Western Trips

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Exploring The Red River Valley Museum / Vernon Texas

If your western road trip or vacation takes you between Wichita Falls and Amarillo Texas, there is a gem of a museum located just off  U.S. Hwy 287. One of the most unique frontier museums I've visited is located in Vernon Texas. Vernon is located on US Hwy 287 about 50 miles northwest of Wichita Falls Texas, not far from the Oklahoma border. The Red River Valley Museum has a wonderful collection of frontier artifacts from the days of early Texas, exhibits from the cattle ranches of the era and a good deal of information about the Great Western Trail which passed very close to the present day town of Vernon Texas. There are additional exhibits and information about the residents of Vernon and Wilbarger Counties and their history. Another thing you'll find when visiting the Red River Valley Museum is that the staff is very eager to answer any questions you might have and will happily explain the history of the various exhibits. The museum staff will make you feel very welcome.

Waggoner Ranch Exhibit

frontier buggy
1800's buggy in Waggoner Room
The Red River Valley Museum actually was established in 1963 and grew tremendously over the years. The J. Henry Ray Indian Artifacts collection was the first exhibit the museum had in 1963. That collection has over 5,000 pieces. In 1985 the museum moved to a larger 15,000 square foot building. The red river Museum now has the Waggoner Room which is essentially displays of the history of ranching in North Texas. The Waggoner Ranch was \established by Daniel Waggoner from Tennessee. Waggoner moved to Texas and drove over 200 head of cattle and six horses into Wise County Texas, just north of the present Dallas/Fort Worth area. The Ranch was officially established in the 1850's. The ranch eventually moved with the frontier and moved to the north, just a bit west of Wichita Falls and just north of the present day town of Electra Texas. U.S. Hwy 287 goes through Electra Texas which is named after Daniel Waggoner's granddaughter, "Electra".

The Waggoner Ranch was recognized as the largest ranch in Texas under one fence. During the 1880's the Waggoner Ranch sold some 40,000 head of cattle per year. By the year 1900 the ranch had 60,000 head of cattle and was serviced by three different railroads. This enabled the ranch to get cattle to market fast and eliminated the long cattle drives of the past. In 1991 the ranch consisted of 550,000 acres covering the southern half of Wilbarger County, the northern third of Baylor County, and small portions of Wichita and Archer counties to the east and Knox and Foard counties to the west. It was recognized as the largest ranch in the U.S. On the map of Texas it appears as a great emptiness south of Vernon, occupied only by the thin strip of U.S. 183/283. In addition to cattle and horses, the Waggoner ranch was also producing oil.

western show saddle
Show saddle from Waggoner ranch
The ranching operation consisted of fifteen divisions, each with about 25,000 acres. A family resided at each camp to tend to the livestock, fences, and water. Unfortunately the ranch is in the process of being broken up and sold per a court order stemming from a suit between two separate family heirs. In April 1991 Electra Biggs, granddaughter of W. T. Waggoner (Daniel Waggoner's son) asked a district court to sell the ranch and distribute the proceeds to its shareholders. Resulting from this, since 2005 the ranch has been under a court order to sell it's assets.

The Great Western Trail

The Great Western Trail, sometimes referred to as the Western Trail or Texas Trail was actually the longest cattle driving trail in the U.S. The trails history is all about cowboys and cattle drives. It spanned from the Rio Grande border with Mexico north to the Canadian border. Just to the north of Vernon, on the Red River and on the Oklahoma border with Texas is Doan's Crossing. Today, Doan's Crossing is a ghost town but back during the days of the cattle drives over the Western Trail, Doan's Crossing was a very busy place. Doan's Crossing was the last stop in Texas before heading the cattle herd into Indian Territory and eventually up to the rail head of Dodge City Kansas. It was the last stop on the cattle drive to stock up on supplies before driving the herd across the Red River. In the 1930's two historical markers were placed at Doan's Crossing to commemorate the historical significance of the area. There's also a popular annual picnic at Doan's Crossing that's usually held the first Saturday in May. There are riders who cross the Red River, pageants, and those who are direct descendants of the Doan's Area are crowned Queen and King at the yearly Coronation. It's an all around fun event for the entire family. The public is invited to attend this very unique yearly commemoration. 

It's interesting to note that most of the cattle were driven up all the way from deep south Texas. Another interesting note is that the Vernon Rotary Club has adopted the project of marking the Great Western Trail through Texas from the Red River to the Rio Grande.

Red River Valley Museum

army flintlock pistol
U.S. Flintlock Pistol
The Red River Valley Museum is involved with plans for a major addition. Plans are underway for an addition to the present museum of a building to be named the Great Western Trail Heritage Center. This new area will showcase an interactive scaled replica of Doan's Crossing, the halfway point on  the Great Western Trail. The museum of course welcomes any and all donations to make the Great Western Heritage Center a reality.

Another article you will enjoy reading is about rancher Charles Goodnight, referred to as the Father of the Texas Panhandle.

The firearm shown at left on display at the Red River Valley Museum is a U.S. Flintlock Pistol, Model 1816 Army, .54 caliber.

The Red River Valley Museum is located at 4600 College Drive (Hwy 70 West) and adjacent to the Vernon College Campus. The museum is just one mile south of U.S. Hwy 287.

(Photos from author's private collection)

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