Touring the historic Chisholm Trail Outdoor Museum is like time traveling back to the 1800s, and was a highlight of our recent stay in Cleburne. The highly acclaimed museum is less than an hour from our Southwest Dallas home, so we’ll definitely return again—maybe when the weather turns cooler. The outdoor museum is easily accessible by taking Highway 67 South to Pat Cleburne Lake, and offers a number of exhibits and fun activities for all ages. It’s especially interesting for fans of old Western films and TV shows, and for history buffs, so we qualify for all those categories.
Chisholm Trail Outdoor Museum
The Chisholm Trail Outdoor Museum is also one of the most photographed museums in Texas, so it’s ideal for Instagram feeds and selfies. The museum is carefully curated and lovingly maintained by the Johnson County Heritage Foundation, whose mission is “keeping the past in the present.” Their onsite director Carrie Reynolds or one of the museum’s docents are happy to take visitors on a pre-arranged, informative tour of the sprawling property.
The museum is located on the 80-acre site of Wardville, which was the original county seat of Johnson County (1854-1856). The town was located between Town Branch Creek and the Nolan River. The museum’s most authentic building is the original Wardville log courthouse, built by William O’Neal and his brother with the help of townspeople. The courthouse has been certified as the state’s oldest existing log courthouse. O’Neal, whose trading post overlooked the Nolan River, donated the land for Wardville. The town was named for Republic of Texas soldier Thomas Ward, and 29 families made their home there when it was the county seat.
Another must-see building is the Sheriff’s office and jail that features the doors from the original 1855 Wardville jail. The metal cell bars are also from 1855, where they were used at the county work farm. A replica of an old Western saloon and a trading post are located nearby. Another interesting attraction is the Stage Station that pays homage to the Cleburne stage line. It features a striking red stage coach that was used in two John Wayne Westerns.
A large stone marker that was donated by local ranch owners reads Bm9, to let stage coach passengers know how far they were from the rest stop at Buchanan. A Mule Barn that came from the Freeland Ranch and that was used by the Johnson County Stage Line in the mid-1800s is also on the property.
Nolan River School
The reproduction of the Nolan River School (1855-1872) held special interest for my husband, who’s a longtime educator. Just think how challenging it must have been for the teacher, with students ages six to eighteen crammed together in one room. The museum invites field trips from area schools so they can learn how students were taught in the mid-1800s.
A blacksmith shop that often features a working blacksmith is also on the premises. Some of the items made in the blacksmith shop are available for purchase. Just across from the shop is the recently rediscovered Wardville Cemetery.
Chisholm Trail Outdoor Museum Attractions
Other attractions at the Chisholm Trail Outdoor Museum include a butterfly garden and an herb garden, maintained by local volunteers. A bridge that crosses Town Branch Creek, and a birdwatching haven are also on the grounds. You can see Pat Cleburne Lake from this spot, and also visit a Civil War campsite and learn about the Camp Henderson soldiers based there during the Civil War era. Camp Henderson was renamed Cleburne to honor Confederate General Patrick Cleburne, and the lake is also named for him. Terry’s Texas Rangers are also located in this area.
Visitors to the museum frequently encounter costumed docents and Old West re-enactors. My husband’s favorite is the guy who looks and sounds more like Festus than the original “Gunsmoke” actor ever did. His jokes are pretty corny, but they always draw a laugh from the fans who crowd around him as he strolls through town…usually heading for the saloon.
Big Bear Native American Museum
We ran out of time before we could visit the Big Bear Native American Museum. It is a recent addition to the outdoor museum that features a number of family-friendly activities and, we’re told, interesting exhibits. There’s also an authentic Indian campsite and Teepees available to explore. The museum hosted Santa Fe Days April 1-3, the largest celebration of American Indian arts and culture in North Texas.
Johnson County was named for Texas Confederate Colonel Middleton T. Johnson, and created by Texas Fifth Legislature on February 13, 1854. The first permanent settlements in the area were in the mid 1840’s.
The Chisholm Trail
The Chisholm Trail was named for Indian trader and interpreter Jesse Chisholm. While Chisholm never herded cattle, he blazed the original trail from Wichita Kansas to the Red River. Texas rancher and cattle dealer Joseph McCoy, working with the Kansas-Pacific Railroad, built a cattle-shipping terminal in Abilene, Kansas. He did this after realizing his $2 Texas Longhorns were worth almost ten times that much up North after the Civil War.
McCoy encouraged Texas ranchers to drive their cattle to Kansas on the Chisholm Trail through extensive advertising. He created a feeder trail through Godley, Cressdon, Decatur and Red River Station that tied into the main trail in Oklahoma. Other drovers followed his example. They used feeder trails that ran through Old Wardville and old Buchanan, cutting through local ranches and Nolan River Crossing.
The Chisholm Trail Outdoor Museum has numerous activities and events planned throughout the year. Events include a Museum Summer School in June and Pioneer Days the second weekend in November. Be sure to wear comfortable clothes and walking shoes. Also, allow at least half a day so you can enjoy visiting all the fascinating exhibits on the sprawling complex. For more information about the museum, please visit the Chisholm Trail Outdoor Museum website or call 214-998-0261.