Small museum goes big time in big city Texas trade: The National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center, originated 21 years ago in Hereford, is being moved to Fort Worth, where its budget and patronage are likely to grow.

April 14, 1996|By Sam Howe Verhovek | Sam Howe Verhovek,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE ,,TC

HEREFORD, TEXAS -- Willa Cather's books are on display, as are the platinum records of Patsy Cline. There is a display on Wilma Mankiller, the former head of the Cherokee Nation, and a bronze statuette of Sacajawea, the Shoshone interpreter for the Lewis and Clark expedition.

And 125 other honorees have their due: There are the pink and turquoise cowgirl hats of Gertrude Maxwell, an Idaho rancher and historian, and a photo exhibit on Mamie (Mae) Francis Hafley, the daredevil rider, and her Arabian mount, Babe, who performed their act 628 times from 1908 to 1914.

Price of success

For the people in this Texas Panhandle town who dreamed up the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center and nurtured it these past 21 years, these are bittersweet times.

The founders are almost victims of their own success.

The entire gallery is about to be moved out of Hereford and into Fort Worth, almost 400 miles away.

It is not that people here oppose the move, which will transform the museum and its $60,000 annual budget into a $5 million tourist attraction in the middle of Fort Worth's cultural district.

But having watched the museum grow up from a one-room display in the basement of the Deaf Smith County Library, having held their annual Rhinestone Roundup induction ceremonies here and even seen their hall inspire the opening of the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame restaurant in Manhattan, people here say it is a little tough to realize that the hall's Hereford days are over.

"You can liken it to your child going away to college," said Wenonah Barringer, the office manager of the hall, which occupies several rooms of what used to be a private home in this farm and ranch town.

"It's a national treasure," she explained, "and we're sorry that Hereford is losing it."

And there have been some ruffled feelings during the transition, as the people in Hereford (pronounced HUR-furd) have not always seen eye-to-eye with the new curators in Fort Worth on how their collection should be treated and displayed.

Margaret Formby, 66, the hall's founder and its former president, acknowledged the tensions, though she insisted, "We had controversy, but that's been ironed out."

Now, she said, she feels sad that the museum is leaving but pleased to know that the hall's yearly attendance, around 2,000, will almost surely grow, perhaps to 100 times that, perhaps even outpacing the 274,000 mark set last year at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center, in Oklahoma City.

"We could never draw that many people because it's such a hassle to get over here," Mrs. Formby said of Hereford, which is 50 miles from Amarillo. "We're just a bunch out of the way."

The move to Fort Worth is, at least in part, the product of a growing interest in women's history, evident in scholarship and in other museums that are in the planning stages, like the Women of the West Museum in Boulder, Colo.

Two years ago, after deciding that it was time for the museum to move from Hereford and after entertaining offers from 29 cities and six amusement parks, the directors here settled on Fort Worth. Increasing the museum's visibility was a goal.

"We began to feel that we were doing a little bit of disservice to the women of the West," said Roger Eades, Hereford's mayor pro tem and a former chairman of the hall's board.

"They have a story to tell," he added, "and we're such a small town we were not able to get that out."

Telling it well

Perhaps, although anyone who made it out here would probably have concluded that the museum was telling its story well.

Whatever the museum lacks in interactive displays and IMAX movie screens it more than makes up for in lyricism and sheer attention to detail in the exhibits.

"Broncs before breakfast, babies after 40, life without pay, death without warning, God as her guide and a ballad on her wind-blistered lips, Woman in all her greatness gave flower to the great American West," proclaims the brochure that Mrs. Barringer handed to a visitor.

It continues:

"In homes and hospitals and churches of adobe or ocotillo wattles or pine logs or river rock, in dugouts with sod roofs, snakes landing in her lap or apron flapping in the wind -- 'Comes a tornado!' -- fighting grasshopper hordes, prairie fires and her young-uns' fever, she created a circle of love."

The hall honors 69 cowgirls and 60 other women in its Western heritage section. Remarkably, nearly half of the honorees are still living.

Among other things, the transfer to Fort Worth has provoked a licensing dispute between the owner of Manhattan's Cowgirl Hall of Fame restaurant and the new directors of the hall.

The owner, Sherry Delamarter, who also has a Cowgirl Hall restaurant in Santa Fe, N.M., said the dispute had held up expansion plans for Nashville, Tenn., Tokyo and at least a dozen other cities.

Ms. Delamarter, a native Texan, said she had never had disputes with the people in Here- ford.

The hall here officially closed March 28, and the moving vans came the next day.

The new museum will probably open in three years, and in the meantime, the cowgirl collection will be part of a traveling exhibit, said Bill Boecker, the new vice president in Fort Worth.

Dixie Mosley, 65, a 1982 honoree and former trick roper and rodeo clown, said, "It was wonderful in Hereford, but we outgrew Hereford."

She recalled that when they visited Hereford, honorees would stay in private homes, singing and swapping stories late into the night.

"It was more like a big family gathering," she said. "Over at Fort Worth, it'll be the big city."

Pub Date: 4/15/96

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