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Hit the Road With Chet Garner

Fun in the Past Tense

Odd, fascinating collection at the Frontier Times Museum in Bandera makes for memorable visit

What do a two-headed goat, a stuffed mountain lion and a ventriloquist doll named Gino R Tree have in common? They’re part of the weird and wonderful collection of artifacts at the Frontier Times Museum in Bandera. If you find yourself tripping through the Texas Hill Country with an appetite for the abnormal, this is a must stop.

Bandera sits about 50 miles northwest of San Antonio and calls itself the Cowboy Capital of the World. Stephenville also claims that title, but that’s a debate for a whole other article. What’s indisputable is that cowboy culture is alive and well in Bandera. The scenic hills are full of dude ranches, the visitor center hosts weekly gunfights, and there are plenty of places to eat a cowboy-sized chicken-fried steak. The Old Spanish Trail Restaurant even has saddles instead of stools at its bar. But something you might not expect are the bizarre relics inside the town’s eclectic museum.

Few probably remember Frontier Times, but for 31 years, the magazine published stories of the Wild West, replete with train robberies, outlaws and gold prospecting. It was started in 1923 by J. Marvin Hunter, a newspaperman and amateur historian. Very soon after Hunter launched the monthly publication, his readers began sending him their own tales along with strange family heirlooms. Hunter believed that if an item was important to its donor, it should be important to everyone, so he never turned down a gift. He filled his office with curiosities from around the globe. And if he didn’t know an artifact’s story, he would make one up.

Once the collection outgrew the room, Hunter tore down a wall and built a bigger room. Before long, he was running a full-on museum and entertain­ing his visitors with strange stories and circuslike curiosities, which earned him a reputation as the “P.T. Barnum of Bandera County.”

Small-town museums can be strange. Some hold nothing more than rusted farming tools, while others hold treasures worthy of the Smithsonian Institution. The Frontier Times Museum is somewhere between those extremes.

The first thing that caught my attention was the building itself. Constructed in 1933, the exterior walls are made up of stone, petrified wood, quartz crystals and brain coral—a fitting allusion to the mixture of items I found inside. It seemed as though every inch of wall was covered: an old photograph, old clock or old taxidermied animal. I began by browsing the stories of Texas settlers but quickly found myself drawn to the stranger side of the museum.

There was a mummified squirrel found in someone’s attic and presented in a glass case. There was a shrunken human head from South America, a sculpture made of rattlesnake rattles and a two-headed goat that was born on a local ranch and donated after it died. Most fascinating was the story of a stuffed mountain lion named Sally that a man from Pearsall had kept as a house pet and that rode shotgun in his truck.

In the back was the Texas Heroes Hall of Honor recognizing rodeo cowboys and others who have made a lasting contribution to Texan culture. I learned about Bandera native “Mighty Mite” Ray Wharton, who was short in stature but could rope a calf like no other and won a world championship at Madison Square Garden.

That day, I gained a lot of knowledge about Bandera’s history and a lot of new mental images to feed my nightmares. As I walked out, I asked the manager if the museum was still taking donations.

“Of course,” she said. “What do you have?”

“Nothing yet,” I replied. “But I’m sure I can find you something.”

And after I find the artifact, I can work on finding the sort of accompanying story that would make Mr. Hunter proud.

Chet Garner shares his Texplorations as the host of The Daytripper on PBS.