on Booker T. Washington School,” Wedeking said, opening a book. “There is an element of our community that went to different schools, so now their history that is here is celebrated, and it’s searchable.”
A group of 17 juniors and seniors from Stamford High come to the museum Friday mornings to read through the old newspaper articles and write down any names they find. They add them to an index so family members researching genealogy can search them.
Seeing the kids helping out at the museum has contributed to what Wedeking describes as a “renaissance” in Stamford. That’s especially true with the Grand Theatre, soon to reopen.
“We’ve had several community members say that it is so cool to drive around the square on Friday morning and see a big football player out here with his jersey on, sweeping the sidewalk in front of the museum,” she said. “Preserving and celebrating history gives these kids something to take pride in.”
By RONALD W. ERDRICH, Abilene Reporter-News
Information from: Abilene Reporter-News, http://www.reporternews.com
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