Museum Day

Origin Stories from the Regional Museum Network

September 19 – October 17

The Regional Museum Network, formed in 2019 by the Wichita Falls Alliance for Arts and Culture, is made up of art, history, and natural science museums from Texas counties Baylor, Clay, Wichita, and Wilbarger.

This year we asked participating museums three questions:

Where did you start, where are you now, and where are you going?

Their answers to these questions and the artifacts from their collections created this exhibit, Origin Stories. These stories capture not only the region’s cultural history, but also comment on the human desire to preserve the past, explore the present, and legacy for the future.

Clay County Historical Society 

In 1981, as an outgrowth of an earlier, long-time historical survey committee, the Clay County Historical Society, Inc. was chartered as a non-profit 501 (c) (3) charitable organization to hold programs and promote interest in the history of the county while collecting what it could before any more artifacts and stories were lost.  

 The Society’s members had a dream to find a suitable place to display the items they began collecting years before the chartering of the Society. Members learned of the County’s plan to demolish the 1890 Jail and Sheriff’s Residence that was abandoned in 1973 when a new, more modern and compliant County jail was built. The 1890 building, located a block off the town square, had fallen into disrepair and was vandalized. The foundation was deteriorating and if something wasn’t done, it would have been lost. 

 In 1985, the Society took on the task of restoring the dilapidated 1890 Clay Co. jail. Many fundraising events were held, but finally a major capital funds campaign in 1995-96 raised a quarter million dollars to fully restore the building and establish the county museum-heritage center. Many artifacts were then brought into the building to help us begin telling the story of Clay County and its citizens. Volunteers began cataloging and identifying items donated. In 2008-09, another capital campaign netted three quarters of a million dollars to redo the basement, added storage space, and strengthen the building.   

 In 2012, the Museum was allowed to expand to recently emptied Henrietta VFD facilities located next to the Museum, which allowed an expansion to display early agricultural equipment and larger equipment such as a printing press, covered wagon, and more. An additional dream was to have an area where the traveling exhibits could be held for Pioneer Reunion, where children could be offered art classes, and community groups could meet. The Clay County Commissioners gave permission for the Society to occupy the second bay of the “barn” in January 2020, which will be renovated to accommodate new dreams.   

Historical Society of Burkburnett 

Through training by the recently formed organization of North Texas regional museums coordinated by the Wichita Falls Alliance for Arts and Culture, the Board of Directors of the Burkburnett Historical Society decided to focus on telling the key stories of our community’s history. With that goal, the Board defined a half dozen key “stories” that should be told and preserved. Here are four of those stories: 

 The Story of the Plow: Before it was Boomtown, the Burkburnett area was known for agriculture. The milk can was a standard item around these early farms. Crops provided feed for dairy cattle, and milk production became a hallmark of the area.  In later years Preston Dairy farm expanded into a regional distributor of milk and juice to convenience stores, schools, and military bases in the southwest. 

 The Story of the Horse: The chaps (pronounced “shaps”) represent a necessary piece of the cowboy’s gear, providing protection for the legs of the cowboy and the horse’s flanks from the injurious barbs of thorny plants.  The namesake of the community, S. Burk Burnett, founded the famous 6666 Ranch just north of current Burkburnett.  His cowboys were some of the early citizens of the community.  These chaps are a decorative pair worn by members of the Boomtown Quadrille, a horse-mounted square-dance group who performed in rodeos and exhibitions across the nation. 

 The Story of the Spike: The railroad lantern exemplifies a key story of Burkburnett.  After losing the lease on most of his grazing land, Burk Burnett sold his land holdings to Kemp and Kell of Wichita Falls.  Intending to capitalize on the transportation of agricultural goods from the newly opened farms that took the place of the ranch, these two entrepreneurs built a railroad from Wichita Falls northward across the Red River and into southwest Oklahoma. North of the existing site of Nesterville, they built a railroad depot and sold town lots, creating a new city. By direction of President Theodore Roosevelt, the town was christened Burkburnett. The railroad was eventually sold to Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad, better known as the MKT or “Katy”. 

 The Story of the Bit: The casing head represents the impact of the oil industry on Burkburnett. Burkburnett became “Boomtown” when gigantic pools of black gold were struck in 1918 and 1919. In only a few months, the quiet farming community became a sprawling mass of derricks, shacks, tents, and a few fine homes inhabited by over 20,000 hopeful souls. The 1930’s MGM blockbuster movie “Boomtown” wowed the nation with the stars Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert, and Hedy Lamarr playing Burkburnett characters. The more modern casing head displayed here fixes to the top of a finished well to distribute the extracted oil. 

Kell House Museum 

 The Kell House Museum got its start in 1980, when members of the Wichita County Heritage Society (WCHS) saw a ‘For Sale’ sign in front of what was then the Kell residence at 900 Bluff Street. The nonprofit had formed and incorporated in 1974 with the mission of “Promoting the Heritage of Wichita County through Preservation and Restoration.” Keenly aware of the Kell family’s impact on the greater Wichita Falls area, WCHS fundraised and purchased the historic home and its contents in November 1980. It opened as a museum to the public in 1981. 

Today the Kell House Museum remains a community anchor for Wichita county history, telling its story through the lens of the Kell family. Signified a Wichita Falls Landmark, a Texas Historical Commission Historic Marker, and placed on the National Register for Historic Places, it is recognized on all levels as a historically significant site. Activities and programs include tours, exhibits, Living History Days, a popular Patriotic 4th of July Celebration and Parade, Haunted Tours, Candlelight Tours, Santa House, and others, drawing about 7,800 visitors and participants annually.  

Looking forward, the Kell House will undergo a restoration effort in the near term, as capital campaign efforts on-going since 2017 will bear their fruit. The front porch, columns, brick work, windows, and other damaged areas of the structure will see historically correct rehabilitation. Workshops demonstrating correct techniques for historic restoration will be part of this process. This endeavor will be scheduled around major events, so the museum will remain partially accessible to the public. Once completed, the Kell House Museum will once again be fully available to its community through traditional, expanded, and new programing, inviting the public to learn all about Wichita Falls and the Kell’s influence thereupon by peeking through its window to the past. 

The Museum of North Texas History 

In 2000, a group of dedicated people met with the objective of preserving the heritage of North Texas, and the Museum of North Texas History was born. These folks then began the hard work. First came successful membership and fund drives, the establishment of an endowment, and then finding a home. The late rusty Lindemann donated the building at 720 Indiana Avenue to Wichita County. Then the Wichita County Commissioners signed a 50 year lease for the main floor of the building to house the Museum of North Texas History. In 2001, this 18,500 square foot area was opened to the public. 

The Museum also curates the “Jenny to Jet” exhibit at the Wichita Falls Regional Airport. The “Jenny” half is dedicated to Call Field, where World War I pilots trained in the Curtiss JN4-D biplane, known as the “Jenny.” We have an authentic Jenny and she is truly a national treasure. The “Jet” half has a T-38 jet, and tells the story of Sheppard Air Force Base. In this one place people can see the very first U.S. Aviation trainer and a jet that is still being used to train pilots today. 

We added an interactive Children’s Exhibit in 2019, and are currently renovating our Oil and Gas Exhibit, opening date to be announced soon.  Downtown Wichita Falls is a vibrant community, and the Museum is an active participant in downtown events and festivals. The Museum staff continually share their passion for North Texas history through field trips, service groups, lectures and more! During the COVID-19 health crisis, the museum was closed for several months. However, we took this time to spruce up a few areas in the Museum. We tried to make the best of the situation by taking the time to pursue more professional development opportunities. 

In the future, we hope to add more interactive elements to our exhibits. We love when visitors can encounter the distinct history of North Texas through visuals aids, audio, video, touch elements and more. The Museum is dedicated to telling the stories of North Texas and we hope that all of our visitors from far and wide can find a story that resonates with them during their visit. 

Red River Valley Museum 

The Red River Valley Museum can trace its origins back to 1934 when Ethel Ray was tasked with writing an essay on the “Principal Indians of the Southwest” by the local Vernon Delphian Society. Her research led her and her husband, J. Henry, to begin searching for artifacts in the Vernon area. This quickly became their passion. 

By the 1940’s the couple had established a museum in their private home. Their collection had grown to hold hundreds of artifacts ranging from items used by Native American and early white settlers to fossils that can be dated back to the Permian period. Once the couple decided to retire from archaeology in the 1960s, they chose to donate their findings to the City of Vernon. The City accepted the collection and displayed it in a cloak room at the local auditorium. Here it was all but forgotten about until 1975 when a vacant hospital building became the first home of the museum. Ten years later when William Bond donated his collection of 130 record-holding wild game trophy mounts from around the world, a 15,000 square foot modern, regional Museum was built adjacent to the Vernon College campus. 

Today we have remodeled or are currently remodeling all but one exhibit. We are striving to create an engaging and educational environment that all visitors can connect to- regardless of their origins. While the RRVM focuses primarily on the history of the Vernon area we know its stories and people connect to the entire state of Texas and beyond. We aim to preserve and present the history entrusted to us and help all who walk through our doors find something in our story that piques their interest. We hope our exhibits can open the doors to further learning for our visitors. 

Whiteside Museum of Natural History 

The Whiteside Museum of Natural History was incorporated in December of 2013 due to the herculean philanthropic efforts of Judge Clyde E. Whiteside. As a lifelong mission to create a natural history museum for Seymour based on the incredible paleontological importance of Seymour and Baylor County, Judge Whiteside financed the museum’s development. WMNH provides all visitors with an interactive glimpse into the natural world, and more specifically the ancient life that once inhabited North Texas, 287 Million years ago. WMNH paleontologists also collect fossils from all over the world in order to expand its educational exhibits.  

 The metropolitan-style-museum approach offers a science education experience rarely seen in other museums. The WMNH answers a dire need for the availability of beneficial extracurricular education, which ultimately inspires our youth to explore their world. As more communities and school systems benefit from cost-free educational programming, WMNH strengthens its presence in the community as a healthy source of education and positive economic progression. This includes an in-depth tour of the Hall of Paleontology, as well as the live animals exhibit—the WMNH Zoozeum. The highly interactive Robinson Paleontology Field Station is one of the largest public-interactive Paleontology Preparation Laboratories in the United States. Guests are allowed to use real research microscopes to explore their natural world and have one-on-one interaction with museum paleontologists.  

 In the wake of COVID-19, WMNH has broadened its educational capabilities by providing virtual museum tours via live video feed as well as paleontology field classes for teachers and students. Communities should have access to unlimited science education. As a result, past, present, and future generations have a better chance to realize the unlimited possibilities their future may hold. Ultimately, museums are a tangible link to our community’s rich histories and provide us with a better understanding of our collective heritage. It is the duty of museums to preserve these histories and share them with the world. 

Wichita Falls Fire and Police Museum 

The Wichita Falls Fire and Police Museum was established in 1985 at the old Fire Station # 5 at Avenue H and Giddings. The desire to capture and preserve the rich history of our local police and fire departments was deemed paramount. The museum started out with two vintage fire engines and old relics and photos dating back to the 1890’s. 

In 2007, new leadership assumed control of the museum and moved it to its present location at the intersection of Pecan and Mississippi Street. Veiled under the cloak of an aged tin WWI-style Quonset Hut is an amazing collection of 14 fully restored fire engines. Referred to as our rolling museum, these fire trucks have participated in countless parades, weddings, and high school photo opportunities. Our collection of rare photos and fire and police memorabilia is on display in the office space of our building. On a national scale, the inventory in this collection ranks second to none. 

The leadership of the Fire and Police Museum consists of retired Wichita Falls firefighters unchanged since 2007. For the future of our collection, we envision a building in downtown Wichita Falls that could accommodate all of our photos, memorabilia, and a portion of our fire trucks. To keep the exhibit fresh, different trucks could be rotated regularly. To broaden our base to include different interest groups, we are open to including exhibits of race car legends of Wichita Falls and farm tractors from the area. The common theme being wheels: speed, and hard work. 

Past efforts to secure a new building for our museum have been plagued with setbacks. Startup funding and the cost a maintaining a facility have been our Achilles heel. Even in the face of defeat, we maintain our resolution and endeavor to persevere in our efforts to attain a new fire and police museum. 

Wichita Falls Museum of Art at MSU Texas

Founded in the mid-1960s by visionary members of the community and spearheaded by the Junior Service League during a decade of political and social change and uncertainty, the Wichita Falls Museum and Art Center opened its doors on April 1, 1967.  

As the Vietnam War became a daily reality and the Civil Rights Movement experienced the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the impactful actions of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the people of Wichita Falls invested in culture. Originally focused on art, science, and history, the Museum achieved prestigious accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums in 1973, with reaccreditation in 2019. 

In 2005, Midwestern State University acquired the museum, launching a combined purpose to integrate art into the life of the community and the liberal arts mission of MSU. Acknowledging the museum’s strength in the visual arts, the name became the Wichita Falls Museum of Art at Midwestern State University. 

The permanent collection offers an outstanding resource of artworks on paper and original prints by American artists. More than 1600 artworks range from a 1677 print by John Foster to works by modern and contemporary artists, along with more than 2000 historic and fine art photographs, including C.A. Fuhs’ visionary images of early Wichita Falls. Today, the Museum is a model of excellence and a catalyst of the expressive lives of the people of Wichita Falls. 

Through culturally diverse art collecting, exhibitions and programs steeped in relevance, and empowering partnerships and scholarship, the WFMA continues to advocate for the power of art to enrich the quality of people’s lives. Art brings people into a communion with a larger community and helps people connect the senses, body, and mind. When you visit the museum, we hope you experience both welcome and wonder.