Gerald E. McLeod
Buffalo Gap offers a timeline of Texas
Buffalo Gap Historic Village, south of Abilene, provides a timeline of Texas history. The cluster of buildings and exhibits tell the story of modern evolution from the struggles of early settlers to the introduction of the automobile.
The town got its name from a wide gap in the Callahan Divide, a low range of mountains extending from east to west through Nolan, Taylor and Callahan counties and dividing the watershed of the Brazos River from the Colorado River. Once the undisputed hunting grounds of the Comanche Indians, buffalo hunters moved into the area after the Civil War.
The first town in Taylor County began as a winter camp for buffalo hunters. The hunters waited in ambush as the bison on their winter migration funneled through the natural break in the terrain north of town. After the great herds were decimated, farmers and ranchers moved into the area.
Buffalo Gap became the county seat in 1878. By 1880, the town had 1,200 residents and several businesses, churches and a college. During its peak, the town was called the “Athens of the West.” It was also known as an outpost for drifters and shady characters.
The good times lasted only a decade. Buffalo Gap began a rapid decline when the Texas and Pacific Railway established headquarters in the new company town of Abilene, 13 miles to the north. For more than a century, the population of Buffalo Gap has fluctuated between 300 and 400.
On the banks of Elm Creek, the village is still a shady respite from the West Texas landscape of cactus and mesquite. Several small shops, antiques dealers and convenience stores offer services to folks visiting the historic exhibits and nearby Abilene State Park.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is the first Taylor County Courthouse and jail. The two-story building was constructed when the town’s prospects looked best. The building is made of native stone, with cannon balls from Virginia used to stabilize the blocks. The courtroom and county offices were downstairs, the jail upstairs. The courthouse was used for only four years before the county seat was moved to Abilene. The building now houses a large Indian artifact and gun collection.
The historic village of 20 buildings surrounding the old courthouse began in 1956, when lawyer and rancher Ernie Wilson established a small Indian and Western museum. Wilson moved the house that once belonged to Abilene’s first marshal and a buffalo hunter’s cabin to the grounds.
R. Lee and Ann Rode expanded the collection beginning in 1977. The crown jewel of their acquisitions is the Nazarene Church, built in 1906 and one of the first churches organized by Mary Cagle. Founded in 1908 in Pilot Point, the Church of the Nazarene was part of the “Holiness Movement” that grew among Methodists after the Civil War. Cagle was one of the church’s more zealous missionaries and organized congregations around the West. The church building is still used for weddings and private services.
The grounds around the courthouse are roughly divided in time periods: 1880, 1905 and 1925. It gives children a look at how their grandparents lived and serves as a reminder of bygone days. Along with a blacksmith shop where demonstrations are done on weekends, there is a 1926 Texaco service station from Winters. The old train depot from Clyde was moved to the site, as were furnishings from a bank and a print shop from the early 20th century.
Since 1999, the McWhiney Foundation from McMurry University in Abilene has operated the historic village as a part of its educational programming. The baggage depot has been turned into a mercantile with souvenirs, snacks and a bookstore that focuses on Texas history. For information, call 915-572-5211.
Perini Ranch Steakhouse, on the road between Buffalo Gap and the state park, is the best place to eat for miles, serving catfish, chicken and steaks in a rustic barn. The restaurant is open from 6 to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and from noon to 11 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Reservations are recommended; call 915-572-3339.
• Gerald E. McLeod is a contributor to The Austin Chronicle and Texas Highways. “Day Trips, Vol. 2” is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, P.O. Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.