Wow. It takes a lot to get me to make a voluntary trip to the heart of the nation’s 11th largest city— hello parking lot I-35 becomes whenever I set a tire on it—but the museum is a lot and then some.
I hadn’t expected so many things to have a connection to the Rockdale area, but then there’s so much in the museum that whether you’re from the Piney Woods to the Big Bend, you’d probably say the same thing.
Just about the first thing you see upon entering is a massive display of artifacts from the ship La Belle, one of four in the ill-fated 17th Century expedition of the French explorer La Salle.
It was one of the most important archaeological finds in our state’s history and it brings up memories of the late Dr. Kathleen Gilmore of SMU, an amazing woman who made many trips to Rockdale before she passed away at age 94.
Dr. Gilmore’s primary field of expertise was Spanish exploration, but she played a major role in helping to solve one of the biggest Texas archaeological mysteries of all time, where was La Salle’s fabled Fort St. Louis.
Forty years ago a number of artifacts were unearthed at a site on the Keeran Ranch in Jackson County, just inland from the Texas Gulf Coast.
It was unclear whether the artifacts were Spanish or French until Dr. Gilmore examined them and concluded while most of them were Spanish she thought enough of them were of French manufacture that she believed Fort. St. Louis was located on what eventually became the Keeran Ranch. She was right but it would take another 20 years before the fort’s site was located.
I can still remember Dr. Gilmore’s last visit here, in a chilly north wind out at Apache Pass, red beret on her head, holding forth on all the R-rated stories she knew about the Milam County mission area that were left out of the history books.
Quite a lady.
On the second f loor there’s an exhibit noting the difference between Hollywood cowboys and the genuine article and it prominently features Bill Pickett.
A legendary African-American wrangler from the Taylor area, he’s credited with inventing the rodeo sport of bulldogging.
The story goes that he got the idea in Rockdale in 1903.
In the story, when a stubborn longhorn refused to enter a corral here, and began to panic the rest of the herd, Pickett rode his horse at full speed alongside the steer, jumped off and grabbed it by the horns.
When it still refused to yield, Pickett bit it on the lower lip and tossed it the ground.
Some sources say most early bulldoggers used the lip-biting technique but it was phased out as rodeos became more modern.
In the museum’s military section on the third f loor, Camp Hearne is featured.
That was a POW camp for German prisoners during the second world war. Last fall The Reporter ran a feature story about a Rockdale man who was once a guard there.
A museum is supposed to engage our minds and emotions and convey a sense of wonder and, occasionally, awe. This one fulfills all those tasks.
We can’t wait to go back. firstname.lastname@example.org