Exactly one year ago, I had marked Austin Museum Day 2015 on my calendar. I always enjoy this September Sunday when local museums and historical sites open their doors free-of-charge to visitors. This year I carefully planned my day ahead of time, bypassing the popular museums that I could visit any time. Instead I selected those places that are usually closed to the public or off the beaten track…
I started out at Oakwood Cemetery on Navasota Street, just east of I-35. A volunteer from the preservationist group Save Austin’s Cemeteries led a very interesting tour of Austin’s oldest cemetery. I took quite a few pictures and will write more about Oakwood in a future blog entry.
My next stop was the Texas Department of Public Safety complex on North Lamar. This place was popular with families, with an assortment of trucks, police cars, military vehicles, and even a helicopter parked on the grounds.
DPS actually has a little museum in the building next to the driver’s license center. Their displays included an old “portable” fingerprinting kit and some equally old-and-bulky radar detectors. I now know more than I thought possible about Texas Highway Patrol uniforms and patches.
My next choice, The Republic of Texas Museum, was difficult to find. My GPS app was confused by those crazy flyovers connecting I-35 and 183, so I circled the area three times before finally spotting the building on the 183-North frontage road. It was worth the effort, though. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas maintain a small, but impressive, collection of historical artifacts. DRT members explained that the museum was first located in the Texas State Capitol, then moved to the General Land Office building (now the Capitol Visitors Center), and finally relocated to the current location in 1996.
This museum boasts an armchair from Santa Anna’s palace in Mexico City, a letter written by Sam Houston, and a San Jacinto battle flag. Their current exhibit is Philip Dimmitt: Patriot of the Texas Revolution.
I headed downtown to visit Chateau Bellevue on San Antonio Street. The original structure on this site was built in 1874 by Harvey and Catherine North and was sold in 1892 to Major Ira Evans (Speaker of the Texas House), who extensively remodeled and added the limestone exterior. The property has been owned by the Austin Woman’s Club since 1929 and is now used as an event venue.
Docents explained that building is a Texas Historic Landmark and still has the original lighting and woodwork. Visitors were free to wander around the rooms on the first and second floors. I was even treated to a tour of the upstairs closets.
Since it’s in the same neighborhood, I stopped by the Austin History Center to see their exhibit, Making the Grade: Austin’s First Public Schools. I was surprised to learn that Austin’s first private school, the German Free School, was chartered in 1858, but free public schools didn’t open here until 1871. Texans were not keen on compulsory public education in the 1800s.
While at the Austin History Center, I listened to local author Jesse Sublett talk about his new book, 1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime that Rocked the Capital. He explained that the gang’s leader, Timmy Overton, even played UT football under Coach Royal for two years. My takeaway from the talk: you wouldn’t want to meet these guys in a dark alley.
My final stop was at the Austin Rock & Roll Car Museum. Located in a large warehouse space in southeast Austin, this museum contained mostly motor vehicles. But there’s also a hodge-podge of other unusual collectibles, including children’s riding toys, vintage signs, carousel horses, and painted guitars and longhorns from local fundraisers.
I arrived just in time to join the last tour of the day. The guide/curator stopped at each vehicle and commented on its history and uniqueness. He noted that “gem” of the collection is a black limo that was owned by John Lennon. The museum also owns one of the three prop cars used in the Ghostbusters film.
Austin Museum Day 2016 hasn’t been scheduled yet, but you can be sure it will be marked on my calendar when it is!
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