Buckhorn and Texas Ranger Museum: San Antonio Celebrates the BizarreJuly 20, 2011 No Comments
When Dad and I planned this summer’s road trip through the American Southwest, we created a loose itinerary based on major attractions. The Alamo is one the Old West’s most famous sites, so we planned a trip to San Antonio, Texas. When we got to San Antonio, we were happily surprised to discover a plethora of attractions within easy walking distance of the Alamo’s downtown location. One of the most interesting was the Buckhorn Saloon and Texas Ranger Museum.
About the Buckhorn
The Buckhorn is sort of three attractions in one. The Buckhorn Saloon, opened in 1881, has changed little since its inception. Most of the original furnishings remain, offering tourists a wonderful opportunity to enjoy a local brew at the same bar once frequented by Pancho Villa and Teddy Roosevelt. An attached café is open for lunch.
The Buckhorn Museum, located on the second floor, has its roots in the 19th century. Buckhorn Saloon founder Albert Friedrich accepted antlers and horns in lieu of payment for drinks, while his wife accepted rattlesnake rattles for use in her artwork. As the collection grew, the museum was born.
The Texas Ranger Museum is a new addition to the first floor. The museum houses hundreds of authentic artifacts related to the Rangers, but the most interesting section is the indoor recreation of turn-of-the-century San Antonio.
Dad and I arrived at the Buckhorn in mid-afternoon after a few hours at the Alamo. Although the place looked fascinating, I admit that I was partly motivated by the promise of cold air-conditioning. It was well over 100 degrees, and most of the Alamo exhibits are outside!
As of 2011, admission is $16 for adults and $12 for children. Your ticket includes both the Buckhorn Museum and the Texas Ranger Museum. There is no charge to look around the Saloon and Café. Check with the nearby tourist information center or any of several discount booths for a coupon worth $1 or $2 per person.
After obtaining our tickets, we went through a turnstile for the self-guided tour. Directional signs lead you through the two floors of exhibits, making it impossible to get lost. Upon entering the museum, we were immediately overwhelmed by the sheer amount of “stuff.” Antique mirrors, a vast quantity of antlers and a mind-boggling array of saddles were among the first exhibits.
As we continued our journey, it became clear that this is not the right place to visit if you are morally opposed to hunting. A huge portion of the Buckhorn Museum is dedicated to Bill Negley, the only man to have taken all of Africa’s “Big Five” with a bow and arrow. When we arrived, we had no idea what the Big Five might be, but we soon learned that it is a hunting term referring to the five most ferocious and difficult to kill African animals–lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino and leopard. Taxidermied specimens of these animals, along with dozens of others, fill massive rooms. Though I do not personally care for hunting, it was pretty interesting to imagine taking down these animals with only a bow and arrow. Mixed in among the animal specimens were various animal skulls, Native American artifacts and an impressive collection of weapons. This section of the museum reminded me of the German hunting club in the 1995 PC game Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within.
Continuing through the Alaska room with its endless mounted fish, polar bear and moose, we left the taxidermy behind. Next up were the newer exhibits based on the American Sideshow. Traditionally, sideshows were secondary acts presented alongside a traveling carnival. They were popularized in the mid-1800s and lasted through the early 1960s. Changing public tastes and increasing regulations largely killed the traditional sideshow. In the late 20th century, however, a new breed of sideshow emerged–self-proclaimed “freaks” performing bizarre and dangerous feats for public entertainment. The new sideshows are not necessarily connected to carnivals, but may be feature acts in their own right.
Although relatively small, the Buckhorn exhibit was impressive. Through the magic of modern technology, both P.T. Barnum and Buffalo Bill Cody welcomed us to their shows. Helpful informational signs provided a brief history of both men’s illustrious careers. A combination of old posters and actual exhibits introduced us to some of the most famous sideshow exhibits including Elmer McCurdy, the executed outlaw whose corpse was displayed in carnivals and dark rides until 1977, and the FeeJee Mermaid, possibly the most famous sideshow hoax ever.
Carnival of Curiosities
Leaving Barnum and Cody behind, we came upon a recreated mystery spot called the Carnival of Curiosities. Mystery spots were all the rage during the early days of automobile travel, but only a few remain today. Mystery spots are always housed in strange little cabins that are slightly tilted. The back story, explained at the beginning of the attraction, always has something to do with a mudslide or other natural phenomenon, thereby explaining the tilt. Inside the shack, strange things happen–water travels uphill, people lean or sway in strange directions, and impossible gravity effects are achieved. Some spots claim a paranormal explanation, usually based on ley lines or vortexes, while others leave it to the tourists to explain.
The Buckhorn recreation followed all the traditional mystery spot rules. The highly entertaining and interactive exhibit gave us the chance to pose in impossible positions, play in an eerie mine and scratch our heads at all sorts of gravity-defying effects. Outside the shack was a collection of optical illusions, complete with explanations.
Texas Ranger Museum
Back on the first floor, it was time for the Texas Ranger Museum. The first couple of rooms are packed with paintings, informational signs and life-size figures depicting the history of the Texas Rangers. Although the information was quite interesting, we were starting to feel overwhelmed. The next room, though, was literally jaw-dropping.
As we went through the doorway, we found ourselves in late-1800s San Antonio. The sheriff’s office, feed lot, jail, bank, telegraph office and a variety of shops were among the highlights. Wanted posters depicting famous outlaws hung on the walls, and most of the buildings were open for perusal. Around the corner, we found ourselves staring at the Bonnie and Clyde car, followed by an extensive display on outlaws through the ages.
Tips for Parents
The Buckhorn complex is much bigger than we anticipated. Expecting to kill an hour or so, we were inside for better than three hours. The entire museum is surprisingly interactive. Even the oldest hunting section offers a series of fascinating videos, and the newer exhibits provide hands-on entertainment.
It is impossible to leave without walking through the remainder of the museum, making it difficult to come and go. Plan to visit when you have plenty of time to spend. Restrooms are available inside. There are benches scattered throughout, providing the chance to sit down and take a break.
With so much to look at and interact with, the Buckhorn is a great choice for families. Follow your kids’ lead and don’t expect them to fully absorb everything. With a bit of patience and a relaxed attitude, the Buckhorn could easily fill an entire afternoon. Although the main path utilizes the grand staircase, an elevator is available, making the museum fully wheelchair-accessible.