The completely restored 1903 Knights of Pythias Hall and an adjacent annex now stand as a centerpiece of the historic area of downtown Cuero. All photographs supplied by the Chisholm Trail Heritage Museum, unless otherwise noted.
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Cattle Drives, Cowboys, and Cuero By Margaret Nicklas
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A historical marker
placed a few miles from the small town of Cuero, Texas, commemorates more than a century’s passage since early residents of the region blazed trails through the wilderness and helped create the now-famous Chisholm Trail. In the late 1860s, cowboys drove huge herds of cattle hundreds of miles to Missouri and Kansas, where selling them brought needed cash back to a region recovering from war. The journey was dangerous and could take months, as small groups of men on horseback moved thousands of cattle over rangeland, across rivers, and through storms. Though the era lasted only a few decades, it helped revive the Texas economy and brought to the public’s consciousness one of the most enduring symbols of American Western culture—the cowboy. Since those days, much has changed in Cuero, which lies about 30 miles northwest of Victoria, but the town’s ties to that heritage run deep. Cattle ranches are common, and area residents participate in trail rides and rodeos. Saddle makers, spur makers, and ranch hands still make a living there. Many families have called this small town home for generations, some tracing their lineage back to the town’s earliest settlers.
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So it’s not surprising that Cuero residents continue to find ways to celebrate and promote the area’s history. The Chisholm Trail Heritage Museum, which opened November 23, may be one of the best and most recent examples. The facility occupies the lower level of a beautifully restored brick building located in the city’s commercial historic district. Built in 1903, the hall was once used for lodge meetings and other business of local members of a fraternal order known as the Knights of Pythias, a national organization that emerged in the mid-1860s to promote friendship, charity, and benevolence. The now-refurbished space offers both a tribute to the ranchers and cowboys of South Central Texas and an opportunity for subsequent generations to learn about the role these pioneers played in post-Civil War America. Helping tell that story is the world-class Tinker Collection. This assembly of cowboy accoutrements, spanning three centuries and gathered from across the Americas, is on permanent display at the Cuero facility. While the museum is certainly impressive, the story of how it came to be is every bit as noteworthy. Efforts to create the multi-million dollar historical destination extended more than 13 years. Along the way, residents of Cuero and surrounding communi-
ties gave generously of cash, time, goods, and services. However, without the hard work of a committed few, who staffed the museum’s board, created plans, set goals, and pitched in to ensure results, the venue’s success might have been questionable. One of those individuals is Sue Sulsar, a self-described history and museum lover, who has served as the Chisholm Trail Heritage Museum board secretary since 2001. She grew up in southeast Texas but has found roots in Cuero, in part because of her involvement in this endeavor. Another key organizer is Kay Walker, a Victoria homemaker with a long history of community service. Walker devoted more than a dozen years to the CTHM project, seven of those as the board’s vice chair. Though the undertaking took more time, resources, and energy than she anticipated, the results have also far exceeded her original expectations, she says. In addition to being a first-class facility, Walker believes the museum will have national and international appeal because of the public’s fascination with cowboys and the lives they lived. “This is truly what the legends of Texas are about,” Walker says, referring to the cattle drive-era that the heritage museum celebrates. Further, she points out, visitors will expe-
rience a place where much of that history actually occurred. The story of this grassroots project began in the late 1990s, when a handful of citizens met for coffee to discuss a new museum in Cuero. These conversations, however, never led to action until Robert Oliver, who had recently moved back to the area, heard about the idea. The native Texan grew up in nearby Refugio but spent much of his childhood on the Cuero ranch owned by his grandparents. His interest in founding a local history museum led him to host a dinner for about a dozen people in January 2000. Over chili and cornbread, the group shared their ideas and talked about what might The images on these two pages of the restored 1903 historic building show the high level of craftsmanship that went into this Cuero restoration project.
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A leather cowboy piece, left, and a ranch ledger, right, are two objects that invite closer inspection. Photographs by Paul Bardagjy.
Leather and silver pieces in the collection go beyond the experience of the common cowboy. Photograph, left, by Marsha Gibson, and right, by Ansen Seale.
Ranching artifacts allow the visitor to compare American cowboys with their counterparts in other countries. Photograph, left, by Ansen Seale, and right, by Paul Bardagjy.
An advertisement selling cowboy wares, left, and cattle brands from the area, right, are on display at the new museum. Both images by Paul Bardagjy.
Left, a calf blab, attaches to the animalâ€™s muzzle for weaning; image by Paul Bardagjy. Decorative spurs, right, are a beautiful addition to the cowboy collection. Photograph by Ansen Seale.
Almost 1,000 pieces of cowboy accoutrements will rotate through the museum exhibits, providing a unique experience for the visitor. Both photos by Paul Bardagjy.
be feasible. By the end of 2001, the founding members had received a non-profit designation, chosen a name, and created an organizational structure that would carry them forward. Oliver quickly emerged as the project’s leader and, as chairman, helped guide the board through more than a decade of ups and downs. From the beginning, he advocated for a full-scale museum, despite the town’s small size, and believed that a strong, local base of support was essential for success. Oliver’s instincts proved well founded. Early on, the CTHM board developed a membership program— even before purchasing the museum building—allowing local and area residents to join the effort while generating thousands of dollars in yearly revenue. A variety of membership levels were established because the organization wanted widespread support. The group recognized that it was more important to have 100 people give $25 than to have one person donate $2,500. An early decision to have the museum tell the story of a six-county region, rather than just the Cuero narrative, also expanded the museum’s reach. With the permanent loan of the Tinker Collection in 2009, the facility’s scope became international, generating even broader appeal. The CTHM board was able to balance this kind of pragmatism with a commitment to high ideals. They opted to save a historic building rather than pursue alternatives such as new construction or conversion of a non-descript cinder block structure, in spite of knowing that restoration could be costly. The former Knights of Pythias Hall was selected based on the site’s historical value and location in a high-traffic area. The board’s handling of the building’s purchase also illustrates their prudent decision-making.
Oliver recalls that the organization bought the hall in May 2002 by arranging to put a third of the selling price down and pay the balance within five years. However, over the course of the following 18 months, local contributors and a grant from a foundation in Victoria generated most of the remaining funds needed. Then, during a December 2003 meeting, CTHM board members pulled out their checkbooks and took care of the rest. Though the museum would not open for another 10 years, the purchase of the building was a pivotal moment because the concept became tangible. “Up until then, we were only selling an idea,” Oliver explains. As the project moved forward—through renovation and expansion of the building, followed by design and installation of the exhibits—a series of biennial “Taste of the Trail” fundraisers brought even more people and money to the table. Typically these events featured auctions with big-ticket items such as weekend getaways and dinner parties hosted by donors. Meanwhile, individuals gave in other ways, some by lending their family heirlooms to the museum for display. Throughout, the group’s slow, steady approach was one key to success, according to Bill Blackwell, a retired banker, treasurer for the group, and another founding CTHM board member. “We never attempted to… bite off more than we could chew,” he says, explaining that the board understood the importance of breaking the work into phases and carrying little debt. Blackwell adds that allowing time for fundraising was also essential, especially in a small community such as Cuero. But moving too slowly posed risks that had to be considered as well. At one point, Robert Oliver recalls, board members disagreed about whether to proceed
Early Support From the Texas Historical Foundation Proved Essential Cuero’s Chisholm Trail Heritage Museum received three grants from the Texas Historical Foundation during the building’s nine-year renovation and restoration process. Each of these helped with a different phase of the project. In 2004, THF funding assisted with the restoration of the main façade to its original 1903 appearance. This work included replacing windows and doors, removing paint, and creating a replica of the Knights of Pythias emblem that sits at the roofline. Two years later, THF support was applied to the creation of architectural plans for phases II and III of the restora-
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tion. These blueprints will also be helpful for building maintenance and any needed future renovations. The third grant in 2009 was for construction of a new annex that preserved the Pythias building’s historic integrity while ensuring that the museum facilities meet current building codes for accessibility. Additionally, the Chisholm Trail Heritage Museum was able to leverage THF grants as part of a successful application for additional funding from the Economic Development Administration, earning the project an extra $1 million as a result.—Hannah Curry-McDougald
The Tinker Collection After extensive negotiations, The Chisholm Trail Heritage Museum signed an agreement with The University of Texas at Austin to exhibit the Tinker Collection on permanent loan. This unique collection was a gift from private collector Dr. Edward L. Tinker (18811968) to the university in 1959. Tinker, who earned two doctorates in literature, traveled extensively throughout Latin America, the Iberian Peninsula, and the United States studying Hispanic culture. The collection, now housed in Cuero, represents exemplary samples of North and South American cowboy and horse-related artifacts. However, the documents, photographs, and other papers associated with the collection will continue to reside at the university’s Harry Ransom Center for safekeeping. The Tinker Collection includes everyday items such as saddles, stirrups, spurs, cups for traditional South American mate (an herbal tea drink), hats, clothing, and other assorted objects related to ranching culture. Consisting of approximately 975 individual pieces and occupying 20 percent of the Chisholm Trail Heritage Museum’s exhibit space, the artifacts will be continuously rotated so that visitors can enjoy and appreciate the full collection over time. The CTHM believes that this world-class assembly of ranching artifacts from countries including Peru, Argentina, Columbia, Chile, Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, and the United States will allow viewers to compare and contrast American cowboys with their counterparts in other nations. Additionally, these everyday items shed light on the life of the average cowboy and not just the famous figures of the Old West. While the exhibit includes representations of the Guadalupe River Valley cowboy experience, the Tinker Collection as a whole goes beyond demonstrating local heritage. This exhibition offers a multi-cultural exposure to cowboy life that connects the Chisholm Trail and Cuero to a related history that spans the North and South American continents. —Hannah Curry-McDougald
with work on the building because most, but not all, of the needed dollars had been raised. He urged the board to move ahead, concerned about the loss of potentially available grant money if the project stalled. Such funding, which ultimately provided approximately $1.5 million dollars to restoring and constructing an adjacent annex, was not easy to secure. Success came after multiple attempts, considerable outreach, and several trips to Washington, D.C., to build relationships and identify effective strategies. During the course of more than a decade of fundraising, millions of private dollars were contributed as well, and those backers expected results. According to Kay Walker, a sense of responsibility to contributors was another motivating force that pushed the museum project along. Because the board had accepted donations for so many years, she says, “We absolutely had to produce what we said we were going to produce.” Robert Oliver adds, “The board spent public and private money in the manner that we had promised. Furthermore, we properly accounted for funding obtained from many sources, including foundations, corporations, and the private sector.” Project contributors will likely be pleased. Drew Patterson is an exhibits designer who has worked on other historical Texas sites, including the Alamo. He and colleague Pony Allen oversaw the CTHM exhibit design and installation. Patterson credits the board’s commitment to quality and the project’s ability to attract talent for much of its success. Conceptual planning, led by renowned historical scholar Lonn Taylor, and contributions from other top professionals have come together to create a museum that is of “Smithsonian quality,” Patterson says. If talent and perseverance brought the Chisholm Trail Heritage Museum home, there were other forces at play that no one could have predicted—namely the state of the economy. “We were just really lucky,” Walker says, referring to the economic boon the Eagle Ford Shale brought to South Texas at the same time that the recession hit other areas. The resulting prosperity from this major oil and gas development meant that people living in the region could continue to support the project, some even more so than before, according to Walker. But with or without that good fortune, the Chisholm Trail Heritage Museum—with its determined leaders, thoughtful planning, and widespread community support—was destined to succeed. It will now stand, open for business, as a fitting legacy to all Cuero residents—past and present. Margaret Nicklas is a graduate student in the School of Journalism at The University of Texas at Austin. For more information, call 361-277-2866 or visit www. chisholmtrailmuseum.org.
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