Native Americans inhabited the Texas Panhandle and the high plains 11,000 years ago. For context, Holy Writ establishes Moses’ birthdate as the 13th century BCE just over 3,300 years ago, according to Jerome in the Chronicon. The Native Americans that populated our region, and Moses, have been around a long time, no matter how one reckons. In 1920, Hattie Anderson, a person of foresight, came to Canyon to join and energize the history department at the then West Texas State Normal College. Her energy gave birth to the Panhandle-Plains Historical Society and, in 1933, the Panhandle-Plans Historical Museum (PPHM or museum).
The PPHM is a unique and truly remarkable resource for the Texas Panhandle, the state and the nation. And, now more than ever, PPHM is important to the people it serves. Anderson, WT President J.A. Hill, Professor L. F. Sheffy, a handful of faculty and about three dozen students joined forces. He gave birth to what we now call the Panhandle-Plains Historical Society (PPHS), which, since 1921 and continuing today, promotes the stories of this region to build community, enhance learning and nurture creativity. And because of the unique nature of the Texas Panhandle and its deeply embedded values, the museum and its collections significantly impact the future generations of this region. However, continued stewardship of our facilities and collections is critical and a priority for West Texas A&M University and PPHS. Our work towards understanding our people and place in a way that informs positive and forward progress in articulating the American dream is invaluable.
The PPHS Board has recently approved a 10-year strategic plan to see the museum building reach its 100th year. In that plan is the recommitment, as a university museum, to serve the public through renovated exhibit spaces, expanded educational programs, and the continued care of the items in the collection.
In 1933, the first portion of the museum, Pioneer Hall, was built. Once completed, it stood as the first university museum in the State of Texas and the first in the tri-state region. Over the years, investments were made in the PPHM and the collection to promulgate the importance of the Panhandle to the state and the nation. Frederick J. Turner, in “The Significance of The Frontier in American History 1893,” most appropriately cataloged the importance of the Panhandle to the future of Texas. He wrote,
“That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.”
Today, as I walk the WT campus and visit with faculty, staff, students and their families, I find Turner’s identified “spit” evidenced in many places by many people. The notion of entrepreneurialism and freedom of thought cataloged through the museum’s holdings are invaluable to our region and state.
Hattie Anderson’s vision and prophetic wisp regarding the remarkable Panhandle region’s power is essential to our future, a recognition felt through the architectural grandeur of Pioneer Hall and the collection housed within. An expansion was necessary just a decade after the museum opened. On three other occasions, the physical facilities of the museum grew yet again. PPHM was declared a Texas Centennial Museum in 1936. PPHM was also part of the Works Progress Administration, leading to murals by Ben Carlton Mead and H.D. Bugbee.
So many items and artifacts—totaling some 2.4 million glimpses into our region’s heart through stone, paper, paint, bone and technology—move and guide us forward. A positive trajectory.
But PPHM is not merely a place to store items on a shelf. Its importance is felt not only in the artifacts but also in its proactive service to Canyon, Amarillo, the Panhandle community at large and indeed our state and nation. This is evidenced in the fact that every ISD in the Texas Panhandle is served by PPHM, both in school groups coming to the museum or museum educational staff going to all corners of the region.
Is this too much about too little? Not at all. Instead, on the West Texas A&M University campus, in the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum are the artifacts retelling a story from history and plotting a path into the future that no one should miss. As the staff at the museum say: “We are concerned not only with history makers but also the future history makers of this region.” If you haven’t been to the museum lately, come to the WT campus and visit again to read, see and experience our past and be inspired to see our future. It’s a moving experience for young and old alike.
Walter V. Wendler is the President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns, with hyperlinks, are available at https://walterwendler.com/.