Thursday, July 16, 2015

Robert Lee Murphy--Museums Provide Hands-On Research Material

In writing The Iron Horse Chronicles I frequently visit museums where I can walk among the exhibits and sometimes even touch them. This provides a stronger sense of what life was like decades ago rather than simply reading about the items or looking at pictures in books. I want to share with you how I do this by looking at three museums in Lubbock, Texas, that I had the privilege of visiting recently while attending the 2015 annual convention of the Western Writers of America.

The American Wind Power Center exhibits a collection of windmills used in the western settlement of our country. In my book Eagle Talons I describe the huge windmills that the railroads erected along their right-of-ways every ten to twelve miles. Water was essential to the production of steam in wood-burning and coal-fired locomotives. In many places, the only way to obtain that precious commodity was to drill a well and pump the water to the surface with a windmill. The Center has a huge windmill actually used by the steam railroads. There are no more working windmills along the tracks today.

The Bayer Museum of Agriculture presents hundreds of farming and industrial implements used by farmers over the past couple hundred years. Of particular interest was a reconstruction of a blacksmith shop. It is the threat of having to spend years as an apprentice working in such a place that drives Will Braddock, the young protagonist of Eagle Talons, to run away on his quest to determine his own destiny and wind up helping build the first transcontinental railroad. Blacksmiths were indispensable to the settlement of America. Blacksmithing was, and still is, hard work.

The National Ranching Heritage Center contains dozens of structures relocated from sites in Texas and New Mexico. They range from dugouts to two-story frame houses and numerous barns and outbuildings. A railroad depot provides a close-up look at a typical waiting room with its pot-bellied stove. Will Braddock visits many of these depots throughout The Iron Horse Chronicles. The Center has a nice collection of firearms, some of which Will uses in his struggles with Paddy O'Hannigan and his other enemies. There are also examples of horse-drawn vehicles. The Conestoga wagon is the type in which Jenny McNabb, Will's young lady friend, is traveling west when her family is ambushed by Cheyenne Indians in Eagle Talons.

Folks who live in the Texas Panhandle have easy access to these museums. Others who may be traveling across the country should make time to stop and visit them. If you are not going to be in Texas anytime soon, visit similar museums in your area. Young people, and old, will be impressed with these wonderful institutions. Everybody will come away better educated.


  1. AAA magazine had mentioned a windmill museum in Portales, New Mexico, so I drove out there a couple of weeks ago. Turns out, it's a collection of old windmills locked up behind a chain link fence on the county fairgrounds. There's a sign that says that something is going to be done with all those windmills to make it a museum, but that's it. I'm thrilled to hear that there's a better place to do research. I hope to make it there next summer.

  2. This is an excellent way to do research! Glad you shared the idea.