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Amarillo: The Panhandle Plains Historical Museum

By Mary Gallagher

One of many great things to see and do in Amarillo, Texas is visiting the huge Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum. Amarillo is an interesting city any time of the year and to many travelers drive straight through to or from Denver, Santa Fe and other points. Stay a few days, you will find great food, interesting sights and some pleasant surprises.

In an average year, I’m probably in a museum – new or familiar – a 100 times minimum and that’s likely ten times more than the average person. Sometimes the gift shop is the first place to hit, not to buy but to see what “they” think is the top attraction and therefore has the most souvenir items. On occasion the physical buildings are really grim even if they are newer. Just a sterile grey void and the word historical in their title sometimes rhymes with boring. Not every exhibit at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum will have you tap dancing with joy but there is enough here to keep even the most jaded viewer happily occupied. The old cars, petroleum history, silver jewelry, furniture, crafts and other changing exhibits draw you in and soon time has just slipped away.

There are many areas I would like to go back and study again as well as the sections completely missed. Unfortunately exhibits change or move and we don’t always get that opportunity but then a new show opens and another favorite emerges.

The Panhandle-Plains Museum is where I first became acquainted with Frank Reaugh, an extraordinary Texas artist. His style reminded me of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and the first time I saw the works of that romantic painter in Scotland. Turner is known and admired for his portrayal of the transcendent power and turbulence of nature in his paintings of landscapes and storms at sea. His interpretations of light have always fascinated me. Frank Reaugh brought this same power of nature to his works featuring West Texas.

Although born in Illinois and therefore not a true native Texan, Reaugh, was very proud of the state he settled in with his family in 1876.

He began by sketching cattle during his teens in pastures near the family farm outside Terrell, Texas. Participating in cattle drives to Kansas allowed him to further observe range life. After studying at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts, Reaugh returned to Terrell and became a private art instructor. He enjoyed annual “roughing it” sketching trips to West Texas with his students. Reaugh loved this culture and believed that the cowboys, plains and cattle he depicted were the clearest expression of the state’s uniqueness. He also felt that art should coexist with philosophy, literature and music to “refine” the individual.

After the 1890s, Reaugh worked increasingly in pastels, making the pastel crayons himself by molding them into more than 300 shades. He once said that, “Nature’s church [is] the only one this ultra-modern world has left unspoiled.” In later life, he mourned the passing of the open range for the sake of progress but vowed never to live outside the state.

The Capitol in Austin also has a small collection of Reaugh’s work.

While I was touring the museum they had a fantastic exhibit of cowboy boots and currently through June 2003 are showing FLAPPERS AND FADS: FASHIONS OF THE JAZZ AGE. Here in the textile gallery are costumes and accessories from the 1920s including a typical dress of the time. The knee-length silk chemise has short sleeves and decorative beadwork and sounds identical to one I had in the 60’s or 70’s. This proves classic style never goes out! Close-fitting cloche hats and costume jewelry were the essential accessories.

Located here is one of the largest and most significant historic costume and textile collections in Texas, numbering approximately 7,500 items, with the majority reflecting the post- 1875 Euro-American settlement of this area. The women’s clothing collection is strongest in ca. 1900 – ca. 1950. Recent exhibits have included Navajo and Chimayo weavings, quilts, and historic clothing. The collection also contains military uniforms, hats, shoes, handbags, jewelry, quilts, rugs, and household items.

The featured exhibit from May 24 through September 2, 2003 is Let The Good Times Roll a summer-long museum exhibit and party celebrating American’s love of transportation.

Two wheels or four, 2003 includes several unique anniversaries that represent events that led to an unprecedented century of progress in U.S. transportation, from Henry Ford’s first mass-produced automobile to the production of the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle in a shed in Milwaukee, WI.

The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum agrees one hundred years later it’s time to celebrate!

The centerpiece of this exhibit is a major artifact of the museum’s collection- an extremely rare 1903 Ford Model A. This car bears the serial number 28, making it one of the oldest surviving models of this rare automobile. In addition the visitor will see

* a car dealership featuring Amarillo street scenes (circa 1953) highlighting the 50th anniversary of the Chevrolet Corvette.
* a 1950’s era drive-in movie theater.
* a picnic scene from Palo Duro Canyon featuring a Ford Model A (complete with rumble seat).
* a 1940s tourist court with vintage vehicles parked outside.
* a 1940s-50s diner, with appropriate cars parked outside.
* several classic Harley-Davidson motorcycles from the early 1900s.
* and various Route 66 scenes.

Volunteer interpreters, dressed in period costume, will help visitors understand and appreciate this golden age of transportation.

Special events, such as car and motorcycle shows, will be planned on the weekends through the summer, helping to emphasize the popularity of transportation in this country. “We anticipate this exhibit will be a must see for all kinds of groups, from car and motorcycle clubs to Route 66 fans. In all, we expect about 15,000 visitors to the exhibit and summer series of special transportation events,” Dr. Walt Davis, director of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, says.

Better yet, the core of “Let The Good Times Roll” will live on for several more years as part of the museum’s permanent exhibit by helping the museum restore and renovate its entire transportation collection and exhibit.

The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum is the largest history museum in Texas, with over 200,000 square feet and more than 2 million artifacts in its collection. It’s like being at the Smithsonian, but with a Texas accent.

So let the good times roll, y’all.

Visit the Amarillo CVC website at

Visit the Panhandle-Plains web site at

The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum is located on 4th Avenue in Canyon, TX, about 15 miles south of Amarillo. Phone 806-651-2244. Open seven days a week. Closed New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Children 3 and under – Free
Children 4 to 12 – $1
Children 13 and over – $4
Adults – $4
Seniors 65+ – $3
Groups of 20+ – $3

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