The Frontier Times and auld lang syne

Happy Belated New Year, O Faithful Reader! And what better way to belly up to a brand-new year (and decade) than by contemplating the past? And what better place to contemplate the past, both personal and communal, than the Frontier Times Museum in Bandera, Texas?

A stuffed two-headed goat; a dentist’s chair and equipment from the 1880s; dead fleas wearing tiny human clothes (magnifying glass provided); a cluster of melted nails from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

If you’ve never been there, you’re missing something special. Bandera, which likes to bill itself as “the Cowboy Capital of the World,” boasts a number of attractions: Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar Saloon, where musical legends like Ernest Tubb, Hank Thompson, Willie Nelson, and Robert Earl Keen have been known to appear; the OST Restaurant (officially the Old Spanish Trail, but fondly known as the Old Sloppy Table), where you can dine in the John Wayne Room, a shrine to the Duke (who supposedly stopped in during the filming of The Alamo in 1960), or perch on a saddle at the bar; and numerous dude ranches, where you can try not to think about Jack Palance in City Slickers.

But for my money the Frontier Times Museum beats them all hollow. You can talk about your Louvre and your British Museum, your Prado and your Uffizi, your Met and your MOMA, but the Frontier Times is pretty much my favorite museum ever. Wandering through it is like exploring your grandparents’ attic, if your grandparents happened to be eccentric and obsessive collectors of (mostly) Western memorabilia, and perhaps addicted to psychotropic drugs.

A diorama of the 1843 battle of Bandera Pass, using plastic cowboys and Indians; a photograph of John Wesley Hardin’s bullet-riddled corpse; the shrunken head of a Jivaro Indian woman; a map of Texas made out of rattlesnake rattles.

The Frontier Times Museum was the brainchild of J. Marvin Hunter, a newspaperman and amateur historian who founded the Frontier Times, a magazine dedicated to “frontier history, border tragedy, and pioneer achievement,” in 1923. The Frontier Times, which ceased publication in 2004, was a successor of Hunter’s Frontier Magazine, founded by Hunter’s father and published from 1910 to 1917; of this earlier publication, Hunter once wrote that its articles “are true in detail, though in some instances names and dates may be incorrect.”

Mrs. Louisa Gordon’s collection of 400 bells from around the world, with a pen-and-ink sketch of Mrs. Gordon’s grandfather’s house in England; a stuffed armadillo displayed beneath a hanging clarinet and sousaphone; stereoscopic views of the Taj Mahal, Acropolis, and Matterhorn.

As might be expected from someone with such a, well, flexible attitude toward the writing of history, Hunter was also an indiscriminate collector of memorabilia and relics. In 1927 he decided to share the wealth, as it were, and bought a small stone house two blocks from the Bandera County courthouse to show off his stuff.

But the collection grew like Topsy, and an addition was built in 1933, and then another in 1972. The effect is as if anybody in Bandera who ever went anywhere and brought anything back and eventually got tired of tripping over it in the garage just figured, “What the hell, let’s give it to the Frontier Times.” As a result, and unlike many museums, the Frontier Times is still adding to its collection, which now includes more than 30,000 items, and storage is becoming an issue.

German army helmets from World War I and World War II; a combination knife and fork for a one-armed man; a diary kept by “someone” in Geneva NY from 1835 to 1837; a serpent made of several hundred old English postage stamps.

The museum itself is charmingly low-key, its treasures arranged in what seems like random order, and many of the exhibit labels are either hand-written or typed on index cards, with occasional misspellings. Blessedly, you can make it through all three rooms in less than an hour, if you hurry. But take your time; the place is a unique meditation on the nature of history, a look inside the mind of a man and his community and a record of what they found worthy of preservation and celebration. As such, it is eminently deserving of more leisurely appreciation. I wonder what future generations will make of what we leave behind?

Plastic bottles from Poland, vintage 2006; a photograph of Judge Paul Desmuke of Jourdanton TX, who had no arms, playing the violin with his feet; a pillow stuffed with hair from camels brought to Texas by the U.S. Army in the 1850s; a Japanese shoe.

What we’re reading
Karen Armstrong, The Case for God
Martin: Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked

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