Day Trips

The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum is the Texas version of the Smithsonian Institute

Native Texan
Native Texan (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum is the Smithsonian Institute of Texas. The depository of all things Texana on the campus of West Texas A&M University in Canyon tells the story of the Lone Star State from dinosaurs to modern fine art.

Founded in 1929, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum is the largest state-owned museum, as well as the oldest. Walking through the exhibits is like traveling through history. The exhibition halls hold something of interest for everyone.

From the entrance into the Pioneer Hall, visitors knows they are in for a special treat. The walls are adorned with giant murals of the settlement of the Texas plains. Scattered about the hall are relics of the settlers who planted the first crops and tended to the first cattle herds. This main hall provides a sample of the rest of the journey through time.

The second room in the museum honors the people who made their homes on the grasslands of West Texas, from the First Nations to European settlers pushing their way toward the West Coast.

Many of the exhibits are very child-friendly, with things to touch and try. Samples of buffalo fur give the story of the importance of the bison added meaning. Who can resist trying out a peddle car ... if they're small enough to fit in the seat?

Kids of all ages will enjoy the giant bone yard exhibiting the remains of prehistoric beasts from mammoths to bison that once inhabited the marshy forest of North Texas before the shallow sea receded millions of years ago. Skeletal remains of saber-toothed cats compete for attention with giant sea monsters.

No story of the taming of the West would be complete without examples of windmills. Not all of the fans on the prairie pumped water out of the ground; some powered small generators that offered the homesteaders their first access to electric lights.

Of course, an exhibit on drilling for oil is also a necessity. At the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, the exploration for petroleum takes up space on two floors. On the first floor is a giant turn-of-the-century drilling rig with its massive wood beams. On the second floor are the tools of the modern drilling operation.

Almost everyone can relate to the exhibits on the history of transportation in Texas. On the second floor two large collections of animal-drawn buggies and wagons segue into antique automobiles and bicycles. The exhibit includes a rare 1916 Brougham electric car that could go 80 miles between charging the batteries, and other mechanical oddities.

Artists have always found the colors and vastness of the Llano Estacado a good source for material. Perhaps Canyon's most famous former resident, Georgia O'Keefe, taught art in Amarillo's schools before joining the faculty of West Texas State Teacher's College in 1916. A small exhibit honors her tenure in the Panhandle.

The museum houses a wonderful collection of Southwestern and American paintings, including examples of work by N.C. Wyeth and the Taos, N.M., school of artists. The original curator of art for the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum was Harold Bugbee (1900-1963). Bugbee's home studio in nearby Clarendon was moved intact to the second floor of the museum soon after he died. The exhibit hall also has the only permanent showing of landscapes and portraits by Texas artist Frank Reaugh (1860-1945).

Led by Dr. Hattie Mabel Anderson, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum was organized by the history faculty of West Texas State Teacher's College (now West Texas A&M). The 1932 building to house the collection was built by the Depression-era Works Project Administration.

This summer, special exhibits will showcase Palo Duro Canyon during the 100th anniversary of efforts to turn "the Grand Canyon of Texas" into a state park. The second largest canyon in the U.S. will be explored through all kinds of artistic interpretations from the first known images to modern photography.

The museum is east of downtown Canyon at 2503 Fourth Ave. The galleries are open June through August on Monday through Saturday from 9am to 6pm and on Sunday 1 to 6pm. September through May, the museum closes at 5pm on weekdays. Admission is $7 for adults and $3 for children. For more information, call 806/651-2233, or visit

774th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, West Texas A&M University, Llano Estacado, Georgia O'Keefe, West Texas State Teacher's College, NC Wyeth, Harold Bugbee, Dr. Hattie Mabel Anderson, Palo Duro Canyon, Brougham electric car, Clarendon

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