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Cooperative Legislative Legends

One museum manages the legacies of two founders of the Rural Electrification Administration

Any Texan would expect an institution charged with preserving the legacy of two legislative titans like John Nance Garner and Sam Rayburn to house a significant collection on U.S. congressional history. But you might not expect its congressional history collection to be the largest outside Washington, D.C.

And it is unlikely to expect that the landmarks symbolizing these two 20th-century American leaders would be 425 miles apart. But these widely spaced locations are essential components of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, which is headquartered at the University of Texas in Austin but oversees the Sam Rayburn Museum in Bonham, the Briscoe-Garner Museum in Uvalde and Winedale near Round Top, about 21 miles west of Brenham. These three locations are in addition to the massive archive (including the papers of more than 60 members of Congress) at the center’s Research and Collections Division in Austin.

Even the building that houses the Briscoe Center’s offices (but not its archives) is historic. It is now called the Arno Nowotny Building, and it is the oldest building on the University of Texas campus. In the mid-1800s, the building served as George Amstrong Custer’s headquarters when he served in Texas between the end of the Civil War and the Indian Wars on the Great Plains.

When an institution takes on the documentation and preservation of the life work and legacy of a public figure, one persistent challenge is keeping the individual’s story alive and engaging for generation after generation. It’s not only important to attract a onetime tourist but also to encourage regulars to return for another visit—another conversation with history.

In pursuit of keeping the collections and exhibits relevant for contemporary visitors, the staff of the Briscoe Center has completely renovated the Rayburn exhibits in Bonham and the Briscoe-Garner Museum in Uvalde. All the Briscoe Center’s museums hold particular significance for the co-op community.

As Briscoe Center Executive Director Don Carleton explains, Rayburn and Garner were essential players in the early history of the cooperative movement. “If anyone can be called the father of the Rural Electrification Administration, it’s Rayburn,” Carleton says. “Along with Sen. George Norris of Nebraska, he was the one who created the legislation that made the REA happen as the institution that loaned money to the co-ops so they could get started.

“After President Franklin Roosevelt established the REA with an executive order, it was Rayburn and Norris who sponsored that legislation,” Carleton adds. “It was one of the pieces of legislation Rayburn was most proud of. And Garner’s role as vice president for Franklin Roosevelt also was essential. As the presiding officer of the Senate, he had huge legislative clout in both houses.

“Remember, Rayburn first taught school in a one-room schoolhouse with no electricity,” Carleton says. “We have a wonderful photograph of the co-op linemen setting up the pole that will carry electricity to the school.”

The relationship between Rayburn and Garner was important to both men. “Garner was Rayburn’s mentor,” Carleton says. “And these are two of only three Texans who served as speaker of the House of Representatives.”

The Briscoe Center, formerly known as the Center for American History (its Web address still includes the initials “cah”), took on the name of former Gov. Dolph Briscoe in 2008. In changing the name of the Center for American History, the university acknowledged not only Briscoe’s gifts of more than $15 million but also his specific interest in Texas history as expressed through the center’s programs.

In addition to the archive of his personal and gubernatorial papers, Briscoe’s legacy will be honored with exhibits on the second floor of the Briscoe-Garner museum. Even though Briscoe’s public service was in the Texas Legislature and as governor (he was elected governor in 1972 and served until 1979, after he was defeated in the 1978 primary), his legislative experience extended onto the national stage through his work with Rayburn and Garner. In the museum, the transition from the first-floor exhibits about Garner to the second-floor exhibits dedicated to Briscoe will be represented by a photograph of the two men together. (The Briscoe exhibits in the Uvalde museum are scheduled to open in April 2015.)

And the other important location for the Briscoe Center, Winedale, also has a strong connection to an historic Texas political family, that of Gov. James Stephen Hogg, through his daughter, Ima.

Lonn Taylor, former curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History who now lives in Fort Davis, started his professional museum career under the guidance of Ima Hogg in the early 1970s. “Miss Ima Hogg donated 180 acres along with the historic buildings there to the University of Texas in the mid-1960s,” Taylor says. “Winedale was designed to be a laboratory and classroom for the study of historic preservation. I became the first curator and director in 1970. This is what started me on my career as a museum professional.”

“Miss Ima was a very knowledgeable and scholarly person, and she had a vision for Winedale as a research center,” Taylor says. “She had been collecting American furniture since 1920, and she encouraged—no, she ordered—me and David Warren to write the book on Texas furniture.”

The two-volume project that resulted from Ima Hogg’s “order” is “Texas Furniture: The Cabinetmakers and Their Work, 1840-1880,” published by the University of Texas Press in 1975, is a landmark in Texas history and publishing. Ima Hogg wrote the foreword to Volume 1, and Carleton wrote the foreword to Volume 2.

One of the active programs at Winedale these days is Shakespeare at Winedale. Through this program, university students work long hours (the program suggests 15 to 18 hours a day) over three weekends at Winedale to thoroughly learn and stage performances of Shakespeare’s plays. The performances, all staged in the Winedale Theater Barn, offer a full immersion into studying Shakespeare and his work. The courses, held twice annually, in spring and summer, are open to students with different kinds of experience—no acting experience required—who are willing to make the commitment to an intense experience of Shakespeare.

Younger students (ages 11-16) can apply to take part in Camp Shakespeare, a two-week study of the Bard’s work. This program, undertaken in two sessions each summer, is not as intensive as the university-level offering, but it does still include performances for the public.

The collections of the Briscoe Center continue to grow along with its exhibit and project schedule. And it’s not just political leaders who donate materials to the center. Earlier in 2014, Willie Nelson donated a major part of his personal collection, including correspondence, awards and records, to the Briscoe Center. The center houses more than a dozen major collections and even includes a collection of archives related to Texas Co-op Power magazine.

Charles Lohrmann, editor