ABILENE, Texas — Visitors will hear a lot of stories in this part of Texas. Some are even true.
But truth or myth, history or make-believe, the tales to be found in Abilene will surely resonate with anyone who has ever watched a television Western or spun a ghost story around a campfire or read or listened to a bedtime story — with or without warm milk.
Abilene bills itself as the “Storybook Capital of America” and is home to the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, an institution that celebrates the beauty and creativity found in children’s picture books.
The center hosts events and weekly “family art adventures” as well as major traveling exhibits of original artwork created for children’s literature, and participates in the city’s Children’s Art and Literacy Festival each June.
Visitors to downtown Abilene can find 23 sculptures featuring characters from children’s books, including several of William Joyce’s “The Guardians of Childhood” and six from the works of Dr. Seuss. (You will find them. You will see. You may find them in a tree!)
More grown-up, but family appropriate, stories are told at Frontier Texas!, a museum located in a modern, downtown Abilene building designed to emulate the look of a frontier fort.
The museum’s opening video, “Blood and Treasure,” is an outstanding introduction to frontier times on the Great Plains and is stirringly narrated by Buck Taylor, the affable actor who depicted deputy Newly O’Brien in the long-running “Gunsmoke” television series.
The video also introduces a series of true-life old West characters. As visitors move through the interactive museum, those characters reappear as holographic “spirit guides” who tell their own Texas frontier stories. The life-size, high-tech holographs are quite realistic and their tales are very moving.
Individuals depicted include the Comanche leader Esihabitu, who fought and killed settlers but later worked for peace; and Pat Garrett, the barkeep and sometime lawman who shot Billy the Kid.
Other stories are told by Elizabeth Clifton, who lived a long, harsh, tragedy-filled life on the Texas frontier; and Britton “Britt” Johnson, a former slave and entrepreneur who undertook an epic rescue after his wife and daughters were captured by Indians.
Visitors will learn about the clash of whites and American Indians, the buffalo hunters who made fortunes while nearly wiping out a species, and the longhorns and cowboys that arrived when the buffalo were gone. Other exhibits focus on frontier settlements and military activity on the frontier.
More stories are dramatically told in the museum’s big-screen, cinema-in-the round, Frontier Experience Theater.
Frontier Texas! is also home to the Abilene Visitors Center and a large gift shop with lots of Abilene- and Texas-themed souvenirs.
An entirely different, but just as pivotal, episode of American history is explored at the 12th Armored Division Memorial Museum just a few blocks from Frontier Texas!
The division, known as the Hellcats, was formed during World War II and trained at Camp Barkeley near Abilene. The museum tells the story of the Hellcats’ World War II experiences through artifacts, weapons, photographs and several World War II armored vehicles. The museum also contains seven professionally created dioramas that depict the little-known but important battles at Herrlisheim, France, in January 1945.
Several historic buildings preserved in downtown Abilene tell their own stories. A walking-tour brochure, available at the Visitors Center, notes highlights including the Grace Museum, built in 1909 as the Grace Hotel. The building was once the city’s premier hotel. Today it has been restored as a local history museum and meeting space.
Other gems include the Paramount Theatre, a 1930 Art Deco and Spanish Colonial Revival delight that’s usually open for self-guided tours. The Cypress Building, Abilene’s oldest surviving commercial structure, is also worth a stop. Constructed in 1890 as a hotel, the restored building is now home to the Texas Store, which specializes in Texas-produced and Texas-themed goodies of all kinds.
Visitors will also find several good restaurants downtown, including Cypress Street Station on historic Cypress Street. For a taste of something sweet, I recommend Candies by Vletas nearby in the old Wells Fargo Express building next to the restored T&P (Texas & Pacific) Railroad station. (That duck riding a bike out front? That’s Duck, from the classic kids’ book “Duck on a Bike.” But you probably could have guessed that.)
And it’s a treat, in this often parched landscape, to taste a bit of vino at the Winery at Willow Creek along the shady, lazy creek of the same name.
My last stop was Fort Phantom Hill, a collection of ruins that was built as a frontier Army post in 1851 several miles north of Abilene near the Clear Fork of the Brazos River.
Visitors can park next to a large shelter house with restrooms. Also available at the shelter is a free, full-color brochure that unfolds to a poster-sized guide to the site.
Paths are maintained through the dozen or so stone chimneys that still stand tall against the deep blue of the Texas sky. Also standing are the complete stone guard house, and the stone magazine where gunpowder and shot were kept. The walls of the fort’s stone commissary are also standing.
Walking through the quiet ruins, with no sound but the wind rustling the prairie grasses, can be a slightly eerie experience, even in broad daylight.
The brochure tells some of the fort’s stories. But walking among the former barracks and parade ground and fort hospital, I couldn’t help conjuring up my own thoughts about the soldiers who abandoned the fort in 1854, the Butterfield Stagecoach passengers who continued to disembark here and the cowboys and buffalo hunters who camped nearby.
A small settlement later sprang up at the site, even serving briefly as the county seat. But the town, like the soldiers and cowboys and Indians of the Old West, eventually faded away — unlike the stories, which, thankfully, last and last.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @SteveStephens.