Was it simple audaciousness? Reckless ambition? Impressive foresight? What compelled the founders of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum to start a museum in the middle of the Great Depression and then ask the area’s citizens to give financially to help preserve the history of this area’s early settlers?
Whatever it was, it happened. Today, the people of the Texas Panhandle enjoy the culmination of the efforts of those visionaries who, in seeking to preserve the past, imagined the future—and then made it come true.
It all began in 1920, when an educator named Hattie Anderson moved to Canyon, Texas, to teach history at West Texas State Normal College. There she found a historian’s dream—a bustling city on the grow, full of eager young college students preparing to be teachers, and a significant number of the area’s original settlers still actively involved in ranching, farming, and business.
Everywhere she looked, Hattie saw the living past. She was surrounded by the resources to preserve and record this history while those who had experienced it were still alive. Racing against time, she formulated a plan and began recruiting volunteers. By early 1921, Anderson and L.F. Sheffy (the head of the college’s history department) joined seven other faculty members and around thirty students to organize the Panhandle-Plains Historical Society. Their goal? Collect and preserve the human and natural history of the region. They began soliciting support for their efforts, in the form of society memberships.
Then, in 1929, the Great Depression hit. A painful new history was being written across the country. Undaunted, the historical society pressed on. They announced a capital campaign, and amazingly, the hard-working people of the Panhandle responded. From pennies to bricks, people gave whatever they could. No amount was too small.
Within a few years, the funds were in place, and construction of Pioneer Hall began in 1932. Finished in Texas limestone, the original 12,500 square-foot structure featured fine decorative stonework and, on its façade, carvings and bas reliefs depicting Western themes as well as Panhandle-Plains flora and fauna. More than 75 famous West Texas cattle brands surrounded the entrance. (The building’s unique Southwestern Art Deco architectural style eventually earned it a State Antiquities Landmark designation.)
The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum opened its doors to the public in 1933. It was a hit with the public, which soon began donating artifacts to the museum from the area’s past in addition to their financial contributions. In 1941, Walter Irvin gave a Ford Model A (number 28 off the assembly line), in honor of his daughter, Miss Peggy Irvins. In 1958, Retta Carter Hubbard contributed Charles Goodnight’s silver-mounted saddle, which she received as a gift from the famed cattle rancher after her 1926 marriage to his foster son, Cleo (the saddle was probably made about 1905). In 1960, Topay Parker, the widow of Quanah Parker, donated his headdress, lance, and other artifacts to the museum for preservation and display.
By 1936, the influx of artifacts made it necessary to add on to the building. The basement of the second addition was funded with a grant from the Texas Centennial Commission, a WPA agency, thereby making PPHM a Texas Centennial museum. New Deal monies also paid for four murals in Pioneer Hall: H.D. Bugbee’s The Cattleman and Ben Carlton Mead’s Coronado’s Coming were funded by the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). Bugbee’s Ranch Headquarters and Mead’s Antelope Creek were funded by the Coronado Cuarto Centennial Commission, a WPA agency.
The exhibits continued to grow, and with the help of additional state monies and contributions, PPHM doubled in size in 1967 by opening a four-story addition. This area now houses the Research Center, Art Galleries, Pioneer Town and Special Exhibit Area.
In 1973, West Texas State University donated its former library on land adjacent to the museum, providing much-needed storage, support space, and three galleries. A generous $6 million grant in 1986 from the Don and Sybil B. Harrington Foundation allowed the museum to construct a 75,000 square-foot structure to connect the existing museum and the former WTSU library. This gift and the resulting expansion made PPHM the largest history museum in Texas, with more than 285,000 square feet—and over three million artifacts—dedicated to preserving this area’s past.
Today, on the campus of what is now West Texas A&M University, the role of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Society remains the same as it was in 1921. “It is the sacred duty of ours to collect the record of life here and hand this on to the children of the future,” visionary founder Hattie Anderson once said, “and we believe in the future our people will point with pride to their museum and the historical society."